“Just twelve deaths”

One evening while I was still in Narus. I went walking with Fr. Emmanuel and Fr. Tommy Gilooley. We walked further from the village than I had been before and I was surprised to learn that about 30 minutes walk from St. Bakhita Girls Primary School, there was another school that I had not heard of before. It was in a place called Nachepo.

I knew that people lived in that direction. I often met the women dressed in the traditional dress with charcoal or wood on their heads walking towards Narus to trade in the market there. They carried jerry cans full of milk on their return the jerrycans were full of aragi.

We came to a school seemingly in the middle of no where. The fences were broken down, the roof was damaged, there was no one to be seen and it looked as though there hadn’t been anyone here for a long time. The cement floors of the classrooms had cracked and in places turned to dust. There were very few benches and the unlocked classrooms were occupied only by hornets and termites. 

It felt as though nature was claiming that piece of land back for itself.

I asked if children still came here. The answer came….”they come when there is food”.

This wasn’t an unusual response. I know that food is a large part of the reason parents send their children to school here. The rations provided by the school, sometimes with the help of the World Food Programme, are a huge part of the reason that children are sent to school here. It is not unusual that the only food a child will eat is the food provided in the school.

But what I can’t say is why on that day and in that place, I was so struck and so upset by the answer. The people here are hungry. I will say that the suffering here is nothing when compared to what is happening further north in the areas worst hit by the war.

The Sudan Tribune reported yesterday that there had been a sort of mini-famine in a town a short distance from here. Just twelve deaths were attributed to hunger.

“Just twelve deaths”…lets just let that sink in for a second.

If twelve people died of hunger in my home town of Abbeyfeale in Co. Limerick or in even in London where I live, what would happen? People would care, right? There would be public outcry and an investigation into how our society could have let this happen.

So why is it that here, in a country that has been ravaged by war for decades, there is no outcry? And not just here, but in so many other places across the globe. 

Have we too become sensitised to hardship and suffering? We watch the news every evening and we hear about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, civilians being executed for practising their faiths, war breaking out here, violent clashes there. I’ve grown up through the 80s and 90s with talk of the famines in Kenya, Darfur and Ethopia. Band Aid made us all aware. We were outraged. Where is the outrage now?

During this trip, I have been deeply troubled by the fact that there are children in this world who wake up in the morning and will not eat that day. There are places in this world that we live in where hunger is normal, where the people almost accept the lack of food as a fact of life.

This is the same world where we as Europeans have experienced beef and milk mountains, where supermarkets and restaurants disgard huge amounts of food every day, where we are overweight, where we carry mobile phones which cost almost an entire year of wages for a trained school teacher in somewhere like South Sudan. 

I’m sorry that this turned into a loathsome rant. It wasn’t intended. I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks now. I haven’t quite been able to get my feelings out in any intelligable sense. I haven’t been able to make sense of my unexpected outrage or the fact that I’m so troubled by it now more than ever before.

A lady what lunches in Kapoeta

I’m hopelessly behind with my posts but I’m going to make an effort to rectify that over the next few days. For now though, let me tell you about our day at the market in Kapoeta last Saturday. 

Fuel is a rare commodity here now. There is no diesel and we have heard that a permit is now needed to move fuel outside of the capital.  

We had heard that there might be fuel in Kapoeta that morning so Fr. Matthew and I went to see if we might be one of the lucky ones who managed to fill the tanks that day. Of course, once wind of the word got out that a car was going to Kapoeta…it was full! We had some teachers from both the primary and secondary schools, all of whom had business to do in the town that day. Tim was busy here working on accounts and making things ready for his trip to Narus this week. 

We set off after breakfast. It was already hotter than hell even at 9:30am in the morning. The drive is about an hour and as we crossed the dry river bed we met many villagers who were on their way to the market. Mainly women carrying jerrycans of milk or waragi (the illicit local brew), charcoal or firewood on their heads. The men of course were busy sitting under the trees playing dominoes.

When we arrived, we deposited our passengers and drove out to “the junction” to see about diesel. We were out of luck I’m afraid. The truck had been stopped leaving Juba. I daren’t presume what might have happened to the fuel.

Having failed in our mission to fill the tanks, we decided to have a soda at the bar across the street from the fuel station. One beer for Fr. Matthew and I was more excited that one probably should be about the prospect of a nice cold Coca Cola. The girl brough the drinks and I didn’t notice at first but soon realised that the syrup I was given was not Coca Cola but Juba Cola! To say I was disappointed would be a huge understatement. 

Because the South Sudanese Pound is now almost worthless, it is very expensive to import from Kenya. Furthermore, the customs officials at the borders seem to operate a set of rules that change weekly. For example, it is possible to move metal across the border but not wood. It is not unusual for a lorry to be held at the border for weeks. For that reason, some clever entrepreneurs in Juba have started bottling something that looks vaguely like Coca Cola but tastes like the nastiest own brand cola one can buy. Devastating!!

Afterwards we had some errands to run at the market. We went to the bakery where we picked up some bread and then to the veg market where we were again unlucky. No fruit and no eggs. Try again next week they said.

The market is also where currency exchange happens. I had Kenyan Shillings but very few South Sudanese  Pounds. Tim had told me that I should expect about 130 SSP for 1000 KSH. In all honesty, the rate is a little higher than this but I wasn’t about to argue. These traders are providing a service and if they cream a little comission off the top then thats more than fair. I wanted to share around a little bit so I asked  5 different traders to change 5000 shillings for me. I expect each trader made about 20SSP from the transaction. I do love a little honest capitalism!

Once our business was done, it was time for lunch. Well, I have no idea what it was but it was delicious! I think it is called angeli which is an Ethopian dish. The restaurant came highly recommended by Tim but I was rather nervous on entering.It was a ramshackle tin building and I’m fairly certain that any health inspector would have had a coronary immediately on entry. I decided I was brave though and ordered the dish from the very handsome Ethopian proprieter. He returned with water and a large tray of some kind of stewed meat with rice, pasta and something orange served on a bed of fermented bread. I think its fair to say that I’ve eaten in some pretty incredible restaurants all over the world but this was right up there!! 

It reminded me of my lunch with Tim and John Marren at “The Ritz” in Kapoeta on my first trip here in 2013. Tim and John still laugh at the colour I turned when I walked out the back to find them skinning a goat right beside the latrine. I pride myself on a fairly sturdy constitution but this was enough to make this girl green…and to give the boys something to really laugh about! Since then, we have called that place “The Ritz”. 





Sister Susan sends thanks for the new dormitory

This is another post that I should have written months ago but better late than never I guess.

I am proud to say that this is the fruit of my last visit to South Sudan and I am excited about what adventures my next trip holds in store.

Thank you Sister Susan for such a lovely message and to Fr. Tim for his impressive camera work!!

But most of all, thank you to my family and friends for their financial support in making this happen….look what we did!!!

https://vimeo.com/103996040

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.

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.

Sunday Mass in Kamai – video

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!!

http://vimeo.com/78248944

http://vimeo.com/78248945

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”