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.

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!!

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!!

Learning to love

Disclaimer: My time in Narus is now to be measured in just days so I reserve the right to feel a bit sentimental and wistful. Furthermore I reserve the right to share it!!

Earlier in my trip I wrote a post called “Things I’ve learned in Kenya and South Sudan” and in it I listed some of the practical and sensible lessons I had learned – the importance of keeping my eyes open and mouth closed in the shower and the fact that I can say with almost complete certainty that once I return to London I will never eat another bowl of porridge regardless of whether or not real missionaries eat porridge. Inevitably I suppose, I’ve learned a lot about myself too in the last few months too.

In the last few years I think I’ve had more than my fair share of heart break. That point one gets to when it seems that a heart can’t  feel any more broken and frankly might never feel anything other than that hurt again, the sheer amount of energy I expended on assuring everyone who cared about me that “I am fine” and “I’m too busy to worry about it” seems now to be such a waste.

You see, we are all so busy. We rush about from one appointment to another, from meetings to networking events to dinners with friends that many of us don’t give ourselves time to heal. I have always been of the mindset that I can overcome any emotional distress by making sure I have absolutely no time to think about it. My friends will be familiar with my Tuesday panics when I realise that I don’t have anything planned for the following weekend and I go into planning overdrive. 

So, there are two things. The first is something Fr. Tim said to me over breakfast one morning when the very thought of my leaving had reduced me to tears…he said that I had to give myself time, that I had built relationships, there are people here I care about and who care about me…that I had to allow myself space to come to terms with my return to London. I was too ashamed to admit that I had already been thinking of all the ways that I could fill the days before I start my new job so that I wouldn’t have to think about it. Fr. Tim is right and I am wrong. Sometimes we just need to give ourselves time to process and adapt.

The second took me by surprise. I am surprised by my capacity to love. I don’t think i realised how much I could love. I see how excited my students are when I arrive at school or when I see them in the village. I am full of love for that. When I read the results for my Standard 8 girls and that feeling of pride in them completely overwhelms me, when I see how proud they are of themselves and each other for such excellent results, I am full of love for them. When my darling Nicholas comes to me after mass for a hug or blows me a kiss from his seat, I am full of love for him. I find myself thinking of the life I would like for him; healthy parents who will find work and be able to provide a stable home life for him, a good education just like the one I had where he will be blessed with opportunity and possibility. 

So now, I know that the best cure for a broken heart is not to lock it away and ignore the problem, it is to find a way to fill it with a love even greater than before.

My own capacity to love has been eclipsed by all I see around me. I once considered missionaries to be men and women who gave up or sacrificed their lives for others. My perspective has changed. These incredible people do not “give up” their lives, they chose another pattern, one which is so full of love and hope. Here I see men and women live in sometimes harsh and difficult circumstances because their capacity to love is so great. They have the strength see the hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances. They know that each day a child sits in their classroom, they step just a little bit closer to breaking the cycle of abject poverty that oppresses them, Progress can be so very slow and sometimes it takes a lot of effort to see the fruit of the work. But through education and commitment things will change. 

Maybe I took all of this for granted. Maybe this is nothing new but here, in one of the poorest places in the planet, still reeling from the effects of a bloody war, love in the truest sense of the word seems more obvious.

Standard 8 mock exams

As I write this morning, my standard 8 girls begin their mock exams. I just returned from the school having gone there to settle them before the exam and to wish them luck. I think I am more nervous than them – I found myself explaining what butterflies were!!

The girls are ready though. We had a briefing last evening to prepare them and to help them understand what to expect. There are students from Comboni Boys Primary as well as from Lolim and adult learners from Newcush. The men from Newcush are SPLA soldiers who were recruited as child soldiers when they should have been safe in their schools. They came to the briefing yesterday in full uniform which means rather intimidating attire and an AK-47. I met them this morning and thankfully they had been given permission to sit the exam in civilian attire. They all looked very smart and very nervous!

The Primary Leaving Exam is used by the state to decide which students will go to secondary school or not. Also, Mercy Beyond Borders use the results of this exam to decide which candidates will have their secondary school fees sponsored by the organisation. 

All my girls tell me that they want to go to secondary school. There are aspiring engineers and scientists in the class. But the sad fact is that out of my 34 girls, secondary school will only be a reality for about half. This is the strongest class that St. Bakhita will see for some time. The girls work hard, they start school each morning at 7am and finish at 4pm. In maths, they test themselves with problems found in text books from Kenya and Uganda.

The final exam will be in the third week of November and I am so sorry that I will miss it. Once the exam is over the girls will then be on holidays until the first week of March. Those girls who have homes to go to will return to their villages and their homes. The sad fact is that some will already be promised as wives by their fathers to men in their villages. If they can somehow get through the three months of holidays and return to school, the future may well be very bright for these girls.

Some other girls are orphans or displaced children from Boma in the East. The orphans will often stay with friends in Narus but as far as I know, arrangements are being made for the displaced children to remain as borders during the break. Boma has seen terrible violence over the last few months and many villages have been burned.

So, keep my girls in your thoughts this week especially tomorrow morning when they will sit their maths mock exam! Send all your prayers and your positive thoughts to St. Bakhita Girls Primary School in Narus, South Sudan!!

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.

The journey to Nairobi

Hujambo from Nairobi. I arrived here safely late on Tuesday night and since then have found myself in the most hospitable and enjoyable of company.

First a little about my flight because its something I really want to record for my own memory. The world we live in is really a magnificent place. We left London crossing Europe, we flew over the Alps, across the Mediterranean and then the Sahara. I have crossed the Atlantic by air more times than I can remember and I will admit to never having contemplated the sheer expanse of it. That sense of enormity, the sheer nothingness, the incomprehensible scale of it all….the Sahara really is immense, breathtaking in fact. It was dark by the time we flew over Sudan. I am in awe of this little planet we call home. The contrast between the plentiful life in some parts and then the barrenness of other parts. 

Now…I know some of my friends and family know how obsessive I can be about packing. I firmly believe that almost any trip is possible on hand luggage if the proper planning is undertaken in advance! In fact, my goal for 2013 was to do Christmas at home in Ireland on hand luggage…of course that was before I planned this trip! Now obviously, there’s no way of spending two months in Africa without checking in luggage but I’m travelling light! One holdall and one backpack checked in; less than 30 kilos! I find this hugely satisfying and here’s a picture!!

Arriving in Nairobi was an experience! The circumstances surrounding the fire and the magnitude of the disaster is a great source of conversation and debate. There are rumours that the fire may have been started to destroy evidence of money laundering or the illegal issuance of citizenships. There is talk that there was no working fire engine available to attend the fire and when one eventually arrived two hours after the small fire was reported, the fire was out of hand and there was little water with which to quench it. 

The satirists in Nairobi have had a turn with the debacle too – the cartoonist Gado contributed this to the Daily Nation!

The terminal is now a series of marquees and lots of covered seats like one would see at a wedding reception. The process of getting a visa for entry was uneventful but lengthy. It was about 2 hours from the time we touched down to when I walked out of the terminal to meet my hosts. I now have a three month visa for Kenya!