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 strong and refined essence of a continent.

“There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through 6,000 feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.”

From Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

When we were in Nairobi and at those times when the absolute beauty of the sunset over the majestic Ngong Hills was almos breath taking Tim would say “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills”. This came as a surprise to me. I knew that Tim had spent 5 years in Kenya but I didn’t realise that he had farmed…until I was politely informed that those were the first words of the literary classic “Out of Africa” and a favourite book of Tims. 

I’m reading the book now but my favourite description comes just two paragraphs after.

It has been difficult to come home. Maybe I’ll talk about all of that another time but when talking to my friends and family about the depth of feeling, this image helped me. 

South Sudan is not quite 6,000 feet but in reflection, this idea of distillation is the perfect description. There is nothing in South Sudan to dilute the experience, nothing to dissolve the feelings. Love, loneliness, sadness, pain, happiness….everything seems more acute. I realise that now. I wrote in earlier posts how I was surprised by my capacity to love and the willingness of the girls to love me. 

And now, as I work to integrate this extraordinary experience into my “real life”, I know that it all awaits me.

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!!

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.

This Toposa girl

I don’t know this Toposa girls name. Here is what I do know about her. 

She is the daughter of a Toposa herdsman. She is about 15 years of age. At a young age her father cut her cheeks and forehead with a knife and filled the wounds with ash from the fire pit. Those are the “beauty” marks you see in the picture. It is an incredibly painful procedure and of course there are no painkillers or treatments to prevent infection. 

She attended St. Bakhita some years ago. She learned to count, to say the alphabet and to write her name. She made friends with girls from many other tribes, the Murle, the Dinke, the Karamajong. She was a happy little girl.

Then one day, she stopped coming to school. When the elders of the school investigated, they learned that her fathers fellow tribesmen humiliated him. They mocked him for allowing his daughter to lose her value as a wife by sending her to school. They asked how he could expect to get a good dowry for her if she became a prostitute. (This is what many Toposa men think of girls who get a basic education). 

So he stopped her attending school.

I see this Toposa girl walk by the school almost every day carrying heavy loads of charcoal or firewood on her head. She carries the load from compound to compound hoping that someone will buy from her. She desperately wants to return to school but cannot. She sees the other girls enjoy the education they have been blessed with. She sees that with the help of the food provided to the school by the World Food Programme, the girls are fed and healthy.

The best that this girl can hope for is that her father will sell her as a wife for a good dowry that will improve her fathers situation and maybe that of her siblings but not hers. She has been sentenced to a life of hardship and toil. She will become a wife at a young age and maybe not the mans first wife. If she is his first wife, she will not be his last wife. She will share the compound she will build alone with the other wives her husband will take. 

Her husband will make her repay the dowry he paid for her by having her enslaved to him for the rest of her life. It will be her responsibility to build the home, to cultivate the crops, to raise her children and the children her husband fathers with his other wives. She will fetch water, cook, clean and try to generate an income for the family.

I really don’t want my posts to sound like those “for $10 a month you can feed a family in Africa” type ads that we see on daytime television. There is nothing anyone can do for this girl. It breaks my heart to know what this girls life is. But I find it infinitely more difficult to deal with the fact that this Toposa girl is exceptional in wanting an education and that many young girls still aspire to the life this Toposa girl has been sentenced to. 

I met this Toposa girl last Sunday. I sat at the very back pew just inside the door and she stood at the door throughout the service. I invited her to sit with me and she cowered behind the door. I asked about her at lunch at lunch and this is what I learned. I also learned that she had gone to see the Ann Grace  and asked her to read the Gospel to her. Ann Grace invited her to come to church and she came.

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 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.

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 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!

 

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!!