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.

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.

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.

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”

Goodbye Nakalong

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 my farewell party at St Bakhita, some pictures from UNICEF International Handwashing Day and others I will think about on my journey. I admit I have fallen out of the habit of posting in chronological order, the Internet availability determines what I can post and when I can post it.

Yesterday was a super busy day. Mass in the morning, the usual two hours of song and dance, or greeting the local people afterwards. I was called upon to give a farewell address at the end of mass and I am proud to say that I didn’t cry!

After mass a young girl from the school looked terribly sad and when I went to greet her she ever so shyly asked me if I would like to come to her birthday party that afternoon. What a lovely invite! Anne Grace joined me and Fr. John Joe for lunch and afterwards I went to the school to celebrate Nancy’s birthday with soda and sweets. 

I spent the evening with Sr. Edwin who is a commissaire for Mercy Beyond Borders discussing possible avenues of progression for the strongest girls in Standard 8. They will start secondary school in April and I am keen for them to become a great example to the other girls in this county. It is the first class where it is exceptional not to be above average. The girls work hard and they excel in their exams. I would love to see them do the International Baccalaureate as well as the South Sudanese exams. I feel that this might give them a better chance in the future. That’s a work in progress though but it was encouraging to hear Sr. Edwin’s perspective.

That evening Sr. Susan came to greet me and to pay me (!) – a whopping 8,000 Kenyan Shillings which is about 160 South Sudanese pounds. A gesture and a very welcome one. I signed for the money and then handed it straight back to her with the direction that it was to be spent on the girls end of term party. Sr.Susan has been so kind to me and I will miss her terribly. 

Sr. Susan and I became friends over banana cake. The banana saga was ongoing between Tim and John Joe so something had to be done. My sister kindly sent me a recipe for banana cake but being almost completely useless in the kitchen, I asked Sr. Susan to help. She allowed me to break the eggs and mash the bananas. Clearly that’s where she felt my aptitude for baking ended. She’s probably right. The cake was probably the most divine thing I have ever eaten. I took half to Riwoto and John Marren and I literally ate the breadcrumbs. She also made me a traditional Ugandan dress as a farewell gift. I will treasure it always.

She stayed for evening prayer and supper last night. I found myself in floods of the most lonesome tears once we finished prayer. I have learned to enjoy the daily ritual and I was lonesome not just that it was my last night in Narus but also that it would be my last time sharing evening prayer with John Joe.

So, I will leave soon. Mowngi will drive me to Lokichoggio and I will fly to Nairobi this morning. I went to the school this morning to say a final farewell to the girls. More floods of tears from all of us. They insisted on escorting me back to the compound (the long way) and sang farewell songs for me all the way while decorating my hair with flowers. We must have been quite a sight, a strange white woman being escorted by 30 young girls all singing and dancing. When we arrived at my compound we took our last class picture. 

Nakalong and her girls!!

My farewell party – just a snippet

Im on a bit of a roll this evening so why stop now!! A small taster of my farewell celebration from St. Bakhita. Do those girls know how to party!! 

It was the most special day of my life and I will forever thank God or the Universe or whatever it was that lead me to that day. When I am over the excitement and emotion of it all I will share it in full! And when I finally I get stronger Internet access I will bore you senseless with photos and video…

Until then….