Two Things I May Never Understand


There are two things in life I may never fully understand.

One is why someone would do something for somebody for nothing.

Two is how anyone could possibly not be grateful when they have received something from someone for nothing.

In the late 70’s Judy and I were serving with the Wycliffe Bible Translators in a remote village among the Didinga in SE Sudan. It was not the end of the earth, but we could see it from where we lived.

We built a mud-walled thatch-roofed house after the manner of the local construction, but on a larger scale. And every evening we would sit out on the porch and watch the sun go down. We were just north of the equator and the sun set and rose at almost the exact same time every day—6:30 PM and 6:30 AM. We would often listen to our short wave radio and could pick up Paul Harvey news and commentary, which we listened to most evenings when reception was the clearest.

One day a woman walked off the hillside behind us and passed by our house carrying a spear. This was highly unusual. Women do not carry spears. We beckoned her over and with our limited capacity asked where she was from, where she was going, and why she was carrying the spear. She was from Nagischott up the mountain; she was going to Chukudum, the village about a mile from our home; her husband had died and she was going to sell the spear. How much did she want for it? She wanted one Sudanese pound (about 2 dollars at the time). We offered to buy it from her for two pounds. This was highly confusing to her as they live in a nearly cashless society. Our offer appeared to her that we were trying to bargain her down and she insisted on 1 pound. So we went and got two one pound bills and demonstrated what it was we wanted to do. She finally figured it out, quietly took the money, nodded and left.

There was not a word of thanks. No indication of appreciation for giving her more than she had asked for. But that was to be expected because we had, up till then, not discovered a word that conveyed “thanks” in the Didinga language. Oh, there was the word “ilale”, but as best we could tell at that point it was a tepid little word that was more an acknowledgement of a fact than an expression of appreciation—like “right”, or “OK”. The language had borrowed an Arabic word, “shukran” which was used to express appreciation, but that was used by the few who had learned that language and were somewhat educated— not many were.

Life went on. We discovered we were at that time in the middle of a drought and famine that covered a large part of NE Uganda and from which one bony finger covered the area across the border into Sudan where we lived. Crops failed and people were dying. And we were so busy building the house and had such an inadequate grasp of the language and culture we had nearly missed this fact. But it is hard to miss someone falling to the ground in fatigue and hunger when it is right outside your door.

A month passed. Someone came to our door. I went to open it to find the same lady who had sold us the spear, but I did not recognize her. She was standing there, a bit more gaunt, dusty, and a baby strapped to her back with a gourd over its head to protect it from the sun. She wanted some more money. Evidently the amount we gave her was insufficient to buy the minimum amount of grain they were selling—a 20 liter tin. And that cost 5 Pounds. She needed three more Pounds to add to the two we had given her.

What to do? She was not selling anything else. She was simply asking for money. And if we started handing out money, there would be no end to it. Further, we were living on next to nothing ourselves.

Judy came to the door and took over. She pointed out to me this was the same lady we bought the spear from. I was grateful Judy was going to handle it and went back to the desk to work with Paul Locio, our language helper.

At lunch that day I asked Judy what happened. “Oh,…” she said, “ I listened to her story and I thought to myself that in comparison to this lady I have so much. So I went back to our room, got her three more Sudanese Pounds and gave it to her. And then this lady did something rather interesting. She took her fingers, bunched them up and spat into them. And then she took and rubbed that spit into the skin at the top of my chest.  And then this lady said, “Gona udut”. I know what Gona means– friend. But Paul, what does “udut” mean?”

Paul Locio, our language helper who was having lunch with us, was visibly moved. “Udut means ‘forever’ and so Gona udut”, he explained, “means, ‘You are my friend forever’” He went on to explain that this was perhaps the single most significant way he knew of to express appreciation in his language and culture.

We have much to be grateful for. And when we have been extended grace upon grace…the only possible response is….gratitude.

And that is why every day is Thanksgiving.