Gregory Warner

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If you're in South Sudan and something big happens in your life — you get married, you buy property or pay a penalty for a crime — cows are most likely involved. Cows are currency and credit card and bank account rolled into one. In South Sudan, banks can go bankrupt — cows are more reliable. At least that's how it used to be.

This story comes from NPR's Rough Translation podcast, which explores how ideas we wrestle with in the U.S. are being discussed in the rest of the world.

Sophia Lierenfeld didn't set out to give dating advice to Syrian refugees.

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Two days before my first trip to Afghanistan, in 2007, I was terrified, speaking no Dari and having never interviewed anyone in a war zone. On impulse, I grabbed my little red travel accordion, mumbling something about using the "universal language of music" to connect with people whose world seemed wholly different from my own.

Michael Sharp believed in the power of persuasion. The 34-year-old Kansan with the round face and a penchant for plaid shirts would walk, unarmed, deep into rebel-held territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo, sit in the shade of banana trees with rebels and exchange stories.

Inevitably, those stories would turn to the past. "Rebels love talking about the past," Michael once told me.

As part of the project A Nation Engaged, NPR and member stations are exploring America's role in the world heading into the presidential election.

Everyone knew President Obama would say something about gay rights when he visited Kenya last summer. Many American activists were pressing him to publicly condemn Kenya's colonial-era law making homosexuality a crime.

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