“Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning.”
Midnight, middle of South Sudan, in a small hut of mud and sticks, I’m sheltered under a mosquito net in the home of dear friends. I’ve moved into their house as part of an effort to learn the language and culture in the town of Mundri. The heat of the day has given way to the coolness of evening, and a cozy rain seems to rattle the grass roof. Just when I’m drifting off to sleep, I hear words you never want to hear in the middle of the night in the wilderness of South Sudan. “Bethany, wake up! There is danger!”
Immediately, I imagined all of the things you would imagine if you heard those words. My friend Queen quickly followed up her statement with the one word that told me all I needed to know about the current situation: “Ants!!!” It wasn’t rain rattling our roof, but instead, hundreds of ants were swarming through the grass roof above my head.
Moving across continents and cultures shakes up so many assumptions about life, revealing that you aren’t nearly as capable or confident as you think you are. I landed in South Sudan in 2009, fresh-faced and ready to change things. Of course, I was the one who actually needed to change, and I had so much to learn. I stepped into a community that welcomed me with abundant generosity and kindness. I learned a little language, made lots of mistakes, and made some of my richest friendships in a place I came to love as my home.
One thing I never fully learned to embrace was the fluidity of nature in South Sudan. I love hiking and camping and being outside. But I believe there should be a distinct difference between being inside and being outside. A houseplant or a vase of flowers is fine. But snakes, scorpions, rodents, and ants are not supposed to be a part of life indoors. Unfortunately, as someone who has lived in East Africa for most of my adult life, I have always fought a losing battle trying to keep the Great Outdoors from invading my living spaces.
When I heard that the midnight danger at Queen’s house was ants, I sighed, rolled my eyes, and got ready to run.
I grew up in the southern United States, and we have fire ants, so I am no stranger to stinging insects. But the ants of East Africa are a whole other thing. Called mpali, siafu, safari ants, and army ants; they march in lines, armed with sharp pinchers, and consume everything in their path. If you get in their way, their lines scatter, and they cover you, biting and stinging as they go.
When ants take over a house, insecticide is not really an option. You just have to get out. My friends and I quickly made our way out of the hut and into the darkness of night. In my blurry-eyed state, I simply followed Queen. She took me over to a neighbor’s house, and explained to them that I’m her guest, and that the ants had come. Suddenly, there I was, sleeping in the home of strangers, who welcomed me in, because I was a guest and there were ants and that is what you do.
The next morning, I got up a little after the sun, and went back over to Queen’s house, where I found her bustling around, making chai and getting ready for the day. All of the ants were gone. I looked around, and the only evidence that the ants had been there were some thin lines in the dirt, showing where they had moved through the night before.
I immediately sought to commiserate with Queen, saying how annoying the ants were and that I was so sorry she’d been driven out of the house the night before. She gave me a puzzled laugh, and looked at me, and then said, “But Bethany, we’re glad for the ants. They drive out the more dangerous snakes and scorpions that live in the roof. The annoyance of the ants last for a night, but they save us from the greater dangers that could really hurt us.”
Wisdom finds us in the most unexpected moments, and I was struck by Queen’s humble understanding that sometimes the difficulties of life are actually working a type of salvation, protecting us from greater dangers. I could only see the annoyance of the ants, but she could see behind their threat the gift of protection from things that could destroy her or the ones she loves.
I’ve carried that idea with me since that day, seeking to see even in situations that are hard and hurtful the grace of protection from greater dangers.
Those ants invaded in 2014, during my last stay in South Sudan before relocating to Kijabe, Kenya. And since that time, my friends’ homes and lives have been invaded not by army ants but by actual armies. So many South Sudanese have been driven from their homes. And most of them don’t have a safe place to run like I did that night at Queen’s house. It is hard for me to begin understand the instability and loss that has come to Mundri.
So, I keep going back to the ants, hoping that in the midst of the danger and and difficulty of being driven out, that salvation will show itself in Mundri in surprising ways. I also pray that even with so much loss, redemption on its way, and that my friends will be protected from greater dangers that we don’t even see. And most, I wonder how we, sitting in our comfortable homes and lives, can be neighbors to the displaced of South Sudan. Perhaps it means praying, or giving, or going. Perhaps it means contacting people in our passport countries who are involved in the political process of bringing aid to South Sudan. Perhaps it means allowing the sadness of the outside world to make it’s way into our comfortable homes and lives, being willing to live with less distinct lines about what falls inside and outside of our daily concerns.
Wisdom finds us in the most unexpected moments, and in the most unexpected places. Even several years later, South Sudan continues to teach me, and for that I am grateful. And yet, I also grieve the ways South Sudan is still in the darkness of night, feeling the sting of armies and ants, looking expectantly for light to come. Together with my wise and generous Sudanese friends, I wait and long for the dawning of a new day.
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.” Psalm 130
If you would like to give to help vulnerable people in war-torn South Sudan, please consider making a gift to Serge’s South Sudan Community Blessing fund.