This article was originally published in the February 2017 edition of ITMI Monthly.
It dawned as normal as a morning can be for Americans visiting Juba, South Sudan.
But it turned out to be a day we’ll never forget.
ITMI's Steve Evers and Kent Reisenauer in South Sudan.
Vicky’s lateness was of little concern.
Vicky does not have her own means of transportation. She would travel in a “taxi,” which in Africa is a 9-10 passenger vehicle inhabited by closer to fifteen passengers and making just as many stops.
Passengers of these stifling “clown cars” envy the luxurious space sardines enjoy. The air in their tins might move and smell better, too.
In Africa, your meetings start when everyone can get there.
Vicky arrived, apologizing for that which she cannot control. Taxi service in the capitol of the youngest country on earth was interrupted by one thing or another that morning. Undeterred, Vicky found and hitched a ride.
Kent and I welcomed her and made sure she ordered a full breakfast. She chose a hot cup of tea, two eggs and fruit.
Vicky probably doesn’t eat many breakfasts. She cares for so many widows and orphans as a leader in her local church. Judging from her appearance, she goes without for their sake quite often.
Vicky was born in South Sudan. She has experienced the decades of conflict up close and personal her entire life. Somehow, she has maintained an unwavering gentle nature through the hardships.
As we discussed Vicky’s ministry and life, she grew serious.
In the 14 years I have known Vicky, she has only spoken of others with grace and warmth. With great care and intentionally chosen words, Vicky shared that she had moved out of her mother’s small shack where she previously lived with her mother, brother and sister-in-law.
Over the last year, Vicky’s sister-in-law connected with a fringe African religion, who convinced her she is a modern-day prophet called to prophesy...for money.
Her constant attacks on Vicky’s biblical beliefs and practices had Vicky caught in daily spiritual battles. With meager personal resources and nowhere else to go, Vicky strove to bring peace to the home. It was not to be.
As the spiritual conflict intensified, Vicky’s continued petitions to the Lord seeking what He wanted her to do yielded a small miracle. God gave Vicky a small plot of land and she erected a two-room mud house with a shiny tin roof.
For her, that rough, mud-walled building is exceptional – dirt floor and all - because it is hers.
Vicky keeps a demanding 7-days-a-week schedule counseling deeply traumatized women and families. South Sudan’s long-standing culture of survival, anger, abuse and intense rejection has traumatized everyone to some degree. Those two rooms shared with 5 orphaned teenage girls is a necessary safe-haven.
Later that day, we would witness the vitality of Vicky’s ministry to the wounded and abused firsthand.
Later that day, we would witness the vitality of Vicky’s counseling ministry to the wounded and abused firsthand.
Our discussions concluded, and our driver gave us a ride to Vicky’s home. We rattled and jarred along as our driver worked his way down tiny dirt pathways considered roads, jostling our way out of the main part of the city.
Vicky’s “neighborhood” is also an area where many soldiers live, at the ready 24/7 to defend the city. Days earlier, they fortified in a heated battle against advancing rebels attempting once again to gain a foothold just west of Vicky’s home. Understandably, tensions were high and nerves raw as conflicts of the past, haunt and fuel present fears.
The afternoon sun was starting to cast long shadows as the huge cloud of dust created by our vehicle loomed through the unmarked maze. We stopped in front of a bamboo and straw fence with a tin gate.
The five girls Vicky has unofficially adopted, aged 16-18, clamored to open the gate and greet us with ear to ear smiles.
We planned to finish the day with a home cooked dinner of beans, rice and red tea made from hibiscus flowers, all heated over a hand-formed mud stove. The orphaned teenage girls Vicky cares for would prepare this South Sudanese fare.
Vicky's hand-formed mud stove.
Vicky gave Kent and I a quick tour. Only parts of the bamboo fence were completed with “privacy straw,” meaning any outsiders can look in through the cracks on the six female residents.
This was especially disturbing later when we saw the bathroom and bathing area.
Vicky gives us the tour.
The small, two-room house is Vicky’s palace. It is about fifty percent finished. Sections of the mud walls have not yet been reinforced by the homemade plaster mixture of mud, cement and used motor oil in hopes that the rainy season won’t melt the walls.
The floor inside the house was akin to a field of dirt clods. Turning an ankle on the plum-sized dirt balls seemed unavoidable. Yet Vicky’s bed and dresser in this room was expertly made and ready for inspection.
The girls’ room was space enough for 3 single beds and no more. We were surprised to learn two of the single beds slept two adult girls each. They, however, exulted in sleeping off the ground.
Steve with ITMI's Vicky Waraka (far right) and her five orphaned teenage girls in their small room.
