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.

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 funeral of Donna Kulang Yiko

This post is long over due and it has been sitting in my drafts since my first day in Narus. This was a difficult post to write. 

We had left Lokichoggio early on the morning of Saturday September 7th arriving at the border and crossing safely. The journey from Nadapal which is the town at the border to Narus takes about 45 minutes. 

We arrived, I got settled in and we met for a nice cup of tea. Fr. Tim and Fr. John Joe had been asked to say funeral prayers for a local girl who had died at the age of just 13. We travelled the short distance to the family’s small compound and I felt a little unsure of what to expect. At one end of the compound, a makeshift shelter had been constructed to protect from the punishing afternoon sun. An altar had been placed under the shelter facing the main enclosure of the compound.

I think there may have been about 100 people in the small compound and after greeting the parents of the dead girl we were directed to sit under the shelter. I was struck that with the exception of me and the Headmistress of St. Bakhita Primary School, the shelter was exclusively for men. It became clear that Sister. Margaret and I had been afforded the position of guests at the prayers. All the other women sat on wraps laid on the dusty ground in the centre of the compound, finding what shade they could.

Fr. Tim led the prayers and it amazed me to hear him relate so effortlessly to the family in both Juba Arabic and the local Toposa dialect. It was a simple ceremony with beautiful music provided by some of my now students and other members of the church here.

I knew that the girl had died about two weeks before and I’m not sure whether I expected to see a casket or not but I do remember wondering whether Kulang had already been buried and if so, where.

The answer came immediately after the funeral mass was over. Fr. Tim went to bless the compound and the grave. When he walked towards the corner of the compound where Kulang was buried there was a flurry of activity to clear the way for him. I found it hard to come to terms with the fact that the young girl had been buried almost immediately just a few feet from where she had grown up with her grandmother. Tradition (and I suppose practicality) demands that once a person dies here they must be buried as soon as possible. Tim blessed each of the other buildings in the compound before returning to hear the addresses by the elders of the various tribes in attendance. 

The addresses were given in Arabic or Toposa and were translated as necessary. One in particular struck me so deeply. One woman who represented the elders of what I think was the Dinka tribe said that the only reason that the family should grieve was because Kulang had not left a child. This girl was thirteen years old. This was my first real taste of how young girls are perceived in South Sudan.

There were a number of other addresses and about 45 minutes later we were invited to wash our hands and share a meal. Tim and John Joe were directed to an urn from which clean water flowed to wash hands before being served a meal fit for a king. I was instructed to follow the priests and Sister Margaret followed me.

The food was incredible. I have absolutely no idea what it was but we ate with our hands and licked our fingers clean!

I admit to feeling somewhat uncomfortable with my position of guest, I felt more like an intruder or voyeur on this day in the family’s life. I’m very grateful for their hospitality though and for their welcome.

Welcome to South Sudan Helena Eireannach

We left on the final leg of our long journey to Narus on The morning of Saturday Septemer 7th. Our jeep was packed full but thankfully there were no punctures to delay us!

First arriving at the Kenyan border we were “checked out” of Kenya before continuing the mile or so to the South Sudan border. Not only crossing country borders, we were crossing from Turkana territory to Toposa territory. The two tribes have a history of war but there is peace now and this is a great relief to both tribes.

Outside the Kenyan border control. A young Turkana woman sat with a small purse. She entered into a colourful conversation with John Marren and it was a little while before I realised that this was the Kenyan borders answer to a Bureau de Change! There was a lot of negotiation but eventually the two parties came to a deal. Fr. John walked away and commented to me “now that’s what I call outsider trading”!

We continued to the South Sudan border and while Fr. Tim mad the necessary arrangements to get the truck across the border John Marren accompanied me to get my Visa. After what seemed like an eternity (despite the excellent company I hasten to add) and $100 later I was the proud owner of a South Sudan residents permit valid for one month. Visas are only issued monthly and it’s $100 each time….nice work if you can get it!!!

It was a jubilant return and there were celebratory hugs when Fr. Tim officially welcomed me to South Sudan. I was on his turf now!! We were about a mile into Suth Sudan when we realised that the official had renamed me! Misreading my Nationality for my surname, he has renamed me “Helena Eireannach”which  means “Irish Helena”!!! I’m so proud to be South Sudans only Irish Helena!!