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 Temporary Dorm

As I mentioned in earlier posts, the war broke out shortly after I left South Sudan in 2013. It was during the girls “long holiday” so we feared that they would not be able to return to school when the term started in January.

The opposite was the case. Girls came to school in such numbers that there was not enough dormitory space. In this video, Fr. Tim shows us the tarpaulin tent he constructed to go some way towards protecting these new students from the elements.

 

https://vimeo.com/103948073

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!!

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”

Catechumens first homework assignment

As well as teaching maths to standard 7 and 8 in St. Bakhita Girls Primary School, I also help with the preparation of the candidates for Baptism and Communion. The girls range in age from about 4 years old to 15 years.

Our first class was last week and while the girls could recite the Ten Commandments, they seemed to have little comprehension about what they really meant or where they came from. So, I set homework for the girls which was presented to Anne Grace and I yesterday and we just had to share!

Our of the 30 or so girls who were present in the class, 5 completed the homework I set. This is a pretty impressive statistic. Homework is a very foreign concept here, I mean they know what it is but just don’t bother as a rule.

Of the 5 assignments returned to us, 3 were exactly the same…even the spelling. They were also a pretty alternative take on the Commandments….It’s been a while since I learned the Commandments but I’m pretty sure the second Commandment has something to do with using the Lords name in vain rather than more specifically dealing with stationary theft.

I really hope you can see these pictures – if not, please someone leave me a comment and I will transcribe them.

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!!

The welcome feast

On the evening of Sunday September 22nd we were invited to the home of the Ugandan sisters who share the diocese compound. The Brothers were also invited, Brother Mike from New York and Brothers Germay, Rene and Gonzaga, all from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fathers Tim and John Joe and I made our way there after evening prayer (and once the All-Ireland was over!) to find that some other esteemed guests had been invited also. Zachariah the town chairman, Monica the chairperson of the PTA, Madame Helen from St. Bakhita and Esther Iko who I had first met on my arrival here at her daughter Kulangs funeral.

It transpired that Sister Margaret had gatherered the group of fourteen together in my honour. She made a short introductory speech welcoming me to their home and urging me to feel it to be my home too. 

And what an honour it was.

Sister Anges presented me with a beautiful posy of flowers and a huge hug of welcome. She is young and energetic and always full of life. I hear that she was a very popular radio host in Uganda before she came to South Sudan. Now she teaches the younger girls in St. Bakhita and I can’t help but think how lucky they are to have her.

The feast was fit for a king. There were local dishes from South Sudan and Ugandan dishes prepared by Sister Margaret, Sister Susan and Sister Agnes. I really didn’t know where to start. And the smell!! The room filled with the aroma of meat slowly cooked in a delectable concoction of herbs and spices. We washed it all down with the great treat of bottled soda. 

Conversation was lovely as it tends to be when Zachariah is around. He’s full of life and energy. He is a great town chairman and he works hard to create a better future for the children of this place. 

Desert came disguised. We were to guess what it was – Tim thought it might be our angry cat but I think my guess was closest. I said that whatever was hidden underneath the cloth was sure to be delicious. And it was! We cut the cake together, me, Tim, Zachariah and Monica to a great round of applause. It was a scrumptious ginger sponge cake that had been prepared earlier in the day.

Sister Margaret then asked, ever so officially, for Zachariah to make an address. He spoke of how happy he was that I had come to Narus and how he only hoped that I could stay longer. He made it clear that I was one of them now and that I should call on him day or night if there was something I needed. He wanted me to feel safe here and happy and invited me back next year!

Tims address was next in his capacity as Parish Priest of Narus. He explained that it has been only 6 weeks or so since he had an email from me out of the blue introducing myself. He knew my mother but didn’t know me and in the short time since that email we’ve become good friends. He saw in me someone who wanted to learn more about missionary life and having conferred with John Joe decided he must help me. He knew that St. Bakhita needed a maths teacher and with my having studied maths he felt I’d be a good fit. The timing of my visit was perfect. He welcomed me and wished me well. He sees that this is a journey for me too and sees that I’m very happy here.

And then it was my turn as guest of honour. At this point I was so touched and admittedly a little close to tears. I addressed my friends. I thanked them for the marvellous welcome and wonderful evening but most of all for letting me be part of their lives and the community here in Narus. I told them that they came to me at the right time too. Providence put us all together. I told them, very honestly how happy I am here and how very full of gratitude I am to all of them. I shall miss them all and this life terribly when I have to return to London.

Fr. John Joe closed the addresses with a prayer for me and for all of us. 

Guests drifted away and soon it was time for us to leave too for the short walk back to our house. As I was leaving, another huge hug from Sister Agnes and the sweetest thing – she said “thank you for loving us and St. Bakhita”

And I do. I love them all. I love St Bakhita and my life here. And I am eternally grateful to God or the Universe or whichever power directed me to South Sudan to be surrounded by such love and hope.

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!

 

Following in footsteps

I found this in my purse when packing yesterday. I don’t know where it came from but I expect I found it once upon a time in my grandmothers things. I don’t know the context or which paper it appeared in. By the time my dad was 21 he had already served one tour of duty in Katanga Province in the Congo, had been involved in the Siege of Jadotville and spend a number of months as a hostage held by Katanga rebels. I think when this note was written, he would have been preparing for his second tour in the Congo.

I am thinking of him now and how different our journeys into Africa are. Aside from the purpose, I am aboard a very comfortable BA flight on what will be a journey of just over 8 hours. When Dad first went to the Congo, the journey was 13 hours with 120 or so other men in a military personnel carrier. I will have lunch served soon, he was given a plastic bag with a sandwich and some fruit for sustinence. He was wearing a bulls wool uniform, I have clothes suitable for the terrain which employ the latest technologies to keep me cool when I need to be cool and warm when I need to be warm. To combat malaria Dad took one quinine tablet each week. I have two months supply of very expensive and effective Malerone which taken daily will prevent my getting the dreaded disease.

As my dad loves to remind me “I don’t know how easy I have it!!”