In South Sudan, I might be The Girl Who Whispers to Goats

“Come, children. Let me tell you the story of the Yellow-Haired Khawaja.

 “Some call her The Girl Who Whispers to Goats and others call her The Crazy Khawaja Who Bicycles.”

  – “But, Grandmother, why does she have two Mabaan names?”

“Ah, you must wait and see, children.”

Sunday dawned, a soft overcast haze overtaking the previous span of bright cloudless days. I added an extra spoonful of oatmeal and cocoa to my breakfast for a boost of energy.

I would need it.

One of the missionaries had invited me to spend a few days in a Mabaan village where she is establishing a women’s ministry. As I’ve learned over the past four weeks, it’s not as easy as walking in and asking questions about the work.

To really understand the Sudanese people and how SIM fits into their lives, it is about the relationship.

It is about the times spent sitting in their homes, drinking sweet tea and coffee flavored with ginger. It is about ripping into the kisra (a flat, crepe-like pancake made from sorghum), squishing it into a handful and dipping it into the boiled okra or pumpkin soup.

It is about tucking my skirt up so it doesn’t drag on the ground when I sit on a stool; the Sudanese do not have many pieces of clothing and they are careful with what they have. It is about asking about their day, learning their names and caring about their families.

In other words, it takes time – and patience.

So it was that I and another missionary set out early on an hour and a half hike, skirting the refugee camp and diving into the bush, to make it in time for church. Our plan was to spend the day there.

It was the first time I’d been away from civilization since landing in Doro. As we picked our way hurriedly down the rutted road, the sounds of our Chacos hitting the earth blended with the bird calls and stray breezes rustling the grass that towered over us and the palm, neem and acacia leaves.

We reached the village minutes before the service began. After it concluded, the women gathered around the cooking fire, laughing and chatting as they began preparing tea and coffee.

Despite not knowing the language, I was able to follow most of the conversation through the translation of the two missionaries.

They giggled over photos of one missionary’s fiancé and discussed the latest happenings. Occasionally, they fluttered away from the fire, chasing a bull with a penchant for eating clothes away from the laundry drying on the line.

 – “But, Grandmother, this does not sound like a story about goats or bicycles.”

“Hush. Patience.”

After a while, I noticed a child deposit a goat kid onto the ground near the group. It couldn’t get up though and lay flat on the ground.

Blame my sheep farm upbringing, but I itched to get up and see what the problem was. Goats aren’t sheep – obviously – but the principle is the same: to stay alive after they’re born, they need to be on their feet and able to nurse on their own.

I wasn’t sure whether it would be culturally appropriate though. Men tend the livestock – and the last thing I wanted to do was scandalize the women sitting around the fire. So, I watched it out of the corner of my eye.

After a while, a boy came over, bringing a nanny goat with him – the kid’s mother – to allow the kid to nurse. It was apparent, although the kid could move its legs, it couldn’t stand.

A little later, I was coming back from the other side of the village and saw that the kid had been moved directly into my path. I gave into temptation and stopped. (I didn’t realize until later that one of the missionaries snapped a photo of me – proof that I did indeed give into “temptation.”)

I picked him up and began working to get him to stand. His first attempt ended in a bow-legged heap, but after a few minutes with my hand under his belly, he started standing – even when I removed my hand.

Needless to say, this process had grabbed the attention of the children and the women. The women began talking with the missionaries.

“Uh oh,” I thought. “Here comes the scandal.”

“They’re saying they can tell you know what you’re doing.”

“They can? Phew …”

I asked how old he was. Three weeks, I was told.

“They say he’s never stood on his own before.”

“Oh.” I looked down at the wobbling little goat, still bracing himself, still upright.

Huh.

And that is how she became known as The Girl Who Whispers to Goats, children.”

– “The bicycle? Does it come next?”

“Ah, children, it is time to sleep. I will tell you about the bicycle another time.”

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