Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Clashing of Cultures

Deborah Goldfeder, a member of our diocese and a nurse and spiritual sister, spent six months in the Diocese of Lui (southern Sudan) in 2006. I cannot begin here to tell her whole story; only she can tell that story.

What I can say now is that when I landed in Lui, Deb had already been there about three months, and she was a sister to me. She did more than anyone else to help me understand the culture of our friends in Lui. ... And, someday, when I tell the story I haven't yet told about my time in Lui, Deb figures in it very large.

During the six months Deb served in Lui, she posted several of her stories on her parish website. But this one has always caught my attention. With Deb's permission, I am posting it here. It says much about the Sudanese view of marriage. And it says much about those of us who don't fit into the Sudanese view of marriage.

Clashing of Cultures
Deb Goldfeder
June 2007

“Mama Deborah, how many children you have?” “I never had any children.” “Oh! Sorry!”

That conversation took place time and time again in Lui. People were always curious about my life in America but I suspect questioning how many children I had revealed more about the Sudanese people than my answers did about me. They didn’t understand how my husband would permit me to travel so far away from him. That he was home and looking out for his father was beyond their comprehension especially since there were no daughters at home to help him out. Admittedly, Ron took on a great many more responsibilities while I was gone but I never doubted he would manage nor did he.

The people working at the compound were laughing one morning about a visiting Egyptian-American couple who had come to the hospital for a month. The man was a physician but his wife had no medical training. Still she came to the hospital with him. They occasionally walked to work and were seen holding hands. It was scandalous! No Sudanese woman would be seen walking with her husband let alone holding hands with him. Only rarely did I know which woman was married to which man. I finally decided they must be married to the one they were never seen with! I never saw anyone kiss anyone else—not even a mother kissing her child. It just didn’t happen, at least not in public.

In recent memory, marriages were arranged between families but now people are at least able to choose the ones they will marry. The elders of the families must approve the marriage and the leaders of the community decide if it will take place. They must assure that they are not related to each other. There is a dowry that must be paid (in cash, cattle, tools or arrows) to compensate the families for the loss of their labors. Then the bride must live and work in the husband’s family compound for four days without eating! She had to do this to prove that she was strong enough to manage through the hard times to come. When I tried to explain what weddings were like in America, I might have been speaking Greek. Our cultures are very different. Our world views are very different, too. Imagine marrying someone for romantic reasons! Ridiculous! A honeymoon spent laboring for your mother-in-law without eating? Absurd!

I was asked about a woman who was unmarried that came from America. Where is her husband? She never married, I replied. Oh. There was a woman surgeon from America who had been asked many times where her husband was. She said during a sermon at chapel one morning that she asked God that very question all the time, “God, where is my husband?” The Sudanese giggled at her question but they would have another solution to the problem. If no marriage could be arranged for her, she could be a co-wife or she would live in another family member’s compound. She certainly wouldn’t be working as a surgeon and living independently.

The doctor with whom I worked was the resident expert with ultrasounds so I found myself helping him after pediatric rounds. We saw many women who were having abdominal pain. Their husbands would bring them to the doctor for a “scan” regularly but we rarely found anything wrong with them. I came to understand that these women were having fertility problems and were desperate for any hope they would become pregnant. One was a member of the family of a nurse with whom I worked and he begged me to counsel her. He was concerned for her mental status but she never returned to meet with me. Folk remedies would be tried, too. Some families took in children when they were orphaned but there weren’t formal adoptions nor were there orphanages. The children were accepted into families because families needed children.

Children (especially girl children) worked from the time they understood directions.
They carried loads of sticks on their heads, pounded bricks into powder to make red paint for houses, worked in gardens, carried water when they could lift the cans onto their heads, carried their little brothers on their hips until they could walk and any other task they could manage. Mothers needed these helpers in order to manage the compounds. The young people also helped to care for the elders in the community. It was not an option to choose not to have children! When you consider that half the children die before the age of five and many more die from war and famine, one might have eight children but only see two grow into adulthood and have their own children.

