“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.

A day as a teacher in St. Bakhita

I stopped off in Narus for a few days on my way to Riwoto to visit my friends there. More to follow on that but I had a great time going back to St. Bakhita Girls Primary School where I had taught maths two years ago.

It was wonderful to see the changes in the school. There are more teachers and the security has been improved. The new Principal Sister Jane has worked wonders on a shoe string and the girls seem so happy. 

Sister Jane was quick to jump at the opportunity to have a new maths teacher and I spent one day at the school teaching revision classes. I helped to prepare the girls for their mid-term exams which will take place over the coming weeks.

I must admit, I was completely exhausted by the end of it all. But very happy to be back!

On Friday morning, there was a special assembly for me. The girls danced and sang and presesnted me with letters of appreciation for the domitory as well as beautiful beads. I felt so lucky. There was a sense though that I was moving on to a new adventure. 

There are more than 700 girls in the school now which comprise of both borders and day students. About 400 of those girls are borders with many coming from villages and town days away. St. Bakhita is one of the best schools in the province and those parents to value education are always keen to have their children attend.

I will write more about the dormitory later. Theres plenty of news on that front!
   

  

  

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.

Sister Susan sends thanks for the new dormitory

This is another post that I should have written months ago but better late than never I guess.

I am proud to say that this is the fruit of my last visit to South Sudan and I am excited about what adventures my next trip holds in store.

Thank you Sister Susan for such a lovely message and to Fr. Tim for his impressive camera work!!

But most of all, thank you to my family and friends for their financial support in making this happen….look what we did!!!

https://vimeo.com/103996040

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

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.

Sunday Mass in Kamai – video

Now that I’m back in London, I can share some videos from my adventure in South Sudan. I posted some pictures a few weeks ago from Sunday Mass in Kamai. We had been due to be there a week before but we were unable to travel because it had rained heavily that morning and there was water in the rivers.

We left Narus at about 7am that morning and travelled the three hour journey together to Kamai. A message had been sent earlier in the week to the Cathecist, a blind man named Michael. Michael is a force of nature and had he the gift of sight, he would be unstoppable.

Mass was a celebration in every sense of the word. The young children were nervous of me at the start and kept a very safe distance but once they saw that I was friendly they couldn’t get close enough. Once again, my hair was a real attraction – these young children had never seen a white woman let alone a girl with long straight hair. What a novelty!!

http://vimeo.com/78248944

http://vimeo.com/78248945

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 🙂