“Just twelve deaths”

One evening while I was still in Narus. I went walking with Fr. Emmanuel and Fr. Tommy Gilooley. We walked further from the village than I had been before and I was surprised to learn that about 30 minutes walk from St. Bakhita Girls Primary School, there was another school that I had not heard of before. It was in a place called Nachepo.

I knew that people lived in that direction. I often met the women dressed in the traditional dress with charcoal or wood on their heads walking towards Narus to trade in the market there. They carried jerry cans full of milk on their return the jerrycans were full of aragi.

We came to a school seemingly in the middle of no where. The fences were broken down, the roof was damaged, there was no one to be seen and it looked as though there hadn’t been anyone here for a long time. The cement floors of the classrooms had cracked and in places turned to dust. There were very few benches and the unlocked classrooms were occupied only by hornets and termites. 

It felt as though nature was claiming that piece of land back for itself.

I asked if children still came here. The answer came….”they come when there is food”.

This wasn’t an unusual response. I know that food is a large part of the reason parents send their children to school here. The rations provided by the school, sometimes with the help of the World Food Programme, are a huge part of the reason that children are sent to school here. It is not unusual that the only food a child will eat is the food provided in the school.

But what I can’t say is why on that day and in that place, I was so struck and so upset by the answer. The people here are hungry. I will say that the suffering here is nothing when compared to what is happening further north in the areas worst hit by the war.

The Sudan Tribune reported yesterday that there had been a sort of mini-famine in a town a short distance from here. Just twelve deaths were attributed to hunger.

“Just twelve deaths”…lets just let that sink in for a second.

If twelve people died of hunger in my home town of Abbeyfeale in Co. Limerick or in even in London where I live, what would happen? People would care, right? There would be public outcry and an investigation into how our society could have let this happen.

So why is it that here, in a country that has been ravaged by war for decades, there is no outcry? And not just here, but in so many other places across the globe. 

Have we too become sensitised to hardship and suffering? We watch the news every evening and we hear about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, civilians being executed for practising their faiths, war breaking out here, violent clashes there. I’ve grown up through the 80s and 90s with talk of the famines in Kenya, Darfur and Ethopia. Band Aid made us all aware. We were outraged. Where is the outrage now?

During this trip, I have been deeply troubled by the fact that there are children in this world who wake up in the morning and will not eat that day. There are places in this world that we live in where hunger is normal, where the people almost accept the lack of food as a fact of life.

This is the same world where we as Europeans have experienced beef and milk mountains, where supermarkets and restaurants disgard huge amounts of food every day, where we are overweight, where we carry mobile phones which cost almost an entire year of wages for a trained school teacher in somewhere like South Sudan. 

I’m sorry that this turned into a loathsome rant. It wasn’t intended. I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks now. I haven’t quite been able to get my feelings out in any intelligable sense. I haven’t been able to make sense of my unexpected outrage or the fact that I’m so troubled by it now more than ever before.

All ready for sports day!

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!!

  

A lady what lunches in Kapoeta

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”. 





Night time in the wilderness

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.

   
 

What can you do??

My adventure in Narus, South Sudan has come to an end for now but my love affair will continue. I know that many of you have followed my journey and offered words of encouragement and support. I have greatly appreciated these kindnesses.

It is not that I feel I have done my bit but rather I need your help in achieving the next bit. I have grown to love Narus and I have learned the culture and more importantly the need of the people there. In particular the need for educational support is overwhelming. 

In St. Bakhita there are 600 students but the facilities are dire. I have identified a number of projects that I would like to help make a reality. To do this, I need to be very sensible about how money is managed so I am asking you to contribute and I have asked Fr. Tim (who you will have read lots about on my blog) to administer and manage the money. We can collect Gift Aid by sending funds through St. Patricks Missionary Society and then onwards to Tim.

These are the improvements that with your help, we hope to make in St. Bakhita, some of these projects will impact the rest of the village so positively too.

– The installation of a play ground  for the youngest  children. Currently there is nothing to amuse the small children and nothing for them to play with. I have arranged that the equipment (swings, slide, climbing frame, merry-go-round etc) will be built in the metalwork shop at the local Vocational Training Centre to keep costs down and to provide work in the local area. Thus, we just need to find funds for the materials and the delivery of those materials to Narus.

– The dining room is in desperate need of refurbishment. Right now, children do not use it because it is full of bugs and the floor is all broken up. They sit outside under the trees with their rations. The floor needs to be relaid and the windows which have been eaten through by termites need to be replaced with more suitable metal alternatives.

– There are no fire extinguishers or lightening rods in any of the buildings and I feel that this needs to be addressed as a matter or urgency.

