I’m here for a four-day, four thousand mile trip. In a tent tonight – a taught, khaki canvas shelter with a bed and a small desk. I imagine this would be pretty nice accommodation for a British officer in colonial times. For me, it’s a seventy-dollar hotel room in a camp right off the airstrip in Rumbek, Sudan. The location is some three hundred miles into southern Sudan and a good middle point to stop between days of flying. The remote town has also attracted the interest of the United Nations, which means it’s fat with expatriates and money – hence seventy bucks for a tent in the sand.
At the close of a thousand-mile day of flying, I retreat to my tent and peal off my flight uniform – soaked with sweat and dust and jet fuel. It lies in a heap next to the bed as I sit two feet in front of an electric fan with only a pair of shorts on, reading. Already five in the afternoon it’s still oppressively hot and I can feel heat pulsating off the tent fabric onto my back. The little fan blows a warm breeze, like a cozy space heater, and it only cools me because I’ve dipped a baseball cap in water and let it drip down my face.
As I read, I remember my physics class, the lesson about the ‘latent heat of vaporization’… mentally wondering how many joules I can shed off my body when suddenly the urge for an icy cold Coke overwhelms me and I leave my tent for the bar. Navigating a quarter mile of rock-lined footpaths between tents and landscaped dirt, I make my way to a large tree turned tiki-pub. Around it is a circular counter-top, and shoddily nailed to the tree trunk is a shelf crammed with bottles of alcoholic substances. There’s a thatch roof above and built around the massive tree. Under it are a couple of Sudanese youth distributing beers and struggling with a cash box overflowing with various currencies – taking payment in dollars and giving change in Dinars or Shillings. I pay a buck fifty for a sip of Coke over ice, and it is like some heavenly elixir, reviving my body almost instantly. I realize that a Coca-Cola will never taste as good as it does right here and right now, after a long day forcibly dehydrated and physically drained in South Sudan. One day I’ll be in a Pizza Hut somewhere and wonder what’s wrong with the soda, and then I’ll remember Sudan.
Since I don’t frequent the bar scene very much (OK, not at all), I feel a little like a tourist, gawking at the locals and their curious behavior. Big men with big bellies and boisterous voices charge at the bar barking orders at the boys. Everyone seems to need to be served first, given change first, seen and heard first. They are mostly foreigners, Kenyans or Ugandans, and a few Sudanese. Most of these people are working for some NGO, or the UN if they are lucky. Lord knows what they do it. They have meetings about the horrible situation here, and engage in the “work” of managing programs, facilitating something or other, overseeing, monitoring, assessing, doing…nothing. They pull large salaries and make reports. Outside their air-conditioned little offices, the Sudanese people wither away. Here on the inside, at the bar, they seem to revel in their irrelevance. A man leans up against the bar to my right. He has wild eyes and a shirt halfway buttoned, collar up like John Travolta. He’s bobbing his head to music only he can hear, and orders a beer without the courtesy of looking at the young boy serving him. He catches my gaze and I look away. As a backdrop to this comedy (or is it a tragedy) are people wandering the dirt paths with Satellite phones in their hands, walking to and fro like zombies looking for a signal. Always looking for a signal so they can talk away at a dollar-fifty a minute about their programs and assessments.
Fifty yards away a satellite-linked television broadcasts the BBC nonstop. Dispatches from Sudan report of a Meningitis outbreak, and the latest string of killings in Darfur. The stories are beamed to England, packaged and produced, and then beamed back to Sudan where they came from, broadcast on a TV in the middle of the camp, and largely ignored.
I finish my Coke but keep the ice and go to sit alone and watch the news. I wonder, hope even, that I am not like people around me. I pray that I am doing something relevant here. I shake my head at the global politics parading across the television and think about how it is always the little people who get hurt, who bear the brunt of the world’s collective selfishness and fool-hearty schemes.
There are exceptions though, little beacons of hope and inspiration. I picked up one such exception on Tuesday. When my base in Nairobi called over the HF radio with a request to pick up “Billy” on my way to such and such a place, I got a big smile across my face. I first Billy him about three years ago, and every meeting since has been bittersweet. It’s mostly sweet, except for his unavoidable, bone-crushing handshake. “Billy,” I’ll say, “How are you doing brother?” and reach out my hand and cringe. I manage to smile through the pain, genuinely happy to see him. Ol’ Billy really is old. Seventy something. He should be properly retired in Florida hitting golf balls, but he’s a vagabond missionary instead. Hardened by a military life, and tales he cannot tell me from his days in the Special Forces, he’s a formidable match for the hardships of living and ministering in South Sudan. Billy’s coming to Christ and calling to missions is an amazing story in itself. But the way he’s living out his golden years is even more inspirational.
Chiseled muscle, balding hair, old folk wrap-around sunglasses, endless energy, a mind for serving God, and a heart for the Dinka people – he wanders the landscape in a white Land Rover with bull horns lashed to the grill. When the truck has a problem, he walks. When he can, he hops a flight on AIM AIR.
I picked up Billy in Akot, buckled him into the copilot’s seat so we could chat over the headsets, and ran the preflight checklist. Sitting side by side in the muffled silence before startup, sweat literally pouring down our faces, he blurted out a “hallelujah!” I had thought about a lot of things that day, frustrations piling up as they tend to do, but I hadn’t thought about spilling out a word of praise. Billy never seems to stop doing it. I grin and hit the starter switch.
On our way he tells me about his work, and how things are going with it. He’s teaching literacy to the Dinka, Sudan’s largest ethnic African people group. His text is simply the Bible translated into their language. Many of the students are Muslims. The Bible, he says, “speaks for itself.” His ministry is simply to get it into their hands… and enable them them to savor it in their hearts. With the country in shambles, the only organized, institutionalized way for Billy to teach his training seminars is through the established military – a rebel army really. A soldier to the core, this comes naturally to him. I’m flying him to the city where the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (the SPLA) has its headquarters. He is planning to find his way to the group commander and have a chat. He expects the commander to assign teachers to learn from under him and then, in turn, teach the curriculum to the militiamen. He will get what he expects. Billy is bold, and fearless.
Flying along he pulls out his Bible and presses a strong, crooked finger into the pages of Isaiah as he reads to me line by line. “Go, swift messengers, to a people tall and smooth-skinned, to a people far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers…” Billy interjects to tell me how this passage is about the land of Cush… modern-day Sudan. He weaves through the text to its ending, “At that time gifts will be brought to the Lord Almighty, from a people tall and smooth-skinned…” Billy believes there will be some kind of revival among the Sudanese, that they will one day honor God in some big way. He tells me how God thinks bigger than we often do. “That’s the way God is!” he laughs, and slaps me on the shoulder. “That’s the way God is.”
Billy may very well be one of those “swift messengers” – certainly swift today as we rocket over the swamplands at a hundred-and-fifty knots. He told me once that he doesn’t expect to die here, but that the Lord will be coming back before he’s done. I guess that’s why his work has a certain urgency about it as he travels around alone and unhindered. It’s a joy to find him when I do, and help him along his way. I don’t think Billy has ever written a report since he’s been out here. He’s not assessing anything, just doing. And man, is he making a difference.