Leaving London – 2015 trip to South Sudan

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.

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.

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 🙂

Solo in South Sudan

Disclaimer: this is likely to be another sentimental post so turn away now if you’re not if a soppy disposition!

I have been thinking in the last few days about my time here and in that reflection I have come to realise that nothing was as I expected. I’m not sure I knew what to expect but I remember before the trip being very nervous about the fact that I was making a pretty large step into the unknown on my own. A long term relationship which gad seemed so full of hope had ended in a pretty messy fashion and I think I focused on the fact that I was alone and about to embark on this trip without company.

It is no secret that I hate being alone. I look for company and I’m always surrounded by friends or family. I don’t like my own company and the very thought of spending an evening or weekend on my own depresses me completely.

I was so wrong about this trip. Since the very minute I stepped out of the airport in Nairobi, I have been among friends. John Marren collected me from the airport when I arrived and we very quickly became life long friends. He has been a marvellous support and the very dearest friend and I am so thankful that my trip started with his company. 

Fr. Tim has been like a big brother to me, supporting me when I needed it and teasing me when that was required too. I have learned much from him. He cares for the people here so deeply and is so committed to education and to the futures of the young people. The people of Narus and indeed much further afield respect him greatly. He is calm and sincere and wise. He always seems to know what the right course of action is and is motivated by the needs of others always before his own. Most of all, I have learned that small kindnesses that seem trivial to us mean the world to other people. I’m really glad that I will have a few days in Nairobi with him. I think saying goodbye to him today too would just be too much!

And John Joe – what have I learned from him! Well, the art of turning reheated beans and rice into a Michelin star serving is not to be scoffed at. I tease Fr. John Joe all the time that he always sees the better in people. I tease him but I deeply respect him for it. He looks at the world through a different lens than me. When people do something I do not agree with or think is right, I get angry about it. I focus on the outcome of that action. Fr. John Joe has a unique way of seeing why a person might act the way they do. I get angry about the corruption that is rife here, he feels for the circumstances that drive people to behave that way.

So you see, with company as I have had, with the friends I have made not just among the Kiltegan priests but the people of Narus I have not once been alone. I have not felt lonely or isolated. On the contrary, I have been amongst the very best of friends and I will always be very thankful for that.

Maybe I should change the name of this blog to “Happy in South Sudan” or “The best version of myself in South Sudan”

Goodbye Nakalong

In two hours I will leave Narus and so far this morning has been an emotional one, in fact it seems that this weekend has been one long goodbye.

There are other posts to come, a more detailed account of my farewell party at St Bakhita, some pictures from UNICEF International Handwashing Day and others I will think about on my journey. I admit I have fallen out of the habit of posting in chronological order, the Internet availability determines what I can post and when I can post it.

Yesterday was a super busy day. Mass in the morning, the usual two hours of song and dance, or greeting the local people afterwards. I was called upon to give a farewell address at the end of mass and I am proud to say that I didn’t cry!

After mass a young girl from the school looked terribly sad and when I went to greet her she ever so shyly asked me if I would like to come to her birthday party that afternoon. What a lovely invite! Anne Grace joined me and Fr. John Joe for lunch and afterwards I went to the school to celebrate Nancy’s birthday with soda and sweets. 

I spent the evening with Sr. Edwin who is a commissaire for Mercy Beyond Borders discussing possible avenues of progression for the strongest girls in Standard 8. They will start secondary school in April and I am keen for them to become a great example to the other girls in this county. It is the first class where it is exceptional not to be above average. The girls work hard and they excel in their exams. I would love to see them do the International Baccalaureate as well as the South Sudanese exams. I feel that this might give them a better chance in the future. That’s a work in progress though but it was encouraging to hear Sr. Edwin’s perspective.

That evening Sr. Susan came to greet me and to pay me (!) – a whopping 8,000 Kenyan Shillings which is about 160 South Sudanese pounds. A gesture and a very welcome one. I signed for the money and then handed it straight back to her with the direction that it was to be spent on the girls end of term party. Sr.Susan has been so kind to me and I will miss her terribly. 

Sr. Susan and I became friends over banana cake. The banana saga was ongoing between Tim and John Joe so something had to be done. My sister kindly sent me a recipe for banana cake but being almost completely useless in the kitchen, I asked Sr. Susan to help. She allowed me to break the eggs and mash the bananas. Clearly that’s where she felt my aptitude for baking ended. She’s probably right. The cake was probably the most divine thing I have ever eaten. I took half to Riwoto and John Marren and I literally ate the breadcrumbs. She also made me a traditional Ugandan dress as a farewell gift. I will treasure it always.

She stayed for evening prayer and supper last night. I found myself in floods of the most lonesome tears once we finished prayer. I have learned to enjoy the daily ritual and I was lonesome not just that it was my last night in Narus but also that it would be my last time sharing evening prayer with John Joe.

So, I will leave soon. Mowngi will drive me to Lokichoggio and I will fly to Nairobi this morning. I went to the school this morning to say a final farewell to the girls. More floods of tears from all of us. They insisted on escorting me back to the compound (the long way) and sang farewell songs for me all the way while decorating my hair with flowers. We must have been quite a sight, a strange white woman being escorted by 30 young girls all singing and dancing. When we arrived at my compound we took our last class picture. 

Nakalong and her girls!!

My farewell party – just a snippet

Im on a bit of a roll this evening so why stop now!! A small taster of my farewell celebration from St. Bakhita. Do those girls know how to party!! 

It was the most special day of my life and I will forever thank God or the Universe or whatever it was that lead me to that day. When I am over the excitement and emotion of it all I will share it in full! And when I finally I get stronger Internet access I will bore you senseless with photos and video…

Until then….

Standard 8 mock exams

As I write this morning, my standard 8 girls begin their mock exams. I just returned from the school having gone there to settle them before the exam and to wish them luck. I think I am more nervous than them – I found myself explaining what butterflies were!!

The girls are ready though. We had a briefing last evening to prepare them and to help them understand what to expect. There are students from Comboni Boys Primary as well as from Lolim and adult learners from Newcush. The men from Newcush are SPLA soldiers who were recruited as child soldiers when they should have been safe in their schools. They came to the briefing yesterday in full uniform which means rather intimidating attire and an AK-47. I met them this morning and thankfully they had been given permission to sit the exam in civilian attire. They all looked very smart and very nervous!

The Primary Leaving Exam is used by the state to decide which students will go to secondary school or not. Also, Mercy Beyond Borders use the results of this exam to decide which candidates will have their secondary school fees sponsored by the organisation. 

All my girls tell me that they want to go to secondary school. There are aspiring engineers and scientists in the class. But the sad fact is that out of my 34 girls, secondary school will only be a reality for about half. This is the strongest class that St. Bakhita will see for some time. The girls work hard, they start school each morning at 7am and finish at 4pm. In maths, they test themselves with problems found in text books from Kenya and Uganda.

The final exam will be in the third week of November and I am so sorry that I will miss it. Once the exam is over the girls will then be on holidays until the first week of March. Those girls who have homes to go to will return to their villages and their homes. The sad fact is that some will already be promised as wives by their fathers to men in their villages. If they can somehow get through the three months of holidays and return to school, the future may well be very bright for these girls.

Some other girls are orphans or displaced children from Boma in the East. The orphans will often stay with friends in Narus but as far as I know, arrangements are being made for the displaced children to remain as borders during the break. Boma has seen terrible violence over the last few months and many villages have been burned.

So, keep my girls in your thoughts this week especially tomorrow morning when they will sit their maths mock exam! Send all your prayers and your positive thoughts to St. Bakhita Girls Primary School in Narus, South Sudan!!

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.