Saying “Please” in Sudan

By Lauren R. Stanley

RENK, Sudan – We’re coming to the end of the semester at the Renk Theological College, which means that the students here are frantically trying to wrap up assignments, read books, study notes and write papers.

Because they study in four languages — English, Arabic, Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek – and have to write papers in Systematic Theology, Christian Ethics, Stewardship and the Synoptic Gospels, never mind face final examinations in six of their 11 courses, there suddenly is not enough time for everything.

So the other day, a student asked if we could skip Greek class that day (it’s a pass/fail course, and nearly all are passing right now) so that they could have an extra hour in the library, researching and writing.

I told that student to bring the rest of the class to the classroom within two minutes (time is a loose thing here in Sudan, and getting to class on time often seems impossible). Once everyone arrived – with literally five seconds to spare – I asked the first student to repeat his request. Everyone wants more time to research and write, he said; could we not have this time to go to the library? I asked who wanted more time for research. They all raised their hands. And then came the hard part:

“Say ‘please,’” I said. They looked at me blankly.

“Ask me nicely,” I said. “Say ‘please.’”

One student, who knows me better than most, suddenly caught on and piped up: “Please!”

But the other 14 students looked at me blankly.

“Really,” I said. “If you want me to do this for you, you need to say ‘please.’ I mean it.”

So they all sounded off together: “Please!!!!”

Which is when I let them go off to study. (For all lovers of Biblical Greek, fear not: We will catch up later on.)

The lesson here is that in Sudan, “please” is a foreign term. It’s simply not part of the daily vocabulary. Nor is “thank you.” Sudanese tend to live in an imperative world: “Come here.” “Sit down.” “Bring me water.” “Get me a soda.” When they’re not in the imperative mood, they’re in the vocative case: “Awok!” “Deng!” “Grace!” It is simply how they function – no “please,” no “thank you,” no asking if you would like to do something, no invitation to do another thing.

Just a bunch of orders, coupled with your name (always followed by a vocal exclamation point).

It is very hard to get used to this way of communicating, for if nothing else, it makes this place seem very harsh and unfriendly, without a trace of decency displayed for the other.

It’s one of the many things you have to accept if you’re going to live in this country: Abrupt orders. Curt name-calling.

You also have to get used to seeing hand gestures that here mean “Wait a minute,” and in the United States are considered rude Italian slurs. And folks of all ages spitting incessantly. And children squatting down in the middle of the dirt road to go to the bathroom. And donkey-cart drivers beating their donkeys (which have quite the reputation for stupidity and stubbornness). And people almost reflexively throwing stones at dogs. And everyone interrupting everyone else just to greet you.

But most of all, you have to get used to the imperative and vocative way of life. It’s very disconcerting to be in church and have the officiant order everyone to sit down, in the same tone of voice we in the West use to command a dog to sit. Or to be talking to one person, have another walk up and demand – demand – that you stop what you’re doing to greet them. (And if you don’t, be prepared to be lightly punched. Or to have a hand suddenly reach across your face to get your attention.)

Which is why I took my stand the other day and demanded that the whole class ask me, nicely, using what my mother used to call the “magic word.” Every once in a while, I simply want to hear some politeness, the kind drilled into me as a child.

My Sudanese friends actually laugh at me when I do this. Every time I ask someone to do something for me and add minfadlik (“please” in Arabic), someone always makes fun of me. I’ve even been asked, “Why do you do that? Why do you ask? Why do you say ‘please’?”

In part, it’s a habit. In part, I’m probably afraid of facing my mother one day in the next life and having her ask me why I wasn’t being nice to other people. But most of all, what I really want is the sense that each of us is honored, respected, treated well, treated not as a servant who can be ordered around, but as an equal.

I truly believe that little gestures of politeness count for a lot, that they help build the community, and that not using them helps destroy communities. I believe that every time we take that extra step, every time we ask instead of order, every time we show even the slightest bit of respect to another person, we live more fully into God’s image of love and community, the image in which we are created.

It’s a small thing, I know.

But sometimes, it works.

The very next day, my students once again wanted more time in the library. We gathered in the classroom. I looked at them and said, “Who wants to go to the library to research and write?” Every single hand shot up.

“What’s the magic word?” I asked.

And resoundingly, with great laughter, they responded immediately.


Oh, that sounded so very nice.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

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