(Ok, I’m terrible at titles…)
A year ago yesterday we left Mundri.
It was supposed to be for just 7 weeks. We were scheduled to go to Kenya for an East Africa retreat and conference with all the Serge missionaries. After a couple months of severe pain and sickness, Shawn was told he had to get on the next MAF plane out and get into see a doctor to figure out what was happening. He had lost 20 pounds in just a couple weeks, had a high fever, and we were pretty sure had a kidney stone that wouldn’t pass (turns out there were seven stuck on either side). But both sides hurt, so after debating the should we or shouldn’t we, I was relieved to have someone in charge tell us there was no option.
So Friday we spent the afternoon trying to book a MAF flight to no avail, and finally decided to just drive to juba and catch a commercial flight out on Sunday. We had no idea how long it would take to drive there (they had done it anywhere from 6 hours to 12!) so we decided to stay over in juba Saturday night and fly to Kenya Sunday. Almost 48 hours of travel time to visit the doctor.
Then we packed. We were leaving for 7 weeks, but had limited luggage allowance on the plane. We packed about 4 outfits each plus swim suits for the retreat. Our tech toys came with us along with malaria meds so we could resume taking them before we came back to mundri (we wouldn’t need those in Kenya except in the coast), and a few toiletries (we would be restocking in Nairobi) and we were ready. Theresa helped me figure out how to take enough school for 6 weeks, and we copied books and ripped out workbook pages to make the weight less.
I packed up all the pantry food, because I didn’t want rats eating our precious cake mix or chocolate chips. I packed up a lot of clothing because I didn’t want rats eating my skirts and underwear! As I was looking around I thought- very briefly- “I should pack most things up just in case they have to evacuate while we are gone.” This was a fleeting thought, but always a consideration when we lived there. We talked about evacuating and gun fire and go bags and ways out all the time. It was a practical way of life, not a panic thing. And since I was already packing and we didn’t have a huge house, I decided to pack things up a little more securely so the Reeds and Justin wouldn’t have to think about that in the rare event that actually did evacuate. Plus, it had another advantage…it was dry season and I had to dust twice a day to keep up. With things packed away, I wouldn’t have as much to clean when we got back.
The next morning we loaded the car early, hugged teammates goodbye, and drove through town. As we drove through mundri town I looked for Andiwa, my language helper and sweet friend so I could say goodbye and explain language lessons would be on hold for a few weeks, but then I remembered she was in Lui for the weekend. When we drove through Mirikalanga, I scanned the tea house where Maria had started working so I could say goodbye, but she wasn’t around. I almost asked Shawn to stop so I could run and hug Cici goodbye, but I knew there was no such thing as a quick goodbye, and I would have to see everyone, and Shawn was very sick, and we didn’t how long the drive would be. So I quickly decided a text would do and I would catch up when we got back.
But we never went back.
I never got to hug Cici goodbye or chase little Tabita around again. I never got to share a chai with Maria while holding baby Larissa again. Andiwa called, so I spoke to her briefly on the phone, but after all hell broke loose in Mundri, I have never been able to reach her. Her number is turned off and the one time someone answered it wasn’t her. I didn’t see Elazai and Phoebe to tell them what an inspiration their long marriage and faithfulness to each other despite war, infertility, and insecurity was to me. I didn’t get to see Rina again, and a budding friendship built on similarities of life and laughter together was nipped quickly. I didn’t get to buy another Rolex (egg and chapati) from Gideon and talk to him about his dreams of going to America. I didn’t get to buy sugar from Makonis Billy and hear him say, “Ah, my people!” I didn’t get to sit with Stephen’s family on their compound in almost complete silence, but a comfortable peace. I didn’t get to buy g-nut paste from the older ladies in town who good naturedly competed for our business. I didn’t get to eat shea from Maggie’s again. So many losses….
Two weeks after we left, while Shawn was recuperating from his first surgery, we got word that we had to evacuate our team immediately. 24 hours later our friends stood before us in Nairobi shell-shocked and bedraggled. What had just happened?
They closed up the compound, packed a go back (they had even less allowed weight than we did because of MAF) and waited on us to let them know when their flight was coming. I remember coordinating it from this side. Shawn was in bed recuperating, I was having a brunch with some friends before we went to Rosslyn to watch RVA and Rosslyn play basketball in a tournament. How could things look so normal here while I was making evacuation plans for my friends? How could I be sitting in Java House while texting plans to help them stay safe? I was still in culture shock myself.
Our team said their goodbyes…and it was impossibly hard and guilt-filled for security reason I can’t get into. To keep others safe they couldn’t really tell the whole story why they were leaving, because of chaos and destruction that could occur. In short, they had to lie to people that were friends. It wasn’t their fault. Nothing could be done, and they were given strict guidelines to follow for the good of everyone involved. We had to leave our Sudanese friends in God’s hands.
