“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.

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.

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.

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 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.

The beginning of the end…

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. 

Narus from on high

I have become good friends with two girls with whom I go walking to the top of the hill above Narus. I don’t think it has a name but it is the best vantage point from which to survey Narus.

When we go walking sometimes Lucy carries her 18 month old son Nicholas. She carries him on her back fastened in her wrap in the traditional African way. I’m always astounded by how fit she is, she almost runs up the hill while Anna and I hike after her, counting every step in the heat! 

From the top of that hill we can see Uganda, Kenya and Ethopia. The land around is flat, dry and dusty. There are hills here and there but typically the land is very flat. Until the two telecommunications boosters were constructed in Narus this was the only place where mobile signal was to be found. In order to make a call, people would have to hike to the top and search for a strong signal. And to think unused to complain about my signal in Fulham!

From the top of the hill, we can also see many of the surrounding Toposa villages. Narus itself is a melting pot of all different tribes. Tousands of people came to Narus during the war and stayed. It was close to the border so it was considered safe and it was also a strategic base for the SPLA.

One thing that struck me on my travels in South Sudan is the absence of animals. I have now lerned that South Sudan was once a thriving ecosystem with many large animals such as elephant, monkey, rhinoceros, giraffe, impala, zebra, lion and leopard. However, the animals are gone now. During the way many were hunted and  killed for meat when there was nothing else to eat. They say that many fled to Uganda for safety scared by the noise of the guns and shells.

The land is so dry here and we are praying for rain. The crops are endanger of failing. The staple here is a grain similar to maize called sourkhum. In different places around Narus you can see where small gardens of sourkhum have been planted but the crop is burning.

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!!

36 hours in Nairobi

I spent a most enjoyable 36 hours in Nairobi at the St. Patrick’s regional house. Fr. John Marren welcomed me at the airport with Patrick and our driver Joseph both elevated to hero status in my books for different reasons: Joseph for his skill at negotiating the Nairobi traffic and John Marren for being the most enjoyable travel companion with a great sense of humour and cracking banter! 

We arrived at the mission house late on Tuesday night. I attended my first mass in Africa read by Fr. Niall on Wednesday morning. It was lovely to see the beautiful little oratory full. 

Wednesday was spent recovering from the flight but also preparing for the next leg of our trip the following day which would take us from Nairobi to Lodwar. I did find time to have a nice long coffee break with Fr. Niall and Im pretty sure we put the world to right! My friend Jo is a teacher in the International School in Nairobi so it was lovely to see her and enjoy some good wine before my time in Nairobi was over. 

What struck me about Nairobi was the great divide between rich and poor. One million people live in a slum just about a mile from the mission house called Kibera. It is normal to see small children begging amongst the gridlocked traffic and young girls on street corners. While we had dinner at a very nice restaurant the next table was occupied by two men and a young girl who was clearly a prostitute. The only way out of that life for these children is education.