A very quick update because I’m all excited! Tim went to Torit this week and thankfully returned safely but tired this afternoon but not before doing a little shopping for provisions and for this present for me!
It is a punishing drive of about 6 hours on bad and dangerous roads. I had armed him on Monday before he left with two packets of cigarettes. (Nana if you are reading this, I found them on the airplane and they’re definitely not mine!) I figured that if the car was stopped on the way, the cigarettes would be useful in negotiations. Anyway, thankfully they weren’t needed and the journey both ways was fine.
Tim returned with this amazing present for me. Now I’m all ready for tomorrow’s sports day at the school!!
And, I’ll be able to wear it when I’m shouting for South Sudan in the Olympics now that they will be able to enter teams in the future.
Ole South Sudan!!
I’m hopelessly behind with my posts but I’m going to make an effort to rectify that over the next few days. For now though, let me tell you about our day at the market in Kapoeta last Saturday.
Fuel is a rare commodity here now. There is no diesel and we have heard that a permit is now needed to move fuel outside of the capital.
We had heard that there might be fuel in Kapoeta that morning so Fr. Matthew and I went to see if we might be one of the lucky ones who managed to fill the tanks that day. Of course, once wind of the word got out that a car was going to Kapoeta…it was full! We had some teachers from both the primary and secondary schools, all of whom had business to do in the town that day. Tim was busy here working on accounts and making things ready for his trip to Narus this week.
We set off after breakfast. It was already hotter than hell even at 9:30am in the morning. The drive is about an hour and as we crossed the dry river bed we met many villagers who were on their way to the market. Mainly women carrying jerrycans of milk or waragi (the illicit local brew), charcoal or firewood on their heads. The men of course were busy sitting under the trees playing dominoes.
When we arrived, we deposited our passengers and drove out to “the junction” to see about diesel. We were out of luck I’m afraid. The truck had been stopped leaving Juba. I daren’t presume what might have happened to the fuel.
Having failed in our mission to fill the tanks, we decided to have a soda at the bar across the street from the fuel station. One beer for Fr. Matthew and I was more excited that one probably should be about the prospect of a nice cold Coca Cola. The girl brough the drinks and I didn’t notice at first but soon realised that the syrup I was given was not Coca Cola but Juba Cola! To say I was disappointed would be a huge understatement.
Because the South Sudanese Pound is now almost worthless, it is very expensive to import from Kenya. Furthermore, the customs officials at the borders seem to operate a set of rules that change weekly. For example, it is possible to move metal across the border but not wood. It is not unusual for a lorry to be held at the border for weeks. For that reason, some clever entrepreneurs in Juba have started bottling something that looks vaguely like Coca Cola but tastes like the nastiest own brand cola one can buy. Devastating!!
Afterwards we had some errands to run at the market. We went to the bakery where we picked up some bread and then to the veg market where we were again unlucky. No fruit and no eggs. Try again next week they said.
The market is also where currency exchange happens. I had Kenyan Shillings but very few South Sudanese Pounds. Tim had told me that I should expect about 130 SSP for 1000 KSH. In all honesty, the rate is a little higher than this but I wasn’t about to argue. These traders are providing a service and if they cream a little comission off the top then thats more than fair. I wanted to share around a little bit so I asked 5 different traders to change 5000 shillings for me. I expect each trader made about 20SSP from the transaction. I do love a little honest capitalism!
Once our business was done, it was time for lunch. Well, I have no idea what it was but it was delicious! I think it is called angeli which is an Ethopian dish. The restaurant came highly recommended by Tim but I was rather nervous on entering.It was a ramshackle tin building and I’m fairly certain that any health inspector would have had a coronary immediately on entry. I decided I was brave though and ordered the dish from the very handsome Ethopian proprieter. He returned with water and a large tray of some kind of stewed meat with rice, pasta and something orange served on a bed of fermented bread. I think its fair to say that I’ve eaten in some pretty incredible restaurants all over the world but this was right up there!!
It reminded me of my lunch with Tim and John Marren at “The Ritz” in Kapoeta on my first trip here in 2013. Tim and John still laugh at the colour I turned when I walked out the back to find them skinning a goat right beside the latrine. I pride myself on a fairly sturdy constitution but this was enough to make this girl green…and to give the boys something to really laugh about! Since then, we have called that place “The Ritz”.
