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If Challenges Are Opportunities: Stories Of Hope In A Place Of Constant Struggle

I have heard it said on many occasions that challenges are simply opportunities.

If that is truly the case then South Sudan is a breeding ground of opportunity! 

Spending such a short time in South Sudan hardly qualifies me to make any such judgements or statements concerning the country, however, what I can tell you is what I experienced.  

The conversations I had.  The things I saw and learned from the people around me.  
How I saw God moving while everything around seems to be standing still. 


LIFE IS JUST DIFFICULT

It took me a grand total of about 30 seconds of being in South Sudan to realize that things were just different here.  Difficult.   

The boarder was fairly painless as I already had my visa, but of course there is that 100 pound registration fee that you didn’t know about that you have to pay but don’t get a receipt for … because, well, I’ll let you do the math on that one. 

Finally we got everyone through and piled the six of us with all the luggage back into our tiny car and we were on our way.  The base we were headed to in Yei – in most other countries – would probably be a mere one to two hour drive.  

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Taking the night bus from Kampala to Arua .. the first lag of our journey to South Sudan

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the four of us crammed in the back all the way from Arua, Uganda to Yei, South Sudan

 

But not here. 

First of all, the roads.  I mean, I have seen some incredible things, but these roads are unlike anything I have experienced.  I believe I have found the new pothole capitol of the world.  

Then, you must combine that with the MULTIPLE police check points, where you must get out of the vehicle, show you passport, declare everything you have, oh and talk your way out of paying money because I’m white and I’m in the car.  Thankfully our driver knows most of them so we got away a bit easier. 

Oh, and my favourite moment?  When we happened upon a portion of the road completely covered in large branches – made to look as if a large tree had fallen.  There were several young men appearing to cut them up to remove them from the road and as we slowed to a stop they insisted that we pay them for clearing the road.  Meanwhile, they had actually put those branches there and they were only pretending to clear the road so that they could get money from people trying to drive past.  We managed to make it through without paying – thanks to our driver … they simply removed a few branches so we could pass then replaced them once we had passed.

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my attempt at taking a creeper picture of the branches across the road

 

And so four hours later we finally reach our destination. 
Hot, tired and dusty, but safe. 

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Beautiful South Sudan

And even through the dust you can see that this country is beautiful.  And fertile.  And friendly. 
And so opportunity takes a backseat to frustration.
And sometimes you don’t see it because here, life is just difficult.


A SPIRIT OF DEFEAT

This country has been the victim of war for far too long. 

It is this bloody war that ceases to end, regardless of the independence of South Sudan from North Sudan, it simply goes on and on. 
The senseless bloodshed between tribes over land and resources. 

Now, knowing my inability to retain important information, it is difficult for me to get all the facts about the war sorted accurately in my mind, but I can tell you what I sensed. 

I sensed a hopelessness among the people. 
A spirit of defeat. 

They have simply given up. 

The land is fertile, but why farm if every time you start something the war destroys it?
They say their greatest resource is oil, but because of the war there is a shortage of it everywhere and if you find it the cost is very high. 

In fact the cost of everything has nearly tripled and for the hundreds and thousands of refugees fleeing from the North this makes living nearly impossible.

The government does nothing to stop the brutality, they often even contribute to it because to stop the war would cost them. 

South Sudan got their freedom from the North but that has not stopped the war. 

You might have a dream, but what is the point when it is not safe to pursue it.  So you stay where you are.  The roads to Juba are full of ambushes so driving is only an option for those who are willing to risk their life.  Some make it.  Some don’t.  

The challenges are more than the victories, or so it seems. 

They see no end in sight. 
They see no silver lining. 
They have accepted a spirit of defeat. 
Of hopelessness. 
They have simply given up. 

When failure seems inevitable, why try?
When the cost seems to outweigh the benefit, why pay the price? 

