In 2009, I boarded a 4-seater puddle jumper jet and fearfully held my breath as we took off into the sky above Sudan. The further we traveled, the closer the mountains became. Though I knew we would be landing in the Didinga Hills, the theoretical concept was not as scary as the reality. It seemed as though we were flying straight toward the peaks.
The mountains were full of ridges and valleys. One of the ridges was bald and I knew what that meant: it was our landing strip. We had one chance to get the plane on the ground, and it depended on accurately touching down on a thin strip of grass. It was by far the scariest landing of my life.
But I suppose it takes an adventure – a scary plane ride into the mountains – to reach the people who have been living there for centuries.
I traveled to Sudan on my very first assignment as a photojournalist in Africa. My team and I were charged with the task of capturing images and stories of the Didinga people living in the hills. A handful of Western missionaries had moved there several months prior to live and learn among the local people, and we were asked to document the everyday interactions between the two groups.
Immediately, the locals became curious about me and inspected me thoroughly. Once, they even pulled my shirt down to see what I was hiding underneath since the women tend to walk around bare-chested. I was very clearly “different” – the minority, the visitor in their land.
Life in the hills was quiet and secluded. For the most part, children played, women cooked, and men looked after fruitful crops of corn. A numbers of times, while walking the narrow paths along the ridge, I had to step aside to let SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) soldiers carrying AK-47s pass. My visit to Sudan was pre-succession (in 2011, Sudan and South Sudan split, becoming two independent countries) and there was already tension building. The juxtaposition between the machine guns and the quiet village was astounding.
I spent 8 days in the Didinga Hills; unquestionably not enough time to fully understand the interaction between the Western missionaries and the Didinga people. In those few days, however, I was able to make some astute observations. I witnessed how the Westerners learned from and served the Didinga people, and how the Didinga people accepted the presence and the service of the Westerners. Each missionary began his/her stay by living with a local family. It was clear that the family welcomed the missionary as one of their own, and even after the missionary left the family’s home to move into their own hut, the family continued to care for and look after them. I sensed a genuine, deep bond between the locals and the missionaries; a desire to understand each other; an openness to be vulnerable in front of each other.
There also seemed to be a lot of give-and-take between the two groups. The missionaries built a clinic in the Didinga Hills where they tended to the illnesses and wounds of many, day in and day out. They also started a school where they were they learned the Didinga language. In return, the Didinga people taught the missionaries how to harvest food and cook on their land.
My time in the Didinga Hills – observing, documenting – taught me about my role as a visitor. In that role, my responsibility is to respect the people and build relationships much like the missionaries did. Give; take. Teach; learn. That was a lesson that I absorbed there, in the hills of Sudan, but carried with me throughout the two years I lived and visited various countries on the African continent.
It is a lesson I still carry with me today, regardless of where I travel.
This piece was originally published on August 27, 2014.