Weekend in Riwoto

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This weekend I went to Riwoto to spend with my wonderful friend Fr. John Marren. Initially there was some doubt over whether the weekend would happen or not. Both Fr. Tim and I had been ill on the previous week … Continue reading

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.

The rain came

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We prayed for rain and it came. Torrential and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Classes in the morning were cancelled and at midday the rain had eased so I donned my gum boots and went to see the water … Continue reading

And then it rained…

This part of South Sudan is dry…so very dry and hot. I walk to school every day through the river bed. There is so rarely water in the rivers that the roads run straight through. Even if there was money to build bridges, I can’t imagine they would bother in most cases. There is one bridge in Narus and conveniently it is just a little further up the river from where I cross. So, when it rains I can take the bridge to school instead.

It rained last Saturday morning. Tim and I drove to the church for mass at 7am. Sometime around the second reading the heavens opened. The rain fell against the tin roof completely drowning out every word Fr. Tim said. And the the win added to the drama. Gusts blew great torrents of water through the ventilation space in the roof of the church drenching us all. So we moved to the other side of the church and continued.

Just after Communion, there was an almighty crashing noise. It sounded as though something had crashed against the metal door of the church. Or very loud gunfire maybe. By the time I reacted I saw that my girls from standard 8 were already under the pews looking terrified. We all giggled when we realised that we’d all had such a fright from a clap of thunder. From where Fr. Tim sat he could see the lightening strike almost immediately outside the church.

What struck me deeply though was that this was not the first time the girls had run for cover like that. They  grew up in South Sudan during the war. Narus was bombed many times. The girls were accustomed to hearing jets overhead from Khartoum and knew the signal to sprint to their designated bunkers. There are bunkers everywhere. There are at least three in our compound and many more in the girls primary school. I thought how fortunate I was that the reality of my childhood was so very different to theirs.

By the time we were ready to leave, the pickup was full of my students and we took off. We dropped the girls off at the bridge and continued the short distance to our compound. When it rains here, the road turns to mud often several feet deep. And then we got stuck! Tim declared it so matter of factly that there didn’t seem any point encouraging him to try again!

I got out of the pickup to investigate and I established that if we could just move one large stone we should be able to proceed. So…when my girls returned to see what all the commotion was about, they found their maths teacher barefoot in a foot and half of mud trying to loosen a big stone from under the pickup. Needless to say they thought this was the funniest thing they were likely to see all week!!

Anyway, my efforts were futile and we ended up calling Mongi (our mechanic) to come with the tractor and save us. When a task seems just too large, a man on a Massey Ferguson can always fix it!!

It rained on Wednesday too but I’m afraid it wasn’t quite such a giggle. It rained quite heavily for about 3 hours from 5am. I made it to school safely through the mud but on my way back to the compound after my morning classes I met Sr. Agnes who told me that there had been an accident.

About 20 Toposa women had stayed at our compound for two nights. They had been in Kenya and Uganda to have peace talks with the Turkana and the Karamajong. There is a long history of violence and war between the three tribes. They had a good trip and productive discussions.

Their villages are about 6 hours drive into the bush from Narus. They travelled in the back of a truck. Apparently the truck hit a pothole which was actually mud many feet deep and the truck toppled over. The women were thrown from the back of the truck.

It is a miracle that no one died or suffered more severe injuries. Two doctors were dispatched from ARC (American Refugee Centre) and the driver from our compound left in another truck. Three women were admitted to the government clinic and the others returned to our compound to rest after their ordeal.

Life is back to normal now after the rain….but my Daddy was (as always right)….I should have packed my wellies!

My life in Narus

I realise that I haven’t shared much information about my life as it is in Narus. I live in a compound with two priests; Fr. Tim Galvin and Fr. John Joe Garvey from Millstreet in Co. Cork. We have quickly settled into a routine and after just a week we have our own “inside” jokes which to me is the mark of an easy friendship.

Both are excellent company and our conversations at meal times range from the intellectual to the ridiculous.

We rise each morning at about 6am. Fr. Tim says mass at the church and Fr. John Joe says mass at the small chapel on our compound. I normally attend mass with John Joe in the chapel and we are joined by the Nuns and Brothers who also share the compound but live more or less separately to us.