And so, as I walk the streets of Yei, I just see people sitting.  Standing.  Waiting. 
Doing nothing.  Not knowing what to do.  A resigning to this life, because how can it ever change?

And they might be smiling and laughing.  These people are strong and they still smile in the face of adversity, but you can sense it.  You can feel it in the air. 

The spirit of defeat. 

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It’s like the village … everywhere. Peaceful. Beautiful. But not easy.

STORIES OF HOPE

But there is hope. 

If you dig deep enough and open your eyes. 
There are people reaching out and making a difference. 
There are stories of strength and courage and hope. 

Stories of people taking difficult situations and finding opportunities in them.

Monday morning I arrive at the Project Two-Five centre, ready to teach my first three hour class on God’s Purpose for your life. 

Project Two-Five is an initiative started to provide vocational and discipleship training for men and women looking to do something with their future.  To beat the odds.  But this is just a fraction of the vision Project Two-Five has to transform individuals, cities, countries and even the continent of Africa by the grace of God.  For more information about their vision and their current work in Yei, South Sudan you can check them out here:  Project Two-Five  They also provide more accurate information about the past and current social economical situation in South Sudan.  

They opened their first school here in Yei, South Sudan over one year ago and they are currently running two tailoring classes, a catering class and a brand new hairdressing/beauty school.   

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The Beauty school students practicing their pedicure skills on my toes.

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And, again I got to be an extra “head” for hairdressing

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The Hairdressing/Beauty School students

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The Catering Students

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The mamma who was responsible for my ghetto hairstyle in the Hairdressing class

 

Young men and women come Monday to Friday for four hours each day – often walking great distances – to take a step towards changing their future.  A step towards hope. 

And my class this morning was the Catering class.  It was their first day of class and they were nervous and excited – as was I. 

And I had good reason to be nervous.

When Mac – founder of Project Two-Five – asked me to teach on Finding God’s Purpose for your life, I laughed out loud.  For real.  You see, I hadn’t even found it myself.  I was thinking – are you kidding me?  I don’t even know my purpose!  But luckily this was before my 30 days with Jesus and it just so happened to be the current journey I was on.  So I had learned a thing or two, but to teach it?  That was a whole other ballgame that I hadn’t intended on playing. 

But I have found that is the way God works sometimes.  If He wants you to learn something, he’ll ask you to teach it …. and if He asks you to teach it, He will likely make you walk through it.  Talk about lighting a fire of motivation under you!  

Looking around the table at the 16 different faces, I knew I had found my glimmer of hope. 
And by the end of the week I was beyond convinced. 

I watched these men and women courageously walk back into their pasts.  Dig up the deep hurts, open the aching wounds of the past.  I sat with them while their tears washed away the infection and watched in awe as the Father bent down and began to bandage and to heal as we prayed and worshiped together.

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my class busy working

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The day we tackled forgiveness… this was a beautiful moment!

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Praying together… every day. A MUST!

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One of my students… from Uganda 🙂

 

It was in incredible thing to be a part of.  And I could see the difficulty on their faces. 

When they would return from their reflection time I would always ask, “How did it go?” And I would be met with a round of sighs, hands on foreheads and a chorus of “It was difficult!” 

But they did it.
One step at a time. 
One painful page at a time. 
Each line.  Each word.  Each memory.  

These beautiful people come from and live in a place of war.  Of unrest.  Of distrust.  
Their stories are filled with loss and abuse and incredible obstacles.  

Difficulties. 
Challenges. 

But I see something in them. 

I see opportunity. 
I see hope. 

And each and every day I would tell them something. 
I would tell them what I saw. 
I would read them this verse from Hebrews 10:38-39;

“But my righteous one will live by faith.  And if he shrinks back I will not be pleased with him.  But we are not among those who shrink back and are destroyed, but we are among those who believe and are saved.” 

And I would tell them, 

You are NOT among the people who SHRINK BACK.  
You are NOT among the people who GIVE UP.  Who run away when things get difficult. 
You are among the people who BELIEVE.  Who step forward with COURAGE.