There are many things I enjoy about Africa but I am both terrified of and thrilled by night time. Terrified because there are all kinds of nasties that come to life at night time; scorpions, mosquitoes, snakes, big hairy spiders. But I am thrilled by it because it is beautiful. It’s so dark that sometimes I’m not sure whether my eyes are open or closed. Sometimes the moon shines so brightly casting a glow on the world that makes it feel as though it has been snowing. The sky is so full of stars. More stars than I have ever seen. And the Milky Way!! It’s almost as if the universe is rewarding your courage for being outside after the sun sets with the most spectacular show.
And the sun sets! Gosh, each one seems to be more beautiful than the last. Again, the universe rewards your fortitude in getting through a day of punishing heat by putting on a light show which can’t be compared to anything man is capable of producing with fireworks and gunpowder. That burning orange casts a glow on the world and turns trees and anthills into silhouettes.
One of the things that I am enjoying most about this trip is the nighttime visits to the villages for prayers or mass.
This was something we did not do in Narus. The villages are all very long drives from the main town of Narus so it was not practical to go out there at night time. Here in Riwoto, we are in the heart of Toposaland and the villages are accessible.
Night time too is a good time to get people. The villagers have finished their work for the day. The men have been tending their animals. The women have been cultivating their crops of sourghum, caring for the children, bringing water from the borehole, cooking, cutting wood or making charcoal or brewing beer to sell in the villages. Now that the work is done they have time to come and pray in the darkness.
We drive out after dinner, sometimes the village is over an hours drive away. We are always joined by some of the Toposa speaking teachers. Tim goes armed with his iPad and portable projector. He shows pictures of that weeks Gospel story and speaks about it in their native Toposa language. While I still don’t understand the language I am now able to pick out words and phrases. It always makes me smile when I hear Fr. Tim speak Toposa with a thick Kerry accent!
The meetings take place just outside the boundary wall of the village. Each village has a meeting place which is essentially some logs arranged in a circle. Sometimes the people bring firewood and light a fire. Although, I’m not convinced it’s needed…at nighttime it’s still warm here.
We are often joined by over 200 villagers. I suppose we’re the only show in town. We always have teachers from our school too who speak to the people about why it is so important to send their children to school. Most Toposa cannot read or write and very few pursue and education. Part of the challenge here is to express just how important that education is.
On one night, there may have been almost 300 people. We talked about education and not one single person in the group was now going or had gone to school. I found this particularly hard to deal with but it was made worse when one man said “if we send our children to school who will take care of the cattle”.
If I had known what was going on at the time I would have retorted with questions about what would happen if the cattle became diseased or if trouble broke out and their cattle were stolen or killed. Inshallah.
I stopped off in Narus for a few days on my way to Riwoto to visit my friends there. More to follow on that but I had a great time going back to St. Bakhita Girls Primary School where I had taught maths two years ago.
It was wonderful to see the changes in the school. There are more teachers and the security has been improved. The new Principal Sister Jane has worked wonders on a shoe string and the girls seem so happy.
Sister Jane was quick to jump at the opportunity to have a new maths teacher and I spent one day at the school teaching revision classes. I helped to prepare the girls for their mid-term exams which will take place over the coming weeks.
I must admit, I was completely exhausted by the end of it all. But very happy to be back!
On Friday morning, there was a special assembly for me. The girls danced and sang and presesnted me with letters of appreciation for the domitory as well as beautiful beads. I felt so lucky. There was a sense though that I was moving on to a new adventure.
There are more than 700 girls in the school now which comprise of both borders and day students. About 400 of those girls are borders with many coming from villages and town days away. St. Bakhita is one of the best schools in the province and those parents to value education are always keen to have their children attend.
Well I think it’s fair to say that it was a marathon journey. My visit this time is shorter than my last so I wanted to get to South Sudan as quickly as possible.
I flew the 9.5 hours from London to Nairobi on August 2nd. All very straightforward and now that the new terminal has opened in Nairobi, it was a mere 1.5 hours to get through the visa queue. I purchased my transit visa and met my taxi outside.
Now….at this point it’s worth saying that the 1.5 hour turnaround it took from when the flight touched down to my being in the car with the taxi driver impressed me. Last year I flew with two friends to Dulles Airport in Washington DC where 3.5 hours after our flight landed we were still in a queue. Nairobi with all its chaos was a great deal more efficient!!!
I made it to the St. Patrick’s house in Nairobi a little before midnight and had tea and a chat with Fr. Sean Cremin who, ever the prefect host, had waited up for me to arrive.
The following morning was an early start. The driver picked us up at 6am to go to Wilson airport to catch the flight to Lokichoggio. I was travelling with Fr. Emmanuel Obi who I had met two years ago during my last visit to Loki where he was spending time with Fr. Tom Laffan and learning the language. Emmanuel is a lovely man and the new Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Parish in Narus.