Once mass is over, we three meet for breakfast prepared by our cook Alina. My father will be delighted to hear that we have porridge every morning. The only positive things I can say about porridge is that each bowl brings me one bowl closer to the last one I’ll ever have to eat! Although, I will admit that it helps greatly with my malaria tablet which seems to be almost impossible to swallow.

We then continue about our daily lives. I spend time with my Standard 8 girls in St. Bakhita Girls Primary School. They are desperate for extra tuition and I am very happy to spend as much time as possible with them. They are candidates for State exams this year and maths is a notoriously weak subject for girls in South Sudan so I am proud that they are willing to work so hard. Some of the girls show great potential.

I meet my two Kiltegan Fathers again for lunch after which we hide away from the heat of the day. It gets incredibly hot here – often exceeding 35 degrees Celsius. We study and prepare for our classes. I return to school for extra tuition and I will soon start my classes in Toposa too.

Sometimes, I will accompany Tim as he inspects the work at the St. Bakhita secondary school or visits with parishioners. I really enjoy our late afternoon strolls, no one knows more about Narus or the people here than Tim. It is also very humbling to see the work that he has done here and what has been achieved.

I have made some new friends too and so sometimes in the late afternoon i will spend time with them. Anna Grace is an economics teacher in the secondary school. She is from the Karamajong tribe in Uganda. Her story is incredible and maybe in time and ith her permission I will be able to share that story.

We gather together again form Evening Prayer at about 7pm before sitting for supper together and watching the 8pm news headlines on Al Jazeera, the only channel we get (which frankly is fine by me!). We read and chat about the days events.

The generator goes off at about 9:30pm which leaves us with the less powerful solar lights. At this point I head for bed having decided early on that the safest place to be in the dark in Africa is in my bed with my mosquito net firmly tucked under my mattress!

Soon I will start to help with preparing the classes for confirmation. But that is the typical framework of my day in Narus.

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Things I’ve learned in Kenya and South Sudan

1. And this is by far the most important….when Fr. Tim says “I don’t want to scare you but…” The sentence normally ends with something about man eating snakes, spiders with killer bites, scorpions or land mines and so a sensible amount of terror is prudent.

2. In regional airports, there is no check-in. Go to the nearest bar and wait there until you see the plane land. This is the equivalent of having the gate announced. At any rate, it will take them a few minutes to clear the runway of cattle, sheep and goats so you’ll have plenty of time!

3. I can survive without chocolate, wine and my hair straighteners.

4. I am the only person in the world for whom DEET does not work. I am covered in bites and I think every small bug in South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda has had a chomp on some part of me.

5. I will be very happy never to see another bowl of porridge.

6. Using my ipad under the mosquito net at night is a bad idea.

7. That no matter how many times I ask, Tim is not going to allow me to drive the motor bike.

8. It is almost completely pointless to arrive anywhere at the time you’re supposed to be there. Nothing happens here for at least an hour after its supposed to have happened.

9. The cat and I will never be friends.

10. You can always depend on Fr. John Joe to brew an award winning cup of tea.

11. Always keep your eyes open and your mouth closed in the shower 🙂

Fr. Tim arrives and we drive across the desert from Lodwar to Lokichoggio

I had not yet met my host for this trip and the Parish Priest of Narus – Fr. Tim Galvin from Brosna in County Kerry – a neighbouring parish to that that in which I grew up. He journeyed for 10 hours to meet me in Lodwar in northern Kenya and to escort Fr. Marren and I safely to Narus in South Sudan. It was a great reunion when he arrived and I was very happy to finally meet him. A little older than my brothers, he has quickly taken the place as my South Sudanese brother!

We spent a very enjoyable evening in Lodwar with Fr. John Callaghan; a delicious supper followed by chocolate and a nice single malt on the veranda while putting the world to rights!

The climate in Lodwar is very different to Nairobi. It is desert and the heat is oppressive. It is dusty and barren. In the morning I attended my first Swahili mass read by Fr. John Callaghan who hails from Charleville. I was the only white person amount a congregation of Turkana women in their beaded finery.

Our plan was to leave immediately after breakfast at about 8am but a puncture scuppered that cunning plan.