And I knew that because they were here

They had taken the step of faith to sign up for this vocational training. 
They had come from home and decided to make a difference in their lives. 
They stepped forward while so many others SHRANK BACK.   

Project Two-Five is taking challenges and turning them into opportunities. 

And these courageous young men and women are stepping out in faith and taking them. 
They are rising above the circumstances and believing that they can change something. 
That their life does not need to be defined by war and unrest and poverty. 

Because they are NOT among those who SHRINK BACK and are destroyed. 
They are among those who BELIEVE and are saved. 

And that is the hope. 

The light in their eyes at the end of the week. 
The excitement on their faces as they learned how to make donuts and prepare breakfast and run a business.  

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Tasting the donuts…. DELISH!

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learning to prepare breakfast … luckily I got to sample the end result! Mmmm

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rolling the dough for donuts

The enthusiasm of the one mamma who went straight home and made a batch of donuts with what she had and sold them to her neighbours. 
The Mama who was courageous enough to tell her story to the class on our last day of discipleship.

Mamma sharing her story with the class

Mamma sharing her story with the class



The young mother who was struggling to forgive but was so willing to come forward and receive prayer for her freedom from those chains. 

Each one was a story of destruction and difficulty. 
Now they are stories of hope.

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SOMETHING MUST BE DONE

“Every day hundreds of refugees are fleeing North Sudan and settling here in Yei.” 

Nathan (his name has been changed for his privacy) is a refugee from the North himself.  He left his family that side many years ago when he moved to Yei to start a new life.  Last year he managed to make it back to the North to see them.  It was the first time he had seen his mother in at least six years.  

“Most of them are placed in the UN Refugee Camp here in town.  It is huge.  There are thousands and thousands of refugees and the UN takes care of them.  Pays their school fees.  Makes sure they have food.” 

“Do they have jobs?” I ask.  “Or what are they doing in there?” 

His face darkens and his eyes become sad, “No.  They don’t.  Everything is provided for them, or at least just enough to survive.  But they do not work.  They just sit in there.  They are full of bitterness and anger.  Hate.  The hurt and pain run so deep and they have no idea what to do with any of it.”

So there they sit.  And generations will live and die in that camp. 

“Something must be done.” He says passionately, “But who will do it?  I wonder.  We sometimes do outreach there for a few weeks at a time but what they really need is someone to move in.  Someone to be there long term.” 

Nathan is the pastor of a small the vibrant church made up of refugees from the North as well, but these people are different.  

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The incredible way each member greets every other member after the service at this little church of North Sudan Refugees

“Our group does not get any help from the UN.  Most are students and have left all of our families behind.  These young people have no idea where their families are or if they are alive.  They simply came here for the opportunity to study and make a better life.  And so they came alone, and they work to put themselves through school.  They use the land around them that no one else is using and they farm what they can whenever they get a break from school in hopes to pay their school fees and continue their studies.” 

They are faced with so many challenges but because of their hard work and their innovation they will have more opportunities. 
Those in the UN camp are faced with fewer challenges but as a result they will have fewer opportunities. 

“It is actually better for the ones who are not receiving help from the UN,” I observe. 

“Yes!  Absolutely.  Because at least these ones have a sense of work ethic and ownership and they will go somewhere with their lives eventually.  They just need to be encouraged.  To not give up.” 

To me that is another glimpse of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. 

But you would have to look past the UN and everyone sitting around in the streets and walk down the paths through the maize and the dust to find this community.  This little spark of hope. 

But a spark is all it takes. 
Because something must be done. 
And it doesn’t have to be big, it just needs to be a spark. 
It just needs to be something. 

Something must be done. 
But who will do it? 

The spark is there. 
But who will fan the flame? 

Who will encourage the people to see opportunity in their challenges?

