Saturday, March 06, 2010

Sudan on PBS

There are many horrific stories today about suffering among the peoples of the world. Haiti and Chile are only the most recent and high-profile, as a result of the earthquakes here. The news media have a short attention span, and that’s not only their fault; it’s the fault of those of us who watch the news, read the newspapers, and listen to news programs … and our own short attention spans and our empathy overload.

Lane Denson posted a reflection Wednesday on this Sunday’s readings, in which we will hear the story of Moses encountering God in the burning bush. In one passage, he writes:
The church today seems often to find itself in a vocational wilderness, wondering just what is its ministry and to whom, waiting for a burning bush when the whole world is on fire.
Indeed, the world seems to be on fire with disaster, poverty, hunger, disease, and many other physical maladies, as well as the spiritual maladies of despair, cynicism, and hopelessness.

It has seemed that Sudan’s situation has fallen off the radar, as news media focus on more dramatic disasters. So I was pleased last evening to see that the PBS Newshour devoted a significant segment to the situation in southern Sudan. It addresses the humanitarian situation, as well as the complicating political situation. I encourage you to watch the 7-minute segment here.

If that doesn’t work, watch it (or view the transcript) on the PBS site here.

The PBS story highlights some issues that have commanded the attention of the Companion Diocese Relationship Committee as we work with the people of Lui.

  • Next month, the people of Sudan will hold elections to choose representatives of the government. There is a strong suspicion in southern Sudan that those elections will be neither free nor fair.

  • Then, next January, the people of southern Sudan will hold a referendum on whether to remain a semi-autonomous part of Sudan or become a separate country. Both options hold some severe dangers.

  • Somehow, between all this, there must be negotiations about the demarcation of the border, the equitable distribution of oil revenues (given that most of the oil comes from southern Sudan but most of the revenues have been reaped in northern Sudan), and whether southern Sudan is receiving fair support and resources of the government based in Khartoum.

  • The report observes, as has Daniel Deng Bul (Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan), that much of the current violence is not simply “northern Arab aggressors vs. southern African victims,” but is based on age-old tribal conflicts within southern Sudan. I have heard that overcoming tribal friction is one of the priorities of Sudan's Archbishop.
On the other hand, there is one point where the PBS story diverges from our experience with the people of Lui.

  • The journalist and interviewees talk about the desperate lack of water and the effects of that shortage. That may be true in the Jonglei province, where the PBS story was filmed. I perceive the situation is somewhat better in the diocese of Lui.
  • The Diocese of Missouri has funded the drilling of 9 deep-water wells in Lui, and other organizations (such as Oxfam and the World Bank) are now drilling in the Lui diocese. The larger villages, except in the far north, mostly have access to clean water. But there are still many people in some villages and in the bush who do not.
  • One of the observations of our last missioners (from their Nov.-Dec. trip) is that the availability of water has made a huge and positive difference in the lives of the people of Lui. Fewer children in Lui now exhibit the horrible symptoms of dehydration and bad water, and fewer exhibit the tell-tale signs such as distended bellies and red hair. Many more children are now wearing school uniforms because, now that they have water (and water is located near diocesan schools), they can attend school.

Some of you may wonder why Doctors without Borders, featured in this PBS story, is not working with us in Lui. I don’t know the answer exactly. But I do know these things.

  • Doctors without Borders works in the most dire venues. I understand they have worked with Lui hospital in the past. Perhaps Lui is no longer in the “most dire” category, due to clean water and some development.

  • The Italian group CUAMM [aka Doctors with Africa] is now providing some support to Lui hospital. But the conditions remain dire.

  • Missouri and Lui are now beginning to work together to implement a parish nursing program, so that primary needs can be addressed in the villages before illness progresses to the level that requires hospitalization in Lui. That was a primary topic of discussion in November, between our missioners Deb Goldfeder and Susan Naylor and the leaders of Lui diocese. A parish nursing model mirrors the vision that Dr. Fraser brought to Lui in the 1920s, and it seems still promising now. We hope that initiative will reduce the number of people who need hospitalization due to preventable illnesses.
I have one last, personal observation after watching the PBS segment last evening. I was struck by the video footage which showed all the flies circling and landing on the Sudanese people. It took me back to this reflection I wrote after my February 2006 time in Lui. My chief reservation about the PBS piece is that it made the Sudanese appear helpless victims. To be sure, many are in dire straits. But they are not merely victims. The people we know are faithful Christians, working to do their best in a miserable situation. Don't let the late-night-television images govern your perceptions of our friends in Sudan. They are much more than that.

I am glad PBS put Sudan back on the "front page" this week. I hope some of you will view the footage.

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