Thursday, March 23, 2006

Welcome to Lui (Thursday, 23 Feb.)

I got my first inkling that something was afoot when we landed at the Mundri airstrip and so many people came to greet us. It wasn’t just the clergy from the diocese (which you can see in the photograph here earlier in this blog. In addition, people came (literally) out of the bush to see this spectacle. Children! Children came on foot. For a time, they watched from a safe distance. Then they came closer and closer and closer, 'til you literally could not move without bumping into one of them. Apparently, it’s always a “show” when a plane lands in Lui. They seem to be very curious about these outsiders arriving in Sudan.

Only in retrospect did I remember something Susan had recommended. She had urged me to take hard candy – lots of hard candy – because these folks seem to have a serious sweet-tooth. But I did not remember that when I was shopping and packing. If I had it to do over, I would always have a pocketful of hard-candy or something to share with the kids. The kids who come out of the bush do not speak English, so there’s nothing you can say to them that they will understand. Some small gift, some small kindness, would have been a welcome gesture of greeting.

When we arrived at the Mundri airstrip, we were immediately assaulted by the 100-degree temperature. As I observed in an earlier post here, we instinctively sought the meager shade of the plane’s wings for our greetings with the Lui delegation.

As far as I can tell, there are two vehicles resident in Lui. One belongs to the Samaritan’s Purse hospital, and one belongs to the Diocese. One was there to transport us.

Here are Rick, Father Bob, and Sandy, getting ready for the trip to Lui.

Meanwhile, other folks were unloading the cargo from the plane. As I’ve mentioned earlier, there is no postal/shipping service of any kind into southern Sudan. All that reaches them comes in via the cargo holds of planes chartered to bring people in and out. Between our baggage and gifts, and packages that had been shipped to the Diocese’s office in Nairobi, they had to provide another truck to hold it all. It was several days later that I learned that this shipment included food that had been purchased to help feed us and bottled water for us to drink.

Then we were piled into the local LandRovers where we boiled together. It was one hot, miserable experience.

We made the (to me) miserably long drive from the Mundri airstrip to Lui. Just to give you a sense of how vehicles (… and news … and time …) move in Lui, it’s less than a 15-mile drive between the Mundri airstrip and Lui. Actually, I think some folks said it’s only 12 miles. But it takes 30-45 minutes to make that journey. Why? Because the roads are terrible! They are all dirt roads. I didn’t see any pavement once we landed in Sudan. And no infrastructure exists to maintain them. You dive down into washed-out gullies. You climb up “roads” that are actually rock piles. You lumber across downed trees. Every now and then I tried to catch a glance at the speedometer on the dashboard, and I think our maximum speed on those “roads” was about 40 mph.

Mind you, I'm not complaining about the roads because they were inconvenient to my spoiled American sensibility. (Though they do tend to jar one's bones!) More to the point is that they point to the lack of reasonable infrastructure in Lui. While we wish to help the people of Lui become more self-sufficient, the lack of decent roads is a major obstacle to sustainable development. Without roads, they will never be able to get goods in and out of Lui efficiently.

Then – all of a sudden – we rounded a corner, and caught the sound of loud, joyful singing. Then the road was filled with people waving flowers and leaf-fronds. The vehicle stopped, and we piled out. And there we experienced the most amazing “welcoming” celebration – much more than I ever could have imagined.

Later, I learned that the people of Lui had been preparing for our arrival for days and days. The folks responsible for the guest compound had spruced it up to a fine fare-thee-well. The whole village had been practicing their songs for us. And I suppose some people had been working to find/select flowers. Because as we got out of the truck and approached them, each of us was greeted by someone who placed a garland around our necks, with beautiful bougainvillea blossoms. I don’t know about the others in our group, but I was dog-tired and jet-lagged. And yet the hospitality and exuberance of these folks moved me not just to polite, quiet tears, but to wracking tears.
The welcome they gave us was overwhelming to me. I could not understand how these people – who were strangers to us – could welcome us so selflessly and joyously. They met us at the road, and marched us in procession through the village, and then directly into the Cathedral where we worshipped together. I can’t be articulate and descriptive about this whole experience, because I was so overwhelmed by the courtesy, hospitality, and Christian love they showed us.

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