Project Two-Five has started, but there is still so much to be done. 
Something must be done. 


MALARIA AND MIRACLES

My original plan was to spend two weeks in South Sudan and then return to Uganda to prepare for my next five months of travel. 

However, if turns out God (and one nasty mosquito) had other ideas. 

Two days before I was supposed to travel back to Uganda I tested positive for malaria. 
Great. 

No mosquito has ever bitten me and then the day one does…
I wanted to be frustrated but I was too sick to care and all plans of leaving went out the window until further notice. 

I began treatment but by the end of the second day I was feeling worse.  Convinced that the drugs were doing nothing and after announcing that I felt like I was dying, I was taken to the hospital where I learned that I was right.  The drugs were in fact doing nothing.  (But I was in fact NOT dying)

Six injections and five days later I was on my way to Uganda with a family who was also travelling.  (This in itself was a blessing because I was able to lay down in their car as opposed to being squished into public transit when I was not yet feeling 100%).  

Now, backtrack to a blog I wrote before I went to South Sudan about all of the stress of figuring out wether or not I should even come.  They had changed the visa fees and I had spent hours and days trying to figure out how to get the East African Tourist visa but was informed at every turn (including the South Sudan border) that it was not possible. 

An excerpt from that blog:  

“Do I make the logical, sensible choice and stay in Kampala since it feels like doors are closing on this plan?  Everybody is so concerned about the safety and security of the country and they don’t think it is wise to go.
Or do I step out in faith and just go, trusting that God will do what He does best – take care of it?

Now it’s 7am and I am running out of time. 
But the sun is on its way up now and as it rises a song starts playing on my phone. 

Sometimes you gotta go, uninvited.
Sometimes you gotta speak when you don’t have the floor.
Sometimes you gotta move, when everybody else says you should stay. 

Sometimes you gotta go. 

Even if it doesn’t make sense. 
Even if everyone else thinks you should stay where you are. 
Even if it costs you everything. 

Sometimes God will ask you “do you trust me?”
Sometimes you gotta go, because going means saying “yes!”” 

So here I am back at the Uganda border after my three weeks of stepping out in faith.
Prepared to pay the increased visa fee and trust God to provide the way from there with the rest of my visas. 

“Do you guys do the East African Tourist visa here?”  I heard the guy I was travelling with ask. 
And in my head I’m thinking,  we already know this is not an option

“Yes we do.  We just started yesterday.”  Came the cheerful response from the immigration officer. 

My jaw dropped and a leaped toward the counter. 
“You mean I can get it today?!  For $100?  And I won’t have to pay again for Kenya?” 

A little confused at my enthusiasm he replied, “Of course.  You will be the second person I’ve issued!” 

And as he filled out the paper work and placed the visa into my passport I could only smile. 

If I hadn’t gotten malaria I would have left five days ago as planned and they were not issuing that visa then.   God knew I needed to come that day.  

And I was ecstatic because I had taken a step of faith and you know that I learned?

When I step out, He steps up! 

And I continued my journey back to Kampala with a smile on my face and an unexpected thankfulness for that one mosquito and maybe even for malaria. 

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I have heard it said on many occasions that challenges are simply opportunities.
If that is truly the case then South Sudan is a breeding ground of opportunity! 

The challenges are too many to count. 

Living there is not a walk in the park. 
Most people are running away for that very reason.  Fear. 

So the opportunities must also be too numerous to count. 

But we must learn to see the challenges that way. 
And we must be willing to sacrifice now for a better tomorrow. 
We must be willing to pay the price and believe that it will pay off. 
We must be willing to stay. 
Not to ignore the challenges.  Not to wish them away. 
But to embrace them and to transform them into opportunities. 

And even though it seems as if the country of South Sudan has given up. 
Has welcomed the spirit of defeat. 

If you look closely enough, and if you take the time and dig deep enough. 
You will find glimpses of hope even in this place of constant struggle. 

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