Their goodbyes were even harder than our lack of goodbyes.
There hasn’t been closure for most of us that left last year. Larissa left in January for a “short” home assignment thinking she would be back. We left for 7 weeks, with plans in place for ministry and language learning when we got back. The Reeds and Justin still have their hearts set in going back, though that looks less and less likely with each passing day. They guys were able to go back in the fall for just 48 hours to get a few things and try to make a longer term closure of the compound. They saw people and talked and hugged and ate and cried and prayed. They closed up shop as securely as they could, but most everything has been looted or burned now. People are scattered all over or missing or worse. This country that had had so much hope when we initially signed up to go is in anarchy and hopelessness. People would rather live in refugee camps than go back to face war again.
And who can blame them? This is not the first war most of them have seen. In fact, war is all most of them know.
But closure is a funny thing. We have moved a lot in our marriage. Whether it was across town or across the world, I have always taken the time when the house is empty to walk through each room and remember and grieve and smile and pray a prayer of thanksgiving. To touch the walls (I’m very tactile) and breathe in the smell. It sounds melodramatic, but it was my ritual.
I didn’t get to do that in my cute little mundri house. I would have loved to have stood in my kitchen window and watch the neighbor kids in one of their many daily visits to the well, each with a jerry can matching their ability to carry the water- right down to tiny little Acacia with her tin can sized bottle. I would have loved to admire my newly built pantry that freed up kitchen space and looked so nice. I would have laughed at the clothes line going across the whole living area for those days when the clothes would not dry outside. I would have front-porch-sat one more time in the late afternoon before team dinner when everyone was getting back from various activities for the day and getting showers to attempt to clean up and cool off. They would stop by our porch in the way to the team house for dinner, and we would process the day together. I would have walked in the school house and been thankful for this building that helped give us some sort of schedule in the day. I would have had one more date night in the Tamarind Cafe, a little room Shawn and will decorated for Theresa and I when we complained there was no way to go on a date in mundri.
I would have taken a picture of the wall in our house with the Masso kids measurements over the years they lived in the house. We didn’t let them paint over that in the pantry making process
I would have had Shawn stop so I could hug my friends one more time.
But these things can’t happen, and there’s no turning back time.
We are on a wonderful new team and I am loving Nairobi and our life here. Though at times I struggled with guilt of really letting myself embrace this place, because it meant I was fully letting go of Mundri, I have learned a lot about the capacity of the heart to let more in. It’s fascinating and amazing how much we can hold on to and call ours when we come to realize that hellos and love and friendship is at least as powerful the pain of goodbyes and loss. You can’t have one without the other, and I refuse to give up the first. So I have come to accept and even sit in and be ok with the latter.
I have come to terms with the fact that even if I did go back, nothing would be the same. Most of the people are gone, the home I lived in is empty and looted. The solar panals are mostly gone, so power and internet is not an option anymore. The shops are destroyed and empty, the cafes are not open. Mundri is a shadow of its former bustling self.
And I grieve slowly. When my mom died, the grief was intense at first. Years later it comes in waves and at unexpected times. I suspect that Mundri will be similar for me. When I’m walking in the village here in Kenya and the camp fire smells and small town feel hits me like a ton of bricks out of the blue. When I’m laughing and enjoying new friends and I suddenly wonder where Andiwa is and if she’s ok. I’ve come to realize that this is healthy and normal, and there is no real end when it comes to grief, but more of a riding the waves. I can also smile and be thankful for the good things that came from our short time in Mundri as well.
And in the middle of it all, I can keep falling in love with Kenya, with our church, with new friends. We’ve been trying to teach our kids that giving yourself in friendship to a new person does not make you disloyal to an old friend, it simply adds more depth and love to your life. You don’t have to hate one to love the other. You don’t have to ignore one or forget it to immerse yourself in the other. We have deep, abiding friendships and memories all over the world because we’ve chosen to live this way rather than cut ourselves off in case of hard goodbyes.
This doesn’t have to be different. I can embrace the impossible hardness and immense joy that came from living in Mundri and mourn that loss while still jumping whole-heartedly into life here. I can add our life in the States into that recipe and have a complicated, messy ball of emotions, but learn to live in that mess and fully experience each day and each feeling as it comes. I don’t have to choose Kenya over South Sudan or the States over Kenya. I can love (and sometimes hate) them all- in the same breath.
I guess leaving Mundri without a lot of closure has helped me realize that. Life isn’t black and white. It’s more like a big canvas of crazy colors and patterns that don’t always match and make sense. Sometimes they clash and we can barely look at them side by side. But it’s vibrant and full of energy and emotions.
A year ago yesterday I left a life I loved and hated to the extreme. And I entered into a place where (unbeknownst to me at the time) I would soon call home and learn to love and hate to the extreme at times. And I am thankful for this crazy, bumpy, chaotic, sometimes insanely hard road of life that God has placed me on.