“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.

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 day we found Guinness in South Sudan!

So… Each time I’ve gone to the Dinka Market, I have returned with a treasure hitherto unexpected in Narus. Last week it was mobile phone credit for face value and this week it was Guinness!! Yes, let me loose in any barren wilderness and in the shortest possible time I will find alcohol!!

Now, I’m very aware that this post will not paint me in the best light but honesty is the best policy!! It is well known by my friends that I enjoy a nice glass of wine. In fact, I’m very good at enjoying a nice glass of wine! But, I haven’t had any alcoholic beverage since I left Nairobi on September 4th and the net effect is wonderful! I’ve lost a lot of weight between my detox regime and the heat! 

On Friday last Tim returned from Lokichoggio in Kenya and brought me back a huge treat! He had found a box of white wine which may well be the only one the NGOs left behind. That was my treat from Loki!! 

So, it has been very civilised here for the last few days with glasses of wine for supper.

On Saturday last Anne Grace and I went for our now weekly walk around the Dinka Market. It would appear we got there on crazy day though, we were persued by not just one but two drunken lunatics one of whom actually got a little physical until I sent her away with a pound note, she literally danced and sang down the street! Clearly, too sane for crazy day at the market, we decided to go in search of cold soda….but the most amazing thing happened!!!

WE FOUND A BAR!!

Oh it was beautiful, fully stocked with Guinness, Heineken and all kinds of treats. For some reason they carried quite a lot of Baileys too. I steered clear of the Baileys thinking that the heat can’t be good for such a creamy drink.

So I Anne Grace and I had two bottles of Smirnoff Black Ice and I bought some bottles of Guinness to bring back as a present to Fr.Tim and Fr. John Joe. The evening was moving on but we still had about two hours before darkness fell so we decided to have another. 

After my second drink I quickly realised that not only have I lost weight but my tolerance for alcohol seems to have diminished too. I’m embarrassed to say that I was quite giggly after just two bottles of alcopop. It was time to go home…although at that stage the craic was good and I’d happily have stayed for the evening until I remembered that I’m scared of Africa in the dark. Too many things want to eat me, sting me or kill me so it was time for home!

…..needless to say I politely declined the offer of a glass of wine with supper that evening!!

Real Missionaries Eat Porridge

My parents keep asking if I’m getting enough to eat. I am!! The food here is good and despite what my family might think I’m really not a picky eater.

However there is just one thing I have said I will not eat and that is soukuma. It is just like cale or cabbage and served boiled with butter and some spices. I just can’t…nay won’t do it!! So I have everything else.  

I am reminded almost daily that real missionaries eat porridge. And while that may well be true the only thing that encourages me to eat at least some porridge is the fact that it makes my bolt sized malaria tablet go down easier. Tim makes me eat some every morning and its at the point now where I’m even bribing my students to lie for me…I’m not proud of it….

You see, breakfast here at home is when the masses in the chapel and the church are over at 8am. But, I have classes each morning at 8am so I have breakfast alone before the porridge is ready. It has been a running joke with my students about the porridge so I told them that I had told Tim that I was taking porridge at school with them…it transpires that they are rubbish liars and my cunning plan was foiled when he questioned them about it after our mass on Satuday. I got that “you’re rumbled” look from Tim and now I actually think that he may have asked the cook to come earlier now so that my porridge will be ready before I leave at 7:40ish. There’s just no getting away from the damn stuff.

To make matters worse our friend Ann Grace often comes for breakfast or lunch and she just LOVES porridge and soukuma. It’s like having a really annoying older sister who is just perfect! (I mean I do already have an older sister who is just perfect but I’m pretty sure she’d draw the line at soukuma too). 

The words “you should be more like Ann Grace” and “real missionaries eat porridge” are ringing in my ears!!

Last days in London

The very fact that I am finally getting around writing this post on the flight to Nairobi might suggest just how busy and frenetic the last few days have been.

It’s has been just over two weeks since I committed my time to the Kiltegan Fathers and planning begun for this trip. I now realise that normal people would give themselves months to prepare….not me!! Is no fun unless there is some extreme hardcore planning and chaos involved. I mean where would the challenge be?!

Ticking things off my to-do list was hugely satisfying and kept me distracted. I’m not too proud to say that I came very close to losing my nerve. Reading conflicting reports about the stability of the region, the landmines left behind from recent conflicts, the challenge of crossing the border from Kenya to South Sudan, the increased risk of malaria now that it is rainy season, the devastating floods that the people of Juba have endured, the upcoming September 6th deadline imposed by Khartoum for South Sudan to cease support for rebels operating across the border with Sudan – the prospect of the path I have laid before me has at times seemed more than I am equipped to deal with. 

And then, in those moments inevitably the universe came to the rescue. An encouraging email or text message would arrive from a friend or family member and I would be filled with courage once more. 

I am under no illusion but that I am a very fortunate young lady. I seem to have been blessed with the gift of making friends – and very good friends, people who in turn are good at being friends. I held leaving drinks in London last week at a friends pub. A very informal affair on a glorious summers evening. I took a moment to look around and be very thankful. My friends came to send me away with their warmest wishes and prayers. The group of about 40 people ranged in age from 21 to 86. They were from every walk of life and all over the world. All gathered because they care about me and want to show their support. And it is that support and unfaltering support from my family that stopped me from wimping out! 

