“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

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The journey from London to Nairobi to Loki to Narus. Crossing borders, fighting for whiskey and seeing how the world has changed. Continue reading

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

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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 … Continue reading

The strong and refined essence of a continent.

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“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…

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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 … Continue reading

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.