So the boys left me to change the tyre (not really but I did help!) and we took off to garage in Lodwar to have the tyre repaired.

At this point our plan to cross the border and make it to Narus in South Sudan was impossible so we decided to briefly stop at a mission outpost before continuing to Lokichogio to spend the night. Fr. Dessie Miller has a mission is in Kalabyei which is between Lodwar and Lokichoggio in Kenya. He has lived in Turkana for 45 years and has a beautiful church in a hill top in the desert. Rather aptly it is named St. Benedicts. The picture below shows Fr. Dessie Miller showing off the first of his beautiful desert roses.

After a delicious lunch of ice cold melon we continued on our way. It was a welcome refreshment as it was 32 degrees in the shade! You can imagine how hot it was in the jeep with the three of us in the front! The terrain was difficult too, not only were the roads almost non-existent but we had to negotiate the wild camels too. They didn’t seem to realise that we had places to go and people to see!

When we finally arrived at Lokichoggio, exhausted from our journey, it was lovely to meet Fr. Tom Laffan. Another limerick man. After some tea, he invited me to join him whilevhe said mass at one of the Turkana villages about 30 minutes drive away. I’m so delighted I joined. I got to see a traditional Turkana village and I think I was one of the very few white people other than Fr. Tom that the villagers had seen since the NGOs left.

The mass was read in Turkana (my second mass if the day and I didn’t understand a word of either!). It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The congregation was almost exclusively women. At that time the men are typically still grazing the livestock.

At the end, Fr. Tom introduced me to the congregation and I was able to take some pictures. I was really taken by the experience if sharing the same sacrament with people so different to me. It showed me that standing before the altar, we are all the same

Welcome to South Sudan Helena Eireannach

We left on the final leg of our long journey to Narus on The morning of Saturday Septemer 7th. Our jeep was packed full but thankfully there were no punctures to delay us!

First arriving at the Kenyan border we were “checked out” of Kenya before continuing the mile or so to the South Sudan border. Not only crossing country borders, we were crossing from Turkana territory to Toposa territory. The two tribes have a history of war but there is peace now and this is a great relief to both tribes.

Outside the Kenyan border control. A young Turkana woman sat with a small purse. She entered into a colourful conversation with John Marren and it was a little while before I realised that this was the Kenyan borders answer to a Bureau de Change! There was a lot of negotiation but eventually the two parties came to a deal. Fr. John walked away and commented to me “now that’s what I call outsider trading”!

We continued to the South Sudan border and while Fr. Tim mad the necessary arrangements to get the truck across the border John Marren accompanied me to get my Visa. After what seemed like an eternity (despite the excellent company I hasten to add) and $100 later I was the proud owner of a South Sudan residents permit valid for one month. Visas are only issued monthly and it’s $100 each time….nice work if you can get it!!!

It was a jubilant return and there were celebratory hugs when Fr. Tim officially welcomed me to South Sudan. I was on his turf now!! We were about a mile into Suth Sudan when we realised that the official had renamed me! Misreading my Nationality for my surname, he has renamed me “Helena Eireannach”which  means “Irish Helena”!!! I’m so proud to be South Sudans only Irish Helena!!

The journey to Lodwar

John and I left together for the next stage of our journey to Narus on Thursday morning. Joseph drove us to the airport – which sounds like a simple job! It’s not…driving in Nairobi is not for the faint of heart. Joseph got us there safely which was a huge a achievement!

The terminal in Nairobi burned some weeks back so the terminal for domestic departures is the cargo terminal. We arrived and having had a nice cup if tea and a good chat, boarded the flight to Lodwar. The plane had one quick stop to make in Eldoret close to the Ugandan border before continuing to Lodwar.

Lodwar was an eye opener and I definitely felt as though I was really in Africa now.

The plane we arrived in had 37 seats and landed on the runway on time. It was in incredible journey, leaving the metropolis of Nairobi, flying over the Rift Valley, the green lands of Eldoret which looked just like home before reaching the desert. All in just under 2 hours.

This is the arrivals and departures “lounge” at Lodwar. I wish I had taken a picture of the luggage carousel which was really a very big wheel barrow around which a scrum took place!

Not sure if the pilot meant to take these bits with him….