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 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.

Goodbye Nakalong

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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 … Continue reading

This Toposa girl

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I don’t know this Toposa girls name. Here is what I do know about her. 

She is the daughter of a Toposa herdsman. She is about 15 years of age. At a young age her father cut her cheeks and forehead with a knife and filled the wounds with ash from the fire pit. Those are the “beauty” marks you see in the picture. It is an incredibly painful procedure and of course there are no painkillers or treatments to prevent infection. 

She attended St. Bakhita some years ago. She learned to count, to say the alphabet and to write her name. She made friends with girls from many other tribes, the Murle, the Dinke, the Karamajong. She was a happy little girl.

Then one day, she stopped coming to school. When the elders of the school investigated, they learned that her fathers fellow tribesmen humiliated him. They mocked him for allowing his daughter to lose her value as a wife by sending her to school. They asked how he could expect to get a good dowry for her if she became a prostitute. (This is what many Toposa men think of girls who get a basic education). 

So he stopped her attending school.

I see this Toposa girl walk by the school almost every day carrying heavy loads of charcoal or firewood on her head. She carries the load from compound to compound hoping that someone will buy from her. She desperately wants to return to school but cannot. She sees the other girls enjoy the education they have been blessed with. She sees that with the help of the food provided to the school by the World Food Programme, the girls are fed and healthy.

The best that this girl can hope for is that her father will sell her as a wife for a good dowry that will improve her fathers situation and maybe that of her siblings but not hers. She has been sentenced to a life of hardship and toil. She will become a wife at a young age and maybe not the mans first wife. If she is his first wife, she will not be his last wife. She will share the compound she will build alone with the other wives her husband will take. 

Her husband will make her repay the dowry he paid for her by having her enslaved to him for the rest of her life. It will be her responsibility to build the home, to cultivate the crops, to raise her children and the children her husband fathers with his other wives. She will fetch water, cook, clean and try to generate an income for the family.

I really don’t want my posts to sound like those “for $10 a month you can feed a family in Africa” type ads that we see on daytime television. There is nothing anyone can do for this girl. It breaks my heart to know what this girls life is. But I find it infinitely more difficult to deal with the fact that this Toposa girl is exceptional in wanting an education and that many young girls still aspire to the life this Toposa girl has been sentenced to. 

I met this Toposa girl last Sunday. I sat at the very back pew just inside the door and she stood at the door throughout the service. I invited her to sit with me and she cowered behind the door. I asked about her at lunch at lunch and this is what I learned. I also learned that she had gone to see the Ann Grace  and asked her to read the Gospel to her. Ann Grace invited her to come to church and she came.

The welcome feast

On the evening of Sunday September 22nd we were invited to the home of the Ugandan sisters who share the diocese compound. The Brothers were also invited, Brother Mike from New York and Brothers Germay, Rene and Gonzaga, all from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fathers Tim and John Joe and I made our way there after evening prayer (and once the All-Ireland was over!) to find that some other esteemed guests had been invited also. Zachariah the town chairman, Monica the chairperson of the PTA, Madame Helen from St. Bakhita and Esther Iko who I had first met on my arrival here at her daughter Kulangs funeral.

It transpired that Sister Margaret had gatherered the group of fourteen together in my honour. She made a short introductory speech welcoming me to their home and urging me to feel it to be my home too. 

And what an honour it was.

Sister Anges presented me with a beautiful posy of flowers and a huge hug of welcome. She is young and energetic and always full of life. I hear that she was a very popular radio host in Uganda before she came to South Sudan. Now she teaches the younger girls in St. Bakhita and I can’t help but think how lucky they are to have her.

The feast was fit for a king. There were local dishes from South Sudan and Ugandan dishes prepared by Sister Margaret, Sister Susan and Sister Agnes. I really didn’t know where to start. And the smell!! The room filled with the aroma of meat slowly cooked in a delectable concoction of herbs and spices. We washed it all down with the great treat of bottled soda. 

Conversation was lovely as it tends to be when Zachariah is around. He’s full of life and energy. He is a great town chairman and he works hard to create a better future for the children of this place. 

Desert came disguised. We were to guess what it was – Tim thought it might be our angry cat but I think my guess was closest. I said that whatever was hidden underneath the cloth was sure to be delicious. And it was! We cut the cake together, me, Tim, Zachariah and Monica to a great round of applause. It was a scrumptious ginger sponge cake that had been prepared earlier in the day.

Sister Margaret then asked, ever so officially, for Zachariah to make an address. He spoke of how happy he was that I had come to Narus and how he only hoped that I could stay longer. He made it clear that I was one of them now and that I should call on him day or night if there was something I needed. He wanted me to feel safe here and happy and invited me back next year!

Tims address was next in his capacity as Parish Priest of Narus. He explained that it has been only 6 weeks or so since he had an email from me out of the blue introducing myself. He knew my mother but didn’t know me and in the short time since that email we’ve become good friends. He saw in me someone who wanted to learn more about missionary life and having conferred with John Joe decided he must help me. He knew that St. Bakhita needed a maths teacher and with my having studied maths he felt I’d be a good fit. The timing of my visit was perfect. He welcomed me and wished me well. He sees that this is a journey for me too and sees that I’m very happy here.

And then it was my turn as guest of honour. At this point I was so touched and admittedly a little close to tears. I addressed my friends. I thanked them for the marvellous welcome and wonderful evening but most of all for letting me be part of their lives and the community here in Narus. I told them that they came to me at the right time too. Providence put us all together. I told them, very honestly how happy I am here and how very full of gratitude I am to all of them. I shall miss them all and this life terribly when I have to return to London.

Fr. John Joe closed the addresses with a prayer for me and for all of us. 

Guests drifted away and soon it was time for us to leave too for the short walk back to our house. As I was leaving, another huge hug from Sister Agnes and the sweetest thing – she said “thank you for loving us and St. Bakhita”

And I do. I love them all. I love St Bakhita and my life here. And I am eternally grateful to God or the Universe or whichever power directed me to South Sudan to be surrounded by such love and hope.

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.

Following in footsteps

I found this in my purse when packing yesterday. I don’t know where it came from but I expect I found it once upon a time in my grandmothers things. I don’t know the context or which paper it appeared in. By the time my dad was 21 he had already served one tour of duty in Katanga Province in the Congo, had been involved in the Siege of Jadotville and spend a number of months as a hostage held by Katanga rebels. I think when this note was written, he would have been preparing for his second tour in the Congo.

I am thinking of him now and how different our journeys into Africa are. Aside from the purpose, I am aboard a very comfortable BA flight on what will be a journey of just over 8 hours. When Dad first went to the Congo, the journey was 13 hours with 120 or so other men in a military personnel carrier. I will have lunch served soon, he was given a plastic bag with a sandwich and some fruit for sustinence. He was wearing a bulls wool uniform, I have clothes suitable for the terrain which employ the latest technologies to keep me cool when I need to be cool and warm when I need to be warm. To combat malaria Dad took one quinine tablet each week. I have two months supply of very expensive and effective Malerone which taken daily will prevent my getting the dreaded disease.

As my dad loves to remind me “I don’t know how easy I have it!!”