– Funds have been procured to build a new dorm so that girls will not need to share beds in cramped dorms. 50 metal beds, mattresses and linen will need to be purchased to furnish the dorm.

– The school is in desperate need of teachers. Many of the teachers who remain are not qualified. Despite this, the girls do so well. It would be wonderful to be able to support the development of teachers by sponsoring their qualification.

What can you do to help?

 I have set up a facility for online donations which can be found at:

 http://www.charitychoice.co.uk/fundraiser/helenaquinn/

Alternatively, you might prefer to lodge any donations directly to the Abbeyfeale for Africa account. If that is the case, please contact me directly on helenaquinn@gmail.com for the details.

Thank you 🙂

The beginning of the end…

Monday morning last was a special morning in Narus. It was the last time the three of us would be together in Narus. 

We returned from Riwoto on Sunday evening thankfully to find a much recovered Fr.Tim. I made the fundamental mistake of presenting a number of sports sections to Tim on my return. With the stronger Internet connection in Riwoto I was able to get the Irish Times sports sections from the last few weeks. And that was it…we had lost him. 

I had my suspicions that he might have prepared a special supper forus. It was out last night and John Marren was staying. Tim didn’t disappoint! He had cooked a piece of bacon and made his now world famous chocolate custard and jelly (I’m normally in charge of making the jelly!). The custard is so sweet that I actually get a toothache from the smell of it!!! So we feasted!

The following morning the group gathered to leave and we took some pictures under the trees although we all seemed to be staring into the sun!

This is John Joe, Tim and I on our last morning in Narus together. They’ve left me at home minding the parish while they attend a meeting in Lodwar. John Joe will return with John Marren tomorrow and I will see Tim in Nairobi next week. Despite knowing that I would see all three again, I still had a good cry when I waved them off and the parish house felt a whole lot emptier without them.

The absence of Tim and John Joe means that there is no priest in Narus to say mass. Brother Eugene was more than a little disturbed when I told him I would do it assuring him that I knew all the words. I forget that sarcasm is sometimes (almost always) lost in Africa!

This picture is important. It shows Caroline, Samuel and Jacob, all from Riwoto with me, Tim and John Joe. The young girl in front wearing the yellow t-shirtis a Toposa school girl who up until recently was attending school in Loki. 

Her brothers came to Loki to take her from school. It as decided that her bride price was more important than her being able to read and write and so they took her from school and returned her to her village to start the process of finding her a husband.

My understanding of what happened next is that she came to Fr. Tim and asked that she be able to attend St. Bakhita but it was clear that it was more likely she would be taken again from a school close to her village. So, she was returned to school in Loki with Tims support and mediation.

While a girl is deemed old enough to be married as soon as she has her first period, it is against the law to take a girl under the age of 18 from school to marry her off. It is a law that is almost unenforceable but the threat of prosecution still hangs in the air. 

So now, she is safely back in school where she should be. 

Weekend in Riwoto

This weekend I went to Riwoto to spend with my wonderful friend Fr. John Marren. Initially there was some doubt over whether the weekend would happen or not. Both Fr. Tim and I had been ill on the previous week and while it seemed that I had strengthened, Tim seemed to be a few days behind me in terms of the illness and was still fighting a fever on Thursday. 

Tim has somehow survived the last 30 years in South Sudan without me fussing and stressing over him so I decided that since I was strong enough to travel and it would be my last opportunity to go, the trip had to happen. Frankly, I think Tim was happy to see the back of me and to be left alone to be poorly in peace!!

The arrangements were made and Mowngi our driver was to deliver me safely to Kapoeta a few hours drive away where I would meet Fr. John and we would drive together to Riwoto, about an hour from Kapoeta. We left just after lunch, I had rearranged my classes to free up my afternoon. The drive up was fine. Aware that there had been some “trouble on the road” over the last few weeks I had taken the sensible precautions of leaving all but a little cash behind – I took enough that should we be stopped thieves might be satisfied enough by the cash I could offer possibly distracting them from my iPad and camera stored in my backpack.

Thankfully, the trip up was safe and there were no problems on the road. John and I met at the Junction and shared a sode before carrying on to Riwoto. Of course there was shopping to be done and items to be collected. The pickup was full on our way back with provisions and workers hitching a ride back from Kapoeta.

When we arrived at the compound in Riwoto, Sr. Margo Delaney had a lovely supper ready for us. It had been a long journey and we were ready to eat.

Such a lady; gentle, kind, educated, intelligent and marvellous company. She takes a keen interest in other people and has such a loving spirit. She has been a missionary for many years and has spent a great deal of time in South Sudan as well as Samoa. The love she has for the children is apparent and their love for her is certain too. On Sunday as we walked to mass, she knew the names of all the children and all greeted her with real affection. 