In a particularly touching moment, I was summoned to the platform during mass at St. Paul’s on Sunday where Fr. Nick lead the congregation in a special prayer for me, for my ministry and safe return. I was so moved although somehow managed not to cry! I realise now that this trip isn’t just important to me, it’s important to others too and I must do everyone proud.

So here I am, 35,000 feet somewhere over the Sahara leaving London behind for two whole months. I’m packed and ready and I’m fairly sure I haven’t forgotten anything – malarial tablets, yellow fever certificate (now sporting my correct nationality!), a bag full of various other drugs which should save me from infections, food poisoning, my headaches and a myriad of other ailments. I’m fully expecting there to be a nationwide shortage of baby wipes considering how much I’ve packed!

But most importantly, I have today’s Irish Times, two bottles of very good Jameson, a truck load of chocolate and the Dublin v Kerry football match for Fr. Galvin. I’m really looking forward to meeting and getting to know him. 

More from Nairobi!!

“Education is a Contamination of Women”

It has been gently pointed out to me that while I have written lots about my preparations for my trip and a little about how this trip came about, I haven’t actually explained what I will be doing in South Sudan.

The frank and honest answer is that I don’t really know yet.

As I think I mentioned before, I offered two months of my time to a mission in South Sudan led by Fr. Tim Galvin who is a Kiltegan Father. In our communications thus far, he has expressed the value of my trip in showing girls that there are options. There are other lives to be lead and that education is important.

I will arrive in Narrus at the end of the first week of September. From then until the children return to school on September 23rd I will do whatever is needed. I don’t know what that will be yet but I expect it will involve learning a lot about the customs and cultures of the Toposa people. From September 23rd until I leave I will teach at one of the schools in Narus.

Of course, being a compulsive planner, I have spent a great deal of time reading as much as I can about the Toposa. They are a farming people who have a very structured social make up. While most children are educated in primary school, relatively few women carry on to secondary level education. Girls have a “value” in terms of their dowry and young girls are often promised to men much older than them. I read in one of the many blogs that I have studied that many Toposa still think that “education is a contamination of women”. This phrase really struck me and made me terribly sad. Each and every girl should have access to an education regardless of what the future holds for them.

I feel that this is particularly important for a country that is just two years old. If South Sudan is going to see the success that the rest of the world hopes for it, it must harness that young energy regardless of the gender of the body that holds it. Almost 75% of the countries population is under the age of 30. Just imagine what the future could hold in store for South Sudan.

So, the answer is that I’m not entirely sure what each day will hold for me but I will do as I’m directed and try to learn as much as I possibly can.

London mosquitos toughen me for their big brothers in South Sudan

Right arm bite Left hand biteThat bruise is from the jabs just hours earlier...thats one brave mosquito!

For those of you brave enough to look! The last picture is my favourite – the intrepid mosquito bit me directly underneath where I’d had my jabs just hours later. I can only assume he’s is off his head on yellow fever vaccine somewhere! These pictures were taken more about 36 hours after I was bitten and after I’d slept with my hand in a wine cooler!

Tick Tock – one week to go

Well…its just one week to go now and preparations are in full swing. Flights are booked and I leave for Nairobi on Tuesday September 3rd. Its beginning to sink in just what a mouthful I’ve bitten off here and I really hope that I’ll do this adventure justice.

I’m really happy that I will be escorted from Nairobi to Narus. Frankly, this is a huge weight off my mind.

Jabs and bites

So I had all my shots last week. Ironically, just hours after, I was bitten horribly by something vicious and nasty while I slept. I think it was a mosquito but I’m not sure. Either way, on top of feeling rather rubbish on Tuesday because of the shots, I had three awful bites which had swollen like something out of a horror movie. I can only imagine that the mosquitoes in South Sudan are eagerly awaiting my arrival. I slept with my hand in a wine cooler on Tuesday night and went straight back to the doctor on Wednesday morning. The poor man was horrified and prescribed super strength anti-histimines and hydrocortisone. My hands and arms are back to the size they’re supposed to be now and theres just a littleĀ staining to remind me of the mosquitoes feast!

Packing

I will admit to being very proud of my packing prowess. I can achieve almost any trip on hand luggage – my personal best being 5 days in the US and then straight to my sisters wedding on hand luggage. However, this time I’m having to bite the bullet and actually check luggage! Frankly, clothes are the least of my worries although I’ve packed very sensibly. Light clothes and lots of layers. It will be hot and humid in Narus and its rainy season now so I have to account for that too.

The most important thing I will pack is my medical kit – here are some highlights!

  • Anti-histimine
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Iodine (for the purification of water if necessary)
  • Canulae and clean syringes – often such things are sterilised and reused and its better to take the precaution of having my own.
  • Anti-biotics – should I get an infection, I will have a course of anti-biotics on hand. I don’t know how easy it will be procure them in South Sudan.
  • Electrolyte sachets
  • Antibacterial wipes and cream
  • Basic equipment for dressing wounds
  • Sleep aid
  • DEET (to keep away the mosquitoes)
  • Headache tablets – I have paroxysmal hemicrania so I have to ensure I have enough Indomethacin to last me for two months. Whats more is that given that I don’t know how the change in routine, environment, climate etc will affect my headaches, I have to plan for worst case scenario….thats a lot of drugs!!
  • Standard pain killers

Visas

I will need a Visa to enter Kenya but also to enter South Sudan. I have called both embassies and I am assured that visa’s will be issued at the border and that nothing is required in advance. Normally visa’s cost about $100 but I need to factor in extra for any bribes I might need to pay. On my to-do list is to take plenty of passport photos and photocopies of all my documentation.