Wakanda is the home of the superhero Black Panther. It’s a fictional country, conveniently tucked out of sight between larger African nations. The Nuba Mountains are a lot like Wakanda, largely unseen by the rest of the world. And yet, just like the fictional Wakanda, it’s a fascinating region with a lot to teach others.
The Nuba is a region of Sudan that for decades has fought for survival and respect against the central government in Khartoum. When neighbors in what became South Sudan signed a 2005 agreement that led to eventual independence in 2011, the Nuba got left out. Since then they’ve been on their own. United Nations agencies and most aid groups won’t enter. So the Nuba are on their own.
Except for the church. During the last three decades of war, the church has maintained its presence in the Nuba Mountains, providing pastoral accompaniment, education, and health care, encouraging hope while the rest of the world looked away.
Angelina Nyakuru is a Catholic sister from Uganda who has served for a decade as head nurse at a church hospital in the Nuba Mountains. She refused to leave during several periods of intense bombing, when she quickly learned to trust the instincts of children.
“The children have better hearing, so they hear the planes first. I see them running and my body starts running as well. If they hear the bombs falling before I get to the foxhole, they yell at me, ‘Sister, lay down,’ and I hit the ground,” she told me. The children also convinced her to wear her gray habit rather than her white one during periods of bombing, as it makes her less of a target. Angelina refused to leave even when ordered out by her superior. “If we run away, what kind of shepherds are we?” she asked.
I often look for stories that are unreported, that other media ignore. The church’s work in the Nuba Mountains is one such story. So after two years of negotiations, in April I flew on a United Nations plane from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to the refugee camp at Yida, a horrifically hot and dusty settlement on the border between South Sudan and Sudan. From there it’s a buttocks-numbing eight-hour ride through the bush along a corridor that rebels patrol to prevent attacks by the Sudanese military. In lieu of a visa, I had a travel permit from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North. Although technically I was inside Sudan, I had no permission from the central government in Khartoum, which has refused to issue me another visa since I covered their war in Darfur.
I spent nine days in the Nuba, listening to people talk about how faith has kept them going. It’s a fascinating place where the tribalism that has plagued nearby countries has been largely kept at bay, and where relations between Muslims and Christians have been overwhelmingly positive. People celebrate each other’s religious holidays, and have learned the hard way that falling bombs have no religious preference.
Gender roles are changing in the Nuba Mountains, and I interviewed people about a law that took effect while I was there that triples the bride price in cows for men who get a girl student pregnant. It’s designed to help keep girls in school and guarantee more balanced leadership in the Nuba’s future.
Because of its isolation, there has been almost no international coverage of these issues. The few journalists who’ve ventured to the Nuba Mountains in recent years have focused inordinate attention on Tom Catena, a US physician who for a decade has practiced medicine there in the middle of the war. Dr. Tom, as he’s widely known, is a great guy and a true hero, but much of the writing about him has cast him as the heroic white savior, ignoring the scores of Africans, many of them church workers, who have acted just as heroically. I’ve initially written seven articles which seek to profile those other people and the challenges they face, while also covering Catena but keeping his story in the larger context of the church’s mission.
This kind of in-depth journalism is an endangered enterprise in these days of fast-paced social media. I’ve been fortunate, because of your support, to be able to take the time necessary to tell these stories. And I appreciate media like Response, the magazine of United Methodist Women, for giving me the space to share what I learn.
The issue of Response just now going to press includes the stories of Korean women who worked as prostitutes at U.S. military bases in the 1950s and 60s. Now old women, abandoned by Korean society, they face loneliness and despair. Yet some Methodist women have provided pastoral and legal accompaniment, helping the women feel loved and dignified in their remaining years. It took a lot of time to listen to the women so I could write about their struggles, and it was your congregation’s support for my ministry that made that time possible.
Many of you have supported my work for years and even decades. It’s been a long journey together. So I want you to be among the first to know that I’m going to officially retire at the end of June next year. Although I’ll continue to travel and write, I’ll do so at a slower pace, allowing me more time to spend with my family, including my granddaughter. I’m also going to try to take better care of my aging body; I just recovered from my second bout with malaria (which I contracted on the Africa trip), and my body is telling me to slow down.
In preparation for retirement, I will itinerate one more time during March, April and May next year. I’ll be in touch late in the year as we start to figure out a schedule. It will be my last opportunity to express my deep appreciation for the unique opportunity you’ve given me over the decades to be in mission. Your congregation’s engagement in mission, both locally and globally, is a true sign of hope, and I look forward to celebrating that with you.
In God’s peace,