Of course there was a little drama. The hangar from which we were supposed to leave was still locked when we arrived. We eventually found someone to let us in and weighed our baggage….and us! We were over weight and it looks like the 10kg of chocolate and cheese that I had safely packed in a frozen thermos bag might fall victim. I was willing to fight for it. Thankfully one person cancelled their trip at the last minute so we were given some of their weight allowance.
But then…disaster struck. A keen eyed official noticed that I had a bottle of whiskey in one bag. This was a problem. The aviation organisation that we flew with are a privately run endeavour for helping missionaries to reach the most isolated areas. They are run by a Protestant team and so alcohol is not welcome. There followed a huge amount of pleading, the application of a not inconsiderable amount of charm and the offer of a donation in return for the officials “unseeing” the bottle. I finally managed to board….with said bottle of very good Jamesons but not before using the last argument that I had in my arsenal…that the bottle actually contained Holy Water. Now, this isn’t entirely a lie. In Irish, the word for whiskey is “uisce beatha” which when translated literally means “water of life” or “Holy water”! It worked so I’m claiming it as a victory!!
Our 8:30am flight took off just after 9:30am. Fr. Emmanuel and I were joined by a young family. The father was a pilot with MAF and he, his wife and their three children were based in Juba. They were soon to move to Madagascar to operate MAF flights there.
We had one stop in El Dorret in central Kenya to pick up another passenger and to allow a pit stop for the smaller children before continuing on to Loki where Emmanuel and I were dropped off before the plane continued to Juba. Fr. Tim was waiting for us. It was great to be back in that part of the world again!
We arrived just in time for lunch.
The following day we planned to leave for Narus. We packed up the Land Cruiser and we departed for Narus.
I think my first taste of how things had changed since the outbreak of war in December 2013 struck me on leaving Loki. We were stopped at the barriers outside the town as we headed for the South Sudan border. One of the local taxis was stopped at the barriers too. There was a bit of to and fro before Tim got out of the vehicle and walked to the small metal hut near the barriers.
When he returned he told me that we were told that we must take an “escort” and that we must pay for the pleasure. The Kenyan army has been increasing its manpower at its border crossing with South Sudan and they use vehicles heading in that direction to get people there. I learned that Mowngi, the driver in Narus, had been arrested on the road when he was found to be travelling without an escort.
There was a certain nervousness in the vehicle as the young soldier joined Fr. Emmanuel and Fr. Matthew in the back armed with the trademark AK-47.
We eventually left Loki and there was silence in the car for what seemed like a long time. We were not soure of how much English the soldier spoke so better not to say anything. After a time, Tim suggested that we say a short prayer for safety on our journey. I think I felt like that might be a good idea.
Some time later, I asked Tim whether there was any point asking the soldier whether the safety switch was activated on his gun. We realised then that he didn’t speak English so the message was communicated in a mixture of Turkana and Swahili. He assured us that his firearm was secured.
We carried on at a snails pace over the Pan-African Highway…a rather lofty name for the glorified dirt track which connects Mombasa to Lagos but runs from Loki to Narus.
On reaching the Kenyan border, I saw that things had changed there too. The soldier left us for his post but I saw that a long fence had been constructed all along the border. This was new. I learned that the fence had been built some time after the war broke out in December 2013. It’s construction had been the source of a great deal of violence. The Toposa tribe grazed their cattle on both sides of the border and the fence would stop that.
After leaving Kenya, we crossed the no mans land to the South Sudanese border town of Nadapal. I will admit that there was not as much laughter or fun this time. I paid my $100 for my one month Visa and waited patiently on an armchair with no cushions near the 22 solar battery cells while the official applied the visa to my passport. Sadly, this time I was not Helena Eireannach but rather Heleba Eireannach. Its a good thing I’m not precious about the pronounciation or the spelling of my name!!
We got to Narus in time for lunch!
Here we go again!!
I haven’t written in the same way I did last time about leaving London, the preparations and the goodbyes.
I can’t say whether it was more difficult leaving this time or the last. The circumstances were so different in every respect.
Firstly South Sudan was a very different place two years ago. It was enjoying its new found independence. There were tribal factions as always but the country was largely peaceful. There was hope for what the future might bring.
Now, in 2015 it seems that the hope has been drained from the land I left in 2013. My family and friends all knew South Sudan to be a dangerous place where the political situation was volatile and uncertain as a result of the war which broke out shortly after I left in December 2013.
Of course I was nervous about my return. My friends and the people I loved seemed to think that my return visit was badly timed and I was being foolish.
