60 hours to Narus, the fight for Uisce Beatha and crossing borders

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!

Removing extra seats in the Cessna to reduce weight.My first glimpse of the Didinga MountainsAn abandoned plane in El DorretFr. Tim gets us ready to leave LokiFuture and past Narus residents.

The post I didn’t want to write

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.

Narus to Nairobi in 36 hours

Leaving Narus was strange.  I wrote earlier about that morning in the post “Goodbye Nakalong”. There came a point where I just wanted to have skipped to the bit….skipped to the bit where the goodbyes had been exchanged and the tears were shed. 

John Joe and I had our last lunch together, a feast of beans and rice washed down with soda since it was such a special occasion. Sr. Susan came to say goodbye as did Anne Grace and Sr. Agnes. We five had a lovely meal together and then it was time to leave. Mowngi was waiting to drive me to Lokichoggio.

I had been lucky enough on my return trip to procure a place on the MAF (Mission Aviation Federation) flight which would pick me up (literally) in Loki and we could fly direct to Nairobi. This meant that the gruelling drive from Loki to Lodwar was avoided but it also meant that I would not see Johnnie Callaghan in Lodwar before I left.

I was sad about this. Johnnie is such great company. One evening while Tim, John and John Joe were in Lodwar with Johnnie, he too expressed that it was a pity he wouldn’t see me on my return trip. Apparently, Tims response was “you’ll see her next year” delivered in a tone that suggested he was surrendering to the inevitable!!

Anyway, the goodbyes were said and the tears were shed and we left.

Mowngi drove me to Lokichoggio. The town chairman and my great friend Zachariah joined us, he needed to make the journey to Loki to have a printer fixed. As we left Narus, I said my silent goodbyes and one the drive to the border I willed my eyes to remember every detail of the beautiful views of the Didinga Hills.

At Nadapal we crossed the border out of South Sudan. Helena Eireannach was signed out and the border guards asked me to stay before wishing me well on my return journey. I found myself surprised by the feeling of sadness when I heard the clunk of the stamp on my visa which signalled that I had now left South Sudan.

It takes about 15 minutes to cross the “no mans land” which lies between the South Sudanese border and the Kenyan border. At the Kenyan border I duely paid my $60 and my passport was stamped again granting me a three month stay in Kenya…if only.

We arrived with Tom Laffan that evening in Loki and shared a lovely supper together before sitting up late while he shared stories of his time in Turkana, his experiences of famine, the Kakuma refugee camp, life as it was. I thought It was very late…it was probably about 10:30! Tom enjoys the marvellous luxury of electricity supplied by the grid. What a treat!

Tom went to Kakuma the next morning early and I would love to have been able to join him. I hope to be able to visit on my next trip. Fr. Emmanuel delivered me safely to the airport at 1pm. Mu flight was due to leave at 1:30. The little plane arrived sometime after 4pm! The afternoon was spent in the tiny “lounge” with a friendly American man who had spent most of his life in Eastern Africa. It was a long wait though despite the company. 

The flight had left Juba and would stop briefly in Loki to pick us up. There were just four people on the flight. The pilot was joined by me and the American man as well as a patient who seemed to have suffered a leg broken badly in a number of places who clearly was in need of medical care in Nairobi.

The flight was incredible. The tiny plane traversed Kenya at an altitude from which we were able to survey the entire country. Flying over the Rift Vally was an unforgettable experience. While I’m delighted tohave experienced   it, I’m not sure I ever want to repeat it! It requires nerves of steel to be that close to the pilot!!

The strong and refined essence of a continent.

“There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through 6,000 feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.”

From Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

When we were in Nairobi and at those times when the absolute beauty of the sunset over the majestic Ngong Hills was almos breath taking Tim would say “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills”. This came as a surprise to me. I knew that Tim had spent 5 years in Kenya but I didn’t realise that he had farmed…until I was politely informed that those were the first words of the literary classic “Out of Africa” and a favourite book of Tims. 

I’m reading the book now but my favourite description comes just two paragraphs after.

It has been difficult to come home. Maybe I’ll talk about all of that another time but when talking to my friends and family about the depth of feeling, this image helped me. 

South Sudan is not quite 6,000 feet but in reflection, this idea of distillation is the perfect description. There is nothing in South Sudan to dilute the experience, nothing to dissolve the feelings. Love, loneliness, sadness, pain, happiness….everything seems more acute. I realise that now. I wrote in earlier posts how I was surprised by my capacity to love and the willingness of the girls to love me. 

And now, as I work to integrate this extraordinary experience into my “real life”, I know that it all awaits me.

