“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” – Psalm 90:12
Recently, the diocese held the annual mother’s union training, which calls women from all over the diocese to participate in a three-day workshop. The first group of women to arrive traveled the furthest. One woman who came was two months pregnant. The road she took is a very bad road. The bumps on this road are unimaginable. The Land Cruiser that carried her is arranged to maximize seating capacity. The front has three seats – one seat for the driver and two seats for passengers. There are no back seats in the traditional fashion, only a long cargo area with two parallel benches positioned perpendicular to the front seats. Arranged this way, the Land Cruiser can hold up to 14 people instead of the usual 8. This is a great innovation. The only problem is that those sitting in the elongated cargo area are without adequate back support, and they experience the entire journey sitting sideways. The result is that the bumps feel twice as rough and your back is bound to be sore even on smooth routes. I road in the back of a vehicle like this once, and it was one of my least favorite moments in South Sudan.
I’m not sure if it was the woman’s age, a complicated medical history, or the rough road that was the main factor acting against her, but once she arrived she was bleeding. When I was told about it, I was told that she miscarried and was going to take some painkillers. I couldn’t believe what I heard. I asked how they knew she miscarried. The response was that she is pregnant and she’s bleeding. I said, “Okay, then why is she stopping at painkillers? She needs to see a doctor.” I was told that the woman didn’t want to miss the workshop, and was worried that the hospital would admit her (hospital admittance = missed workshop).
After debating the proper course of action, I went outside to talk with the woman. Through a translator, I told her that she needed to see a doctor. She smiled and responded that the bleeding was small, and had stopped, and that she was feeling okay. She said that she would spend the night on the church compound and if she felt worse in the morning, then she would go to the doctor. She exchanged phone numbers with the diocesan staff and promised to call during the night if her condition became an emergency. I pleaded with her again, but the woman refused to leave.
By this time it was late, everyone was tired, and our patience for trying to convince someone she needed a doctor was low. I started the car and was waiting for everyone to board so that we could leave. As I waited, I felt very uneasy. I knew to leave this woman was to place her, and perhaps the fetus, in grave danger. One of the basic health lessons I planned to teach at the woman’s workshop was to seek medical attention at the first sign of danger. How could I teach that lesson verbally, while demonstrating the opposite?
I got out the car and told Mama Rose that the woman had to go to the hospital. Mama Rose said, “Darriel it’s not me. The woman has refused. What can I do?” I said, “Mama Rose, you are in charge. This is your program. You are responsible for her. You must tell her that she must go to the hospital. We can’t allow her to choose.” Mama Rose said okay, said something to the woman, and 5 minutes later we were on our way to the hospital.
By the time we were finally able to see one of the hospital’s midwives, the lady was in a lot of pain. The midwife examined her and confirmed that she lost the baby. Her blood pressure was low and she had started bleeding again. The midwife treated her, ordered the necessary medicines and IVs, and scheduled a procedure for the next morning. The midwife suggested that the woman would have likely died if she hadn’t have reached the hospital that night.
When I pondered what could have happened, I remembered the verse “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom”. I had this verse in my email signature years ago. It was during an era when I was crazy enough to work a competitive fulltime job, go to grad school, lead a non-profit branch, and try to keep a social life, all at once. The verse meant to me then, “time is short, be wise and accomplish all that you can while you’re young and strong.” But here, in South Sudan, where I’m a little older and the veneers of life are somewhat removed, where I’m often confronted with death and life’s fundamentals, the verse comes to mean something altogether different. That night in the hospital, the verse meant, “Don’t take tomorrow for granted. Your life is not under your control alone. Choose wisely what you cherish in the time you’re given.”
In South Sudan many people cherish tradition, and they treasure it in a way that is difficult for someone from the West to understand. In the instance of this woman, at least for the moments of our encounter, she cherished the Mother’s Union training. In the West, we often cherish money, accolades, and safety in a way that South Sudanese find puzzling. Western or African, what we cherish is our own choosing, and our choice is articulated through the way we spend our time. The psalmist knew this, and Psalm 90 was (and is), in part, Israel confessing the difficulty in choosing what to cherish. Consequently, Israel, gives us the great example of petitioning the Creator for assistance in this grand and simple decision. “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”