In particular my mother and Nana were very worried. I found this very hard. I hate it when people worry about me. I hate to think that I am causing anyone any distress or discomfort. I internalised it all and felt so selfish and heartless. It was my fault that I had upset my mother and Nana.
There is work to be done here and there are people doing it. I learned on my last visit that the smallest kindnesses shown by one person can be life changing to another.
So here I am in Riwoto in Eastern Equatorial State teaching maths to young Toposa children and happily tagging along with Fr. Tims visits to the outposts.
The second major change in circumstance is my personal life! When I left London in 2013 I was single and paddled my own canoe (so to speak). Now I am blessed with a new relationship which is full of love and promise. My leaving came at a time of transition for us and I had sleepless nights worrying if I was making the right decision or not.
Thankfully, my incredible boyfriend knows me well enough to know that my love for South Sudan is part of who I am. And now the confirmed singleton realises how lucky I am to have someone who will support me in my endeavours.
This is another post that I should have written months ago but better late than never I guess.
I am proud to say that this is the fruit of my last visit to South Sudan and I am excited about what adventures my next trip holds in store.
Thank you Sister Susan for such a lovely message and to Fr. Tim for his impressive camera work!!
But most of all, thank you to my family and friends for their financial support in making this happen….look what we did!!!
As I mentioned in earlier posts, the war broke out shortly after I left South Sudan in 2013. It was during the girls “long holiday” so we feared that they would not be able to return to school when the term started in January.
The opposite was the case. Girls came to school in such numbers that there was not enough dormitory space. In this video, Fr. Tim shows us the tarpaulin tent he constructed to go some way towards protecting these new students from the elements.
On December 15th 2013, the generations-old power struggle between the Dinka and Nuer ignited and a wave of tribal violence spread across South Sudan. Once again, South Sudan was brought to the brink of war – this time a bloody civil war which has the awful hallmarks of descending into the kind of genocide that we so recently saw in Rwanda. Over a million people are displaced, the refugee camps are full and locals flee having seen villages burned and their tribes-people murdered.
Narus, being close to the Kenyan border is safer but is on the migrant route out of South Sudan. More than 500 people every day leave South Sudan through Narus.
The trouble broke out while the children were on their “Long Holiday”. We worried and feared that the children would not return to school – travelling by road was so dangerous. However, when the children began to return, we were overwhelmed and delighted to learn that so many had returned that the school could not accommodate them all in the dorms. A canvas was constructed to shield the girls from the blistering heat and wild animals but a more secure and lasting solution is needed.
Construction on the new dorm began in February. We have raised a considerable amount of money so far but there is still a way to go.
My wonderful brother Diarmuid and 14 other elite athletes from ESP have so generously entered 3 relay teams in the Cork city marathon which is taking place on Monday 2nd June 2014 to support the effort. And I ask that you support them while at the same time supporting our project in South Sudan. Each and every cent you contribute will be spent on the project – there are no administration charges or fees.
So please – dig deep and do what you can! It is hugely appreciated.
This post took me a while to write for a whole host of reasons.
1) For a while I couldn’t quite process the fact I was back. Of course, I was looking forward to starting my new job and getting stuck into that new adventure. I missed my friends in London but I didn’t want my life in South Sudan to be over. I thought that my next post would be a “Farewell Post”
2) I just didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t find the words to explain how much I missed being in South Sudan. I couldn’t quite describe in a way that would make sense to anyone else how I never cried like I cried when leaving Nairobi and how I didn’t stop crying for about 3 days after I got back to London. I didn’t know how to admit that I didn’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone once I got back.
3) My life in London is so very different to the life I led in South Sudan that I really didn’t know how to draw any parallels.
That first week back in London was I realise now and without any shadow of doubt, one of the worst weeks of my life. Of course, Fr. John and Fr. Tim were so supportive and understood how I felt. Once again, they proved how fortunate I am to be able to call them friends.
My father too understood. I had heard the story of his return to Ireland after his first tour of duty in Katanga – that faithful trip where he and the other men of A Company were taken captive for three months by Katangese rebels after the Siege of Jadotville. He described arriving home to our small country town at Christmas time and how he just could not relate to people and indeed how people could not relate to him. What he had done in that time in the 60s was so out of the ordinary, so far away, that no one understood what he had been through. So, we Facetimed while I was still in London and he listened to me be lonesome and watched me cry….and then he told me to toughen up….and he was right.
He made me realise how happy and lucky I was to have kept and shared my journal. It meant that when I returned, my friends and family had some sense of life in South Sudan. Dad didn’t have this crutch and so his detachment from those around him was so much more severe.
He returned to the Congo and I will return to South Sudan.