It was the first weekend where I didn’t have classes and seemed like a little holiday. We breakfasted on paw paw and drank barrel loads of tea. You’ve never met two people that can get through quite as much tea as John and I, the refrain “cup of tea dear?” rings in my ears! On Saturday night, we sat on the verandah watching a lightening storm in the distance. What a show!

We three had a lovely weekend together and I was sorry to leave on Sunday afternoon. John was to stay in Narus on Sunday night before continuing to Lodwar in Northern Kenya with Fr. Tim and Fr. John Joe on Monday morning. We were joined by some friends from Riwoto who had business in Lodwar or Lokichoggio and were taking advantage of the car going in that direction. Uneventful as the drive was, I realised when I got home that I had missed the subtleties of what was going on around me. 

That terrible time when Fr. Tim starts a sentence with “I don’t want to alarm you but…” had now turned into “I didn’t want to alarm you but…”

Apparently, on Mowngi’s return journey to Narus on Friday evening there had been “some trouble” on the road. Thankfully Mowngi handled the situation well, watching the thieves loot two trucks ahead of him and waiting for a safe time to continue. He returned safely. It was agreed that I shouldn’t be told so as not to worry me but I can’t decide whether I should be cross with Tim and John or not. I hadn’t even noticed when John discretely took his watch off as we left Riwoto!

Cup of tea dear??!!



And then it rained…

This part of South Sudan is dry…so very dry and hot. I walk to school every day through the river bed. There is so rarely water in the rivers that the roads run straight through. Even if there was money to build bridges, I can’t imagine they would bother in most cases. There is one bridge in Narus and conveniently it is just a little further up the river from where I cross. So, when it rains I can take the bridge to school instead.

It rained last Saturday morning. Tim and I drove to the church for mass at 7am. Sometime around the second reading the heavens opened. The rain fell against the tin roof completely drowning out every word Fr. Tim said. And the the win added to the drama. Gusts blew great torrents of water through the ventilation space in the roof of the church drenching us all. So we moved to the other side of the church and continued.

Just after Communion, there was an almighty crashing noise. It sounded as though something had crashed against the metal door of the church. Or very loud gunfire maybe. By the time I reacted I saw that my girls from standard 8 were already under the pews looking terrified. We all giggled when we realised that we’d all had such a fright from a clap of thunder. From where Fr. Tim sat he could see the lightening strike almost immediately outside the church.

What struck me deeply though was that this was not the first time the girls had run for cover like that. They  grew up in South Sudan during the war. Narus was bombed many times. The girls were accustomed to hearing jets overhead from Khartoum and knew the signal to sprint to their designated bunkers. There are bunkers everywhere. There are at least three in our compound and many more in the girls primary school. I thought how fortunate I was that the reality of my childhood was so very different to theirs.

By the time we were ready to leave, the pickup was full of my students and we took off. We dropped the girls off at the bridge and continued the short distance to our compound. When it rains here, the road turns to mud often several feet deep. And then we got stuck! Tim declared it so matter of factly that there didn’t seem any point encouraging him to try again!

I got out of the pickup to investigate and I established that if we could just move one large stone we should be able to proceed. So…when my girls returned to see what all the commotion was about, they found their maths teacher barefoot in a foot and half of mud trying to loosen a big stone from under the pickup. Needless to say they thought this was the funniest thing they were likely to see all week!!

Anyway, my efforts were futile and we ended up calling Mongi (our mechanic) to come with the tractor and save us. When a task seems just too large, a man on a Massey Ferguson can always fix it!!

It rained on Wednesday too but I’m afraid it wasn’t quite such a giggle. It rained quite heavily for about 3 hours from 5am. I made it to school safely through the mud but on my way back to the compound after my morning classes I met Sr. Agnes who told me that there had been an accident.

About 20 Toposa women had stayed at our compound for two nights. They had been in Kenya and Uganda to have peace talks with the Turkana and the Karamajong. There is a long history of violence and war between the three tribes. They had a good trip and productive discussions.

Their villages are about 6 hours drive into the bush from Narus. They travelled in the back of a truck. Apparently the truck hit a pothole which was actually mud many feet deep and the truck toppled over. The women were thrown from the back of the truck.

It is a miracle that no one died or suffered more severe injuries. Two doctors were dispatched from ARC (American Refugee Centre) and the driver from our compound left in another truck. Three women were admitted to the government clinic and the others returned to our compound to rest after their ordeal.

Life is back to normal now after the rain….but my Daddy was (as always right)….I should have packed my wellies!