We in the Episcopal Church USA are facing conflict from within our own communion and from the Anglican Communion at large. Nigerian Archbishop Akinola has recently named an American bishop for breakaway congregations here in the US. The Nigerian Archbishop can point to laws of Moses and writings of Paul that say that homosexual behavior is against God’s will. We on the other side can point to all the things that Jesus said about homosexuality (nothing at all) and say how right we are about God’s law. Gay people here have asked me about their brothers and sisters in Sudan and, I can honestly say, that while I believe that (like here) some 10% of the population was gay, I never saw any I could identify. It just wasn’t an option. Gay unions, they believe, would not produce children. It was, if you will forgive the pun, inconceivable in the Sudanese world view and probably in the world view of most of Africa.

I have strongly supported the Oasis community here and I believe that unions between two men or two women can reveal God’s love to our community just as that between a man and a woman but that is my world view and not the world view of Akinola or some others. They believe I am wrong and I am certain they are! But that doesn’t get us anywhere. We must listen to each other and we must not say that we have no need for each other. We have to remember our own histories and witness to others about our experiences. It will take time and courage on both sides of the conversation.

You see, a family in Sudan without children, my friends finally explained to me, “…is a family that is already dead.” “Oh, sorry!”


Blogger Christopher said...


Understanding this cultural difference is helpful. I think it raises up also one of the things the Reformation did us a disservice, namely the closure of monasteries. It may have been pre-Reformation that married life was a distant second-best, but it seems in our time, not just elsewhere, but here in the US as well that married life, at least in it's heterosexual variety has become a near idol. What of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts? Or St. Paul? Or Jesus, for that matter?

I think you're right tha, but doesn't it seem like part of the same roller-coaster? The way this has been structured as "listening" and "conversation" cannot help but lead to self-focus because it's the reverse side of a coin that cannot simply place us within the community as part of a whole. It is propitiatorily sacrificial. Sacrifice of this sort requires putting the offered one on pedastal and scapegoating him or her at the same time rather than allowing to be an ordinary part of the whole. It shows up often with self-focus/beating up oneself for self-focus like dichotomies.

A third way is to not cooperate with dehumanization and indignity of oneself and at the same time build up others.

For me at any rate, this latest episode has required reexamining the way I will participate as we move forward. I'm done with the roller-coaster, and finding a way to remain Episcopalian while also no longer cooperating with this sacrificial spirit is the challenge.

7/30/2008 12:26 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Christopher, I agree, but it goes even deeper. The Sudanese I know cannot conceive of the categories you discuss. They are struggling to make a living from their hard-scrabble lives. They must marry, and they must have as many children as possible. In this, they are no different than our 19th-century U.S. forebears. It is a matter of survival.

And I agree with you completely about listening and scapegoating. I can understand why the Sudanese have the social structures they have. I do not understand why people like Archbishop Daniel demonize me and others like me. Maybe this is extreme, but it really does feel that he and others want to practice the Old Testament and ancient ritual of scapegoating. "Let us kill all the queers, and then our world can be safe again."

So I am with you: I have come to a point of accepting being rejected as Anglican. The "traditionists" have made the term "Anglican" a loathesome one to me. More every day, "Anglican" is equated with hatred. I want no part of it. I hope we can distance ourselves from it.

7/31/2008 12:04 AM  
Blogger sharecropper said...

Thanks, Lisa, for this story of explanation about our African family. Reading about the non-political side of the issue is important to me. We often talk of third world countries, but we forget that our behavior in regard to slaves in the USA was not too different some 200 years ago. And, families that lived on the plains had to have children; many of them died in childbirth and many in young years. Childhood is a concept of the advanced economic world. Childlessness is still a scourge in many nations.

7/31/2008 8:18 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks, Sharecropper. I bet you "get it." Sexual relations today in Sudan have much in common with 19th-century America. God help us!

7/31/2008 9:32 PM  

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