A Southerner's Heart
the persecution project
The area is rugged and beautiful. It looks as if God dropped big piles of enormous boulders over hundreds of square miles.
The Nuba people are an interesting lot as well. They’ve lived in those mountains for around five hundred years, and according to local lore, they’re descended from mostly Christian refugees fleeing the destruction of the last Nubian kingdom (located in north Sudan) by invading Muslim armies in the 15th century.
Many of these refugees settled in the mountains of what is now South Kordofan State, which are hard to access and easily defendable. Over time, the people became more unified as a district cultural group, even as their original faith became watered down by isolation and syncretism. The Nuba people became primarily bound by blood, more than belief. And it’s still that way today.
The Nuba Mountains are one of the few areas of the world where Christian, Muslim, and Animist believers live in comparative peace. They do business together, govern together, intermarry, and fight in the same army against a common foe.
The government of Sudan has tried to snuff out the Nuba since the 1980s through various campaigns of “purification,” motivated by racial prejudice, religious intolerance, and political hegemony.
But the Nuba have not only resisted successfully, they have also maintained their cultural identity, which is decidedly rural and agrarian, and marked by a love for music (notably the Nuba Banjo), dancing, sport (wrestling), and hospitality (notably eating barbecued pork!).
Perhaps after this brief description, it’s not hard to picture an Alabama-born country boy fitting right into this special place! Since 2011, I’ve worked extensively within the Nuba Mountains as part of a team from a non-profit organization that focuses on providing physical relief and spiritual hope to victims of war, genocide, and religious persecution—with an emphasis on the war-torn Sudan.
We repair water wells, deliver medicine and other relief supplies, and conduct many other traditional aid outreaches through local Nuba churches.
How I got to the Nuba Mountains is quite a story and it begins in the Wiregrass of Alabama.
Ask yourself this question: “What makes a Southerner Southern?” For me, it’s not our love for college football, Bar-B-Q, fried okra (or fried anything), hunting and fishing, God Almighty, manners, bow ties on a Sunday morning, or our universally loved accent.
For me, what makes Southerners special is that we care about people—a lot.
My opinion is based on personal experience, but it’s also backed by hard data.
As ugly as some critics can be when describing the South, with its penchant for the politically incorrect, there is no way to dispute the fact that Southerners, by and large, love their neighbor better than most.
One of the most interesting maps of the United States is not the geopolitical map showing Red States vs. Blue States. It’s the map showing charitable giving. This map shows that, next to our Mormon neighbors out West, Southerners give more than anyone else.
And most of the biggest givers in the South are those found in the poorest sections, not the rich suburbs. I know this to be true with my own organization. The church congregations that contribute the most are not the ones that meet in stadiums (although they give too), but in old vinyl sided buildings with water stains on the ceiling tiles and more tombstones outside than parishioners inside.
But Southerners don’t just give—they go.
Information on volunteerism around the world reveals a couple of interesting facts: First, although America has fewer passport holders than most other “First World” countries, most international volunteers are American; and, second, most of these Americans serve as part of a religiously affiliated group. Logic by deduction suggest that those Americans serving abroad with religious organizations would come from the most spiritual areas of the country, those that give the most to charity (Utah and the South).
I would say for most Southerners, charity is very personal. When we see an injustice anywhere, our first impulse is not to grab the telephone and call our representatives to demand legislative reform or a new social program. Our first impulse is to give or go—or both!
We’ve all seen this with natural disasters, how neighbors show up long before EMS personnel and, certainly, FEMA. When Hurricane Katrina ripped through Louisiana and Mississippi, I was living in Virginia. I called a few friends from church; we packed up cases of bottled water, candy bars, and chainsaws; and drove through the night until we reached the “blast zone” in Mississippi. I remember the roads were packed—with people driving south, not north. But this kind of giving is unremarkable in the South.
My work in Africa is likewise unremarkable. I’ve now lived on the continent for more than seven years, and I can tell you from personal experience that Southern charitable volunteers are everywhere. You can’t miss them.
First, you hear them. Like all Americans, they tend to talk too loudly. Second, you see them. They’re the only people who’ll wear baseball caps in the bars and restaurants of former British colonies (a major faux pas in some quarters). Third, you run into them—in some of the remotest corners of the globe. Recently, I was back in the Nuba Mountains. It was about 120 degrees outside, and I was sitting inside a grass-roofed “coffee shop” drinking black coffee mixed with ginger and enough sugar to make Willy Wonka nauseous.
All of a sudden, an old, rickety Toyota Land Cruiser rocketed up in a cloud of dust and stopped outside the shop. It might have been the third vehicle we had seen all day. The driver jumped out to greet us and take a little chai. From inside the hut, I noticed there were two Khawaja—white foreigners—sitting in the back of the vehicle in the sweltering heat (no air-conditioning).
“They obviously don’t know how long these guys like to sit and drink their tea,” I told my colleagues. So I got up to go encourage these strangers to grab some shade while they could.
“Howdy, boys. Where you headed?” I inquired.
“We’re on our way to Kauda,” replied one of the young men—to which came my retort: “What part of Alabama are you from?”
“Auburn. I’m here for six weeks to train local teachers.”
I could relate a lot more stories about these interesting “Dr. Pepper, I presume?” moments in Africa, but my point is that it’s hard to go to the scene of any world crisis and not find Southerners in surprising numbers.
And exactly why is that?
Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I recall example after example in my childhood of my mentors giving. Whether it was military service, charitable volunteering, faithful tithing, personal gifts, or whatever, most of the authorities in my life, from parents and grandparents to teachers and preachers, everyone took personally the biblical injunction to “care for widows and orphans.” Income levels didn’t matter. Politics didn’t matter either. And nobody was waiting for someone else to make the first move.
Everyone seemed to operate from some kind of ancient Noblesse Oblige, believing they were blessed—and, consequently, must pass that blessing on to others less fortunate. I was taught by my parents and grandparents that the Good Book says “to whom much is given, much is required.” If God blesses you, it’s wrong to be a hoarder of that grace. We must pass it on. And this “passing it on” is just as much an individual as it is a civil obligation.
When I was young, I remember sitting around the Thanksgiving table at Nana and Papa’s house in Enterprise, Alabama. I recall the amazing dishes Nana spent days preparing just so we could decimate them within thirty minutes. There is nothing quite like sharing a meal together as a family to show someone love and acceptance.
Around Thanksgiving in 2016, I was in the Nuba Mountains distributing shelter tarps to refugee families who had lost their homes to recent government attacks. At one collection of grass huts, a little girl, no more than five years old, wanted to express her thanks to me. She ran to where her family kept the food supplies and brought me a big bunch of peanuts that had recently been harvested.
This act of kindness and belonging gave me the same feeling I had experienced at Nana and Papa’s table all those years ago. This little Nuba girl answered the riddle for me on why so many Southerners end up working in these wild and wooly places: these people are family, too—not in an abstract way enshrined by U.N. resolutions—but in a real, personal sense.
It’s perfectly good and even laudable to believe and fight for the “equal rights of humankind.” But it’s an altogether different thing to treat those men and women as family. It’s also more important. That is Southern.
If we ever lose this Southern sensibility to the forces of political polarization, abstract “globalism,” or impersonal “social justice,” we will have lost the essence of what makes us who we are, regardless of how good our Bar-B-Q tastes or how many national championships our college football teams win. Can I hear an “amen?”
Words by Jamie Carmichael
Photos Courtesy of PPF