My life in Narus

I realise that I haven’t shared much information about my life as it is in Narus. I live in a compound with two priests; Fr. Tim Galvin and Fr. John Joe Garvey from Millstreet in Co. Cork. We have quickly settled into a routine and after just a week we have our own “inside” jokes which to me is the mark of an easy friendship.

Both are excellent company and our conversations at meal times range from the intellectual to the ridiculous.

We rise each morning at about 6am. Fr. Tim says mass at the church and Fr. John Joe says mass at the small chapel on our compound. I normally attend mass with John Joe in the chapel and we are joined by the Nuns and Brothers who also share the compound but live more or less separately to us.

Once mass is over, we three meet for breakfast prepared by our cook Alina. My father will be delighted to hear that we have porridge every morning. The only positive things I can say about porridge is that each bowl brings me one bowl closer to the last one I’ll ever have to eat! Although, I will admit that it helps greatly with my malaria tablet which seems to be almost impossible to swallow.

We then continue about our daily lives. I spend time with my Standard 8 girls in St. Bakhita Girls Primary School. They are desperate for extra tuition and I am very happy to spend as much time as possible with them. They are candidates for State exams this year and maths is a notoriously weak subject for girls in South Sudan so I am proud that they are willing to work so hard. Some of the girls show great potential.

I meet my two Kiltegan Fathers again for lunch after which we hide away from the heat of the day. It gets incredibly hot here – often exceeding 35 degrees Celsius. We study and prepare for our classes. I return to school for extra tuition and I will soon start my classes in Toposa too.

Sometimes, I will accompany Tim as he inspects the work at the St. Bakhita secondary school or visits with parishioners. I really enjoy our late afternoon strolls, no one knows more about Narus or the people here than Tim. It is also very humbling to see the work that he has done here and what has been achieved.

I have made some new friends too and so sometimes in the late afternoon i will spend time with them. Anna Grace is an economics teacher in the secondary school. She is from the Karamajong tribe in Uganda. Her story is incredible and maybe in time and ith her permission I will be able to share that story.

We gather together again form Evening Prayer at about 7pm before sitting for supper together and watching the 8pm news headlines on Al Jazeera, the only channel we get (which frankly is fine by me!). We read and chat about the days events.

The generator goes off at about 9:30pm which leaves us with the less powerful solar lights. At this point I head for bed having decided early on that the safest place to be in the dark in Africa is in my bed with my mosquito net firmly tucked under my mattress!

Soon I will start to help with preparing the classes for confirmation. But that is the typical framework of my day in Narus.

Sent from my iPad

Fr. Tim arrives and we drive across the desert from Lodwar to Lokichoggio

I had not yet met my host for this trip and the Parish Priest of Narus – Fr. Tim Galvin from Brosna in County Kerry – a neighbouring parish to that that in which I grew up. He journeyed for 10 hours to meet me in Lodwar in northern Kenya and to escort Fr. Marren and I safely to Narus in South Sudan. It was a great reunion when he arrived and I was very happy to finally meet him. A little older than my brothers, he has quickly taken the place as my South Sudanese brother!

We spent a very enjoyable evening in Lodwar with Fr. John Callaghan; a delicious supper followed by chocolate and a nice single malt on the veranda while putting the world to rights!

The climate in Lodwar is very different to Nairobi. It is desert and the heat is oppressive. It is dusty and barren. In the morning I attended my first Swahili mass read by Fr. John Callaghan who hails from Charleville. I was the only white person amount a congregation of Turkana women in their beaded finery.

Our plan was to leave immediately after breakfast at about 8am but a puncture scuppered that cunning plan.

So the boys left me to change the tyre (not really but I did help!) and we took off to garage in Lodwar to have the tyre repaired.

At this point our plan to cross the border and make it to Narus in South Sudan was impossible so we decided to briefly stop at a mission outpost before continuing to Lokichogio to spend the night. Fr. Dessie Miller has a mission is in Kalabyei which is between Lodwar and Lokichoggio in Kenya. He has lived in Turkana for 45 years and has a beautiful church in a hill top in the desert. Rather aptly it is named St. Benedicts. The picture below shows Fr. Dessie Miller showing off the first of his beautiful desert roses.

After a delicious lunch of ice cold melon we continued on our way. It was a welcome refreshment as it was 32 degrees in the shade! You can imagine how hot it was in the jeep with the three of us in the front! The terrain was difficult too, not only were the roads almost non-existent but we had to negotiate the wild camels too. They didn’t seem to realise that we had places to go and people to see!

When we finally arrived at Lokichoggio, exhausted from our journey, it was lovely to meet Fr. Tom Laffan. Another limerick man. After some tea, he invited me to join him whilevhe said mass at one of the Turkana villages about 30 minutes drive away. I’m so delighted I joined. I got to see a traditional Turkana village and I think I was one of the very few white people other than Fr. Tom that the villagers had seen since the NGOs left.

