“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.

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Sunday Mass in Riwoto complete with Kizito dancers.

I helped Ann Grace with the preparation of the Cathucumens on Mondays and Fridays each week. They were a sassy bunch – watch them sing and summon their fellow Cathecumens to class.

 


Now that I’m back in London, I can share some videos from my adventure in South Sudan. I posted some pictures a few weeks ago from Sunday Mass in Kamai. We had been due to be there a week before but we were unable to travel because it had rained heavily that morning and there was water in the rivers.

We left Narus at about 7am that morning and travelled the three hour journey together to Kamai. A message had been sent earlier in the week to the Cathecist, a blind man named Michael. Michael is a force of nature and had he the gift of sight, he would be unstoppable.

Mass was a celebration in every sense of the word. The young children were nervous of me at the start and kept a very safe distance but once they saw that I was friendly they couldn’t get close enough. Once again, my hair was a real attraction – these young children had never seen a white woman let alone a girl with long straight hair. What a novelty!!

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 🙂

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”

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!!

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….

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. 

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??!!



Big news from Standard 8!

I thought you might like to see some of my friends in Standard 8. We took this picture after a revision class last Saturday morning. We had begun at 8 am and finished at 10:30am. A long morning for the girls!

I wish I could tell you the stories about Gloria who always scores top of her class while at the same time nursing her fellow pupils through their illnesses, about Stella who as soon as she gets a result of an exam runs straight to Sister Susan to share her news – just as I ran to my Grandad when I was her age, about Mekhides who came to Narus from Ethopia two years ago with no English who is now consistently in the top three in her class, about Rose who is so full of fun and love.

The girls sat their mock exams last week. Students from Comboni boys school, Lolim and Newcush joined us in our dining hall to sit the exams. There were four exams, Maths, English, Science and a combined exam for CRE and Social Studies.

And my word did those girls perform! The English paper came first on the Monday morning. In the afternoon was Science. The panel began correcting the English papers for the 95 students during the next exam. But…apparently our Standard 8 girls performed too well and were accused of having cheated. The head teacher of Lolim accused us of having shared the paper with the girls and said that he had heard it was for sale in the Dinka market.

What utter rubbish. The most obvious response would have been to tell the guy to sober up (he had been drunk for most of the day) and ignore him but instead the inspector was called and a two hour meeting took place on the next morning while I invigilated my own maths exam. The girls results in the mocks (with the possible exception of maths) were consistent with their mid term and end of term exams. They work so very hard and Aguer, their English teacher seems to spend endless hours with them.

And then maths. I haven’t yet seen the maths results in their entirety but what I do know is that we are the top school in Kapoeta East after this exam. There were quite a few girls who scored in excess of 85% which I think is incredible. The top score was 92% and the girl is disappointed. She normally scores in the very high nineties.

I will admit though that there was just one that desperately mattered to me and that was Christine Peter. She is a very quiet and shy girl. She works hard but finds maths a challenge. She was always around and about the 40% mark. Her sister Josephine is in Bakhita Secondary and from is a gifted student. Her younger sister Regina is in Standard 7 in Bakhita primary. Christine came to me and asked for help with Algebra. We had extra classes every Saturday morning so we used those classes to work together on Algebra.

I subsequently realised that not only was Christine taking extra classes with me but also with a teacher called Karragache who teaches maths in the younger classes too. When I realised that the papers had been corrected, I went immediately to look through them. As excited as I was to see the other results, I really just wanted to see Christine’s result – a mind blowing 87%! Can you believe it? I was so excited and so happy for her. I texted Fr. Tim immediately to share the news through my tears!

Seeing her this weekend and seeing how happy and how proud she was, that’s a feeling that will stay with me. Her fellow students seemed equally happy for her. She was so excited to tell me, I gave her the biggest hug!

Through my education I was lucky to have teachers who cared about me, more than I can name but they included Miss Caroline Griffin and Master Pat Callaghan in primary school and in secondary school Maura Curtin, Bat Wrenn, Marian Madigan, Joe Keeffe and Marian Horgan. All gave me extra classes and endless amounts of their time and energy for which I have always been grateful. I would hope that I made them as proud as I was of Christine.

Maybe in years to come, Christine will write a blog on some adventure of hers and remember that Irish woman who came for a few months and cared about her.

Disclaimer: My time in Narus is now to be measured in just days so I reserve the right to feel a bit sentimental and wistful. Furthermore I reserve the right to share it!!

Earlier in my trip I wrote a post called “Things I’ve learned in Kenya and South Sudan” and in it I listed some of the practical and sensible lessons I had learned – the importance of keeping my eyes open and mouth closed in the shower and the fact that I can say with almost complete certainty that once I return to London I will never eat another bowl of porridge regardless of whether or not real missionaries eat porridge. Inevitably I suppose, I’ve learned a lot about myself too in the last few months too.

In the last few years I think I’ve had more than my fair share of heart break. That point one gets to when it seems that a heart can’t  feel any more broken and frankly might never feel anything other than that hurt again, the sheer amount of energy I expended on assuring everyone who cared about me that “I am fine” and “I’m too busy to worry about it” seems now to be such a waste.

You see, we are all so busy. We rush about from one appointment to another, from meetings to networking events to dinners with friends that many of us don’t give ourselves time to heal. I have always been of the mindset that I can overcome any emotional distress by making sure I have absolutely no time to think about it. My friends will be familiar with my Tuesday panics when I realise that I don’t have anything planned for the following weekend and I go into planning overdrive. 

So, there are two things. The first is something Fr. Tim said to me over breakfast one morning when the very thought of my leaving had reduced me to tears…he said that I had to give myself time, that I had built relationships, there are people here I care about and who care about me…that I had to allow myself space to come to terms with my return to London. I was too ashamed to admit that I had already been thinking of all the ways that I could fill the days before I start my new job so that I wouldn’t have to think about it. Fr. Tim is right and I am wrong. Sometimes we just need to give ourselves time to process and adapt.

The second took me by surprise. I am surprised by my capacity to love. I don’t think i realised how much I could love. I see how excited my students are when I arrive at school or when I see them in the village. I am full of love for that. When I read the results for my Standard 8 girls and that feeling of pride in them completely overwhelms me, when I see how proud they are of themselves and each other for such excellent results, I am full of love for them. When my darling Nicholas comes to me after mass for a hug or blows me a kiss from his seat, I am full of love for him. I find myself thinking of the life I would like for him; healthy parents who will find work and be able to provide a stable home life for him, a good education just like the one I had where he will be blessed with opportunity and possibility. 

So now, I know that the best cure for a broken heart is not to lock it away and ignore the problem, it is to find a way to fill it with a love even greater than before.

My own capacity to love has been eclipsed by all I see around me. I once considered missionaries to be men and women who gave up or sacrificed their lives for others. My perspective has changed. These incredible people do not “give up” their lives, they chose another pattern, one which is so full of love and hope. Here I see men and women live in sometimes harsh and difficult circumstances because their capacity to love is so great. They have the strength see the hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances. They know that each day a child sits in their classroom, they step just a little bit closer to breaking the cycle of abject poverty that oppresses them, Progress can be so very slow and sometimes it takes a lot of effort to see the fruit of the work. But through education and commitment things will change. 

Maybe I took all of this for granted. Maybe this is nothing new but here, in one of the poorest places in the planet, still reeling from the effects of a bloody war, love in the truest sense of the word seems more obvious.