After a quick tour of the “long drop” (or outhouse) and “bathing area,” Kent and I realized that these ladies didn’t even have privacy to use these facilities.
There wasn’t enough plastic to cover all four sides of both stalls. One side of each stall remained open.
Anyone could “observe” them bathing or relieving themselves through the incomplete outer fence.
This is even more dangerous at night, when the darkened neighborhood is crawling with unsafe activity. Using the bathroom requires a light, alerting the neighborhood someone is out.
They need a four-sided mud building around these facilities, if not for modesty reasons, then for safety.
The blue tarp provides semi-enclosed privacy for the bathroom facilities used by Vicky and her 5 orphaned girls.
Later I sat across from Vicky, my camera on its tripod pointed at her to record stories from her ministry in her own words.
After about twenty minutes, there was a knock at the tin gate. From directly behind me, the visitors entered the yard and made a bee-line toward us. Their initial demeanor was cool, but that didn’t last long.
Vicky sees the two visitors approaching behind me.
One asked me what I was doing. Vicky’s body tensed up as I answered, “Interviewing a long-term partner…”
“Not touch camera!” one said with force, as I moved to stop recording.
After Vicky spoke to them in Arabic, she relayed, “these men are from the security force and they are unhappy.”
They asked again what I was doing. I gave the same answer. “Who gave you permission?”
Vicky reminded them that this was her property and we only recorded what was hers. This didn’t seem to matter. They planned to confiscate the camera equipment, and we’d be forced to “come with them.”
Five-foot two Vicky respectfully but firmly bought us some time. She told them we wouldn’t be walking. They need to call a vehicle to transport us wherever they planned to take us.
I later found out the inebriated and belligerent one told Vicky “If you don’t do as I tell you, I will just shoot you all.” In this country, these are not idle threats.
Other than her resistance to “walk with them”, there was only one thing this woman could do to placate two agitated officials.Vicky stopped and out loud, asked her Lord to intervene and break down any evil at work.
Miraculously, ITMI’s Jahim Buli was responding immediately as the Holy Spirit nudged him “go find Steve and Kent, right now!”
How Jahim found us is another miracle. Our phones were muted during the interview.
Yet, by God’s grace, Jahim found his way through the dirt maze to Vicky’s house – where he’d never been before. As soon as the vehicle stopped in front of Vicky’s gate, he realized why the Spirit led him there.
Jahim greeted the two men and exchanged Arabic words with them. Jahim’s gender, height, wisdom and words - given to him by God - caused the situation to stop escalating.
ITMI's Jahim Buli with his family.
Jahim strode across the yard, briskly covering the distance between us.
“I have to get you out of here…NOW!”
He knew he needed to avert a disaster. I didn’t know where they agreed to take us, but I trusted Jahim and Vicky.
By now, an additional security official had arrived. He and Vicky climbed into the third row of Jahim’s small van. Kent, another official and I squeezed in the middle row. Jahim drove and the most agitated security official claimed the passenger seat.
Before we reached the main road, the third official spoke up in Arabic from the back row. He wanted to get out. He didn’t want his name involved with this. Jahim stopped the vehicle and the official took his leave.
This caused the other two officials to converse with Jahim again. Then, just like that, they abandoned their crusade and Jahim’s van, allowing the four of us to go free.
Most South Sudanese’s response to this story? “This is what we live with every day.”
Americans, accustomed to the right and privilege of due process, struggle to understand how something like this could happen. Yet, in cultures where the majority have suffered repeated trauma and abuse, it happens every day.
You really can’t blame the government officials for their suspicion, fear and control. They were raised in it and formed by it. It’s all they’ve ever known.
Uncontrollable fear left over from years of injustice and pain compels many to squash what they don’t understand, almost as if they are enslaved to their own reactions.
This is why ITMI goes where we go.
Because people – people created by God and for God, in His own Image - are deep in prisons of cultural fear, anger and revenge, even as they go about their daily business.
The conviction that they can - and hope that all might - flourish under Christ’s freedom, is what drives us as we gladly serve and empower Vicky, Jahim and Lazarus.
Kent and I are eternally grateful for your prayers offered on our behalf. Each was clearly needed and definitely felt. Will you help us help Vicky, Jahim and Lazarus as they willingly put themselves in these situations?
About the Authors
Steve Evers has advocated for and served the ITMI partners as ITMI Director since 2001. Approximately once a year, Steve visits with ITMI partners in their countries and brings stories back to encourage supporters. Steve enjoys photography and mechanics, (both hobbies that have greatly benefited ITMI partners!) Prior to becoming ITMI's Director, Steve served on the Board of Directors for 4 years. Steve lives in Arizona with his wife, Darlene.