The mass was read in Turkana (my second mass if the day and I didn’t understand a word of either!). It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The congregation was almost exclusively women. At that time the men are typically still grazing the livestock.

At the end, Fr. Tom introduced me to the congregation and I was able to take some pictures. I was really taken by the experience if sharing the same sacrament with people so different to me. It showed me that standing before the altar, we are all the same

The journey to Lodwar

John and I left together for the next stage of our journey to Narus on Thursday morning. Joseph drove us to the airport – which sounds like a simple job! It’s not…driving in Nairobi is not for the faint of heart. Joseph got us there safely which was a huge a achievement!

The terminal in Nairobi burned some weeks back so the terminal for domestic departures is the cargo terminal. We arrived and having had a nice cup if tea and a good chat, boarded the flight to Lodwar. The plane had one quick stop to make in Eldoret close to the Ugandan border before continuing to Lodwar.

Lodwar was an eye opener and I definitely felt as though I was really in Africa now.

The plane we arrived in had 37 seats and landed on the runway on time. It was in incredible journey, leaving the metropolis of Nairobi, flying over the Rift Valley, the green lands of Eldoret which looked just like home before reaching the desert. All in just under 2 hours.

This is the arrivals and departures “lounge” at Lodwar. I wish I had taken a picture of the luggage carousel which was really a very big wheel barrow around which a scrum took place!

Not sure if the pilot meant to take these bits with him….

36 hours in Nairobi

I spent a most enjoyable 36 hours in Nairobi at the St. Patrick’s regional house. Fr. John Marren welcomed me at the airport with Patrick and our driver Joseph both elevated to hero status in my books for different reasons: Joseph for his skill at negotiating the Nairobi traffic and John Marren for being the most enjoyable travel companion with a great sense of humour and cracking banter! 

We arrived at the mission house late on Tuesday night. I attended my first mass in Africa read by Fr. Niall on Wednesday morning. It was lovely to see the beautiful little oratory full. 

Wednesday was spent recovering from the flight but also preparing for the next leg of our trip the following day which would take us from Nairobi to Lodwar. I did find time to have a nice long coffee break with Fr. Niall and Im pretty sure we put the world to right! My friend Jo is a teacher in the International School in Nairobi so it was lovely to see her and enjoy some good wine before my time in Nairobi was over. 

What struck me about Nairobi was the great divide between rich and poor. One million people live in a slum just about a mile from the mission house called Kibera. It is normal to see small children begging amongst the gridlocked traffic and young girls on street corners. While we had dinner at a very nice restaurant the next table was occupied by two men and a young girl who was clearly a prostitute. The only way out of that life for these children is education. 

The journey to Nairobi

Hujambo from Nairobi. I arrived here safely late on Tuesday night and since then have found myself in the most hospitable and enjoyable of company.

First a little about my flight because its something I really want to record for my own memory. The world we live in is really a magnificent place. We left London crossing Europe, we flew over the Alps, across the Mediterranean and then the Sahara. I have crossed the Atlantic by air more times than I can remember and I will admit to never having contemplated the sheer expanse of it. That sense of enormity, the sheer nothingness, the incomprehensible scale of it all….the Sahara really is immense, breathtaking in fact. It was dark by the time we flew over Sudan. I am in awe of this little planet we call home. The contrast between the plentiful life in some parts and then the barrenness of other parts. 

Now…I know some of my friends and family know how obsessive I can be about packing. I firmly believe that almost any trip is possible on hand luggage if the proper planning is undertaken in advance! In fact, my goal for 2013 was to do Christmas at home in Ireland on hand luggage…of course that was before I planned this trip! Now obviously, there’s no way of spending two months in Africa without checking in luggage but I’m travelling light! One holdall and one backpack checked in; less than 30 kilos! I find this hugely satisfying and here’s a picture!!

Arriving in Nairobi was an experience! The circumstances surrounding the fire and the magnitude of the disaster is a great source of conversation and debate. There are rumours that the fire may have been started to destroy evidence of money laundering or the illegal issuance of citizenships. There is talk that there was no working fire engine available to attend the fire and when one eventually arrived two hours after the small fire was reported, the fire was out of hand and there was little water with which to quench it. 

The satirists in Nairobi have had a turn with the debacle too – the cartoonist Gado contributed this to the Daily Nation!

The terminal is now a series of marquees and lots of covered seats like one would see at a wedding reception. The process of getting a visa for entry was uneventful but lengthy. It was about 2 hours from the time we touched down to when I walked out of the terminal to meet my hosts. I now have a three month visa for Kenya!