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. 

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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.

Kamai is a village about 55 miles from Narus. That 55 miles takes just under 2 hours over dirt tracks and dry river beds. Tim had arranged to say Mass there so I tagged along for the ride.

There is no church but a number of small villages share a place of prayer. There is a small clearing under on the bank of the river. Two large trees provide shade to mass goers. We were first to arrive so we drove to the villages to round up the troops.

The children walked beating drums and singing hymns in their local Toposa language. They could be heard from all around so others joined the procession to Mass. In one of the pictures below you can see some of the children walking along the dry riverbed to our place of prayer.

In all I think about 80 people attended Mass under the tree. Fr. Tim celebrated mass in Toposa.

Here are some pictures.

So… Each time I’ve gone to the Dinka Market, I have returned with a treasure hitherto unexpected in Narus. Last week it was mobile phone credit for face value and this week it was Guinness!! Yes, let me loose in any barren wilderness and in the shortest possible time I will find alcohol!!

Now, I’m very aware that this post will not paint me in the best light but honesty is the best policy!! It is well known by my friends that I enjoy a nice glass of wine. In fact, I’m very good at enjoying a nice glass of wine! But, I haven’t had any alcoholic beverage since I left Nairobi on September 4th and the net effect is wonderful! I’ve lost a lot of weight between my detox regime and the heat! 

On Friday last Tim returned from Lokichoggio in Kenya and brought me back a huge treat! He had found a box of white wine which may well be the only one the NGOs left behind. That was my treat from Loki!! 

So, it has been very civilised here for the last few days with glasses of wine for supper.

On Saturday last Anne Grace and I went for our now weekly walk around the Dinka Market. It would appear we got there on crazy day though, we were persued by not just one but two drunken lunatics one of whom actually got a little physical until I sent her away with a pound note, she literally danced and sang down the street! Clearly, too sane for crazy day at the market, we decided to go in search of cold soda….but the most amazing thing happened!!!

WE FOUND A BAR!!

Oh it was beautiful, fully stocked with Guinness, Heineken and all kinds of treats. For some reason they carried quite a lot of Baileys too. I steered clear of the Baileys thinking that the heat can’t be good for such a creamy drink.

So I Anne Grace and I had two bottles of Smirnoff Black Ice and I bought some bottles of Guinness to bring back as a present to Fr.Tim and Fr. John Joe. The evening was moving on but we still had about two hours before darkness fell so we decided to have another. 

After my second drink I quickly realised that not only have I lost weight but my tolerance for alcohol seems to have diminished too. I’m embarrassed to say that I was quite giggly after just two bottles of alcopop. It was time to go home…although at that stage the craic was good and I’d happily have stayed for the evening until I remembered that I’m scared of Africa in the dark. Too many things want to eat me, sting me or kill me so it was time for home!

…..needless to say I politely declined the offer of a glass of wine with supper that evening!!

This week has been an exciting one in Narus. A peace summit was held in our compound at which there were more than 100 delegates from Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan. the attendees included representatives from the Didinga, Dinka, Toposa, Turkana and Karamajong tribes as well as delegates from the relevant NGOs. 

Security was high in the compound and in Narus generally, there were policemen armed with AK-47s guarding our compound all week.

My Standard 8 girls have mocks exams this coming week but I was able to move some classes around to allow me to attend for the closing of the summit. Many topics were discussed such as the poaching of animals in the National Park on the Ugandan side of the border, the import of illegal alcohol from Uganda, border disputes between the Didinga and Toposa tribes, cattle raiding between the tribes and violence in the Didinga hills. 

It seemed that the Toposa got the blame for quite a portion of the regions problems. They graze their animals without permission on the Didinga side of the border when the rains come there and then claim that they are unaware of the border. Lives are lost daily in disputes between the Didinga and Toposa tribes about grazing and cattle raiding. The dispute between the Didinga and Toposa is bitter and runs very deep indeed.

A dialogue between the tribes was suggested but it seemed to take an eternity to agree on a location. Eventually, mutual ground was found and we moved on to finding a date for the meeting. Then all hell broke loose. The chief of the Toposa stood up and insulted the elders of the Didinga. When calm had finally been restored it was agreed that a small group would go outside and decide when the meeting should be. 

So the small group went outside…and so did everyone else. Fr. Tim with his infinite patience and enviable command of both Juba Arabic and Toposa dialects helped to mediate. It turned into what I thought was a good and proper screaming match but later Tim told me that that is just how the Toposa speak. What is for absolutely sure is that there is no love lost between the tribes. Behind me, while the mediation went ahead, a young man confronted one of the Toposa elders and accused him of the deaths of a group of Didinga cattle herders. There was so much happening at once it seemed almost impossible to pay full attention to any of it!

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!!

What a perfect girlie afternoon Anne Grace and I had on Saturday last. We heard a rumour that there was yogurt (yes, yogurt!) I’m the Dinka Market so we took off in search of some. 

There are two markets in Narus. The Toposa market which doesn’t have a great deal except the local alcohol (waragi) that is brewed here. It seems to me that most adult Toposa are drunk by 3pm every day. The problem is so bad that many young girls brew alcohol to pay for their school fees. 

The Dinka market is better stocked. The Dinka people seem to have a better grasp of business – there are many more Dinka traders than Toposa traders. And frankly, I think they’re probably more sober too. 

Jen has a stall in the Dinka Market where she sells some groceries but she has a rare competitive advantage in that she has a solar fridge. I think the fridge had been out of action for a while leaving a huge shortage of strawberry yogurt in Narus but she’s back in action again!

The other great find of the day is a man who sells mobile phone credit for face value. Typically, 10SSP of credit costs 13SSP here. The traders consider it fair to charge a premium for the fact they’ve had to travel to Kapoeta or Torit for it.

Once we had completed our little shopping trip, we found two chairs in a veranda of a store house and sent a young boy to find us two cold bottles of Coke. We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and enjoying our Cokes. We may as well have been sipping a very nice bottle of white wine outside Oriel on Sloane Square and watching the world go by!