“Are you a woman or a girl?” – one of the most frequent questions that I am asked in South Sudan. This question confused me at first. Even though I am shorter than most Nuer women, surely they could see that I am over 18. I would test out my newly learned Nuer phrase, “I have 25 years,” which did not seem to answer the question. Finally, one of our translators explained that they were not asking my age but if I was married.
In Nasir, the average age for girls to marry is somewhere between 15 and 19. I have been told that it is impossible for a girl to be 25 and unmarried, and apparently some people think I am lying when I say that I am a “girl." Others offer up potential candidates who would be willing to negotiate cows (the bride price) with my father.
In some ways marriage in Nasir looks very different than what I am accustomed to: men often have more than one wife; outward displays of affection are absent; and women bear most of the responsibility of caring for the family, working sunup to sundown hauling water, grinding grain, and washing. One measure of a wife’s value is how many cows her husband paid for her, which I have been told depends on her appearance, her strength, her behavior, and level of education.
The last few months have challenged me to think differently about what marriage is and what it is not, and to take a closer look at my own culture’s views. Through these cross-cultural observations, God has revealed ways in which I have created an idol of this relationship, ascribing characteristics to it that can only come from God. Biblical marriage may reflect attributes such as provision, security, comfort, and companionship, but it is not the source of any of these things. Whether single or married (happily or unhappily), only in a relationship with Jesus Christ can true contentment be found.
Sometimes I wonder why God has led me to a place of ministry where I have no peers, no one in the same season of life. Perhaps to show that in Him there is a different kind of family, connected not by marriage and children, but by the blood of Christ.