Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Suddenly Sudan

Part one of an ongoing communique from Br Bill Firman, our man in the Sudan.

Following many inoculations, careful research of expected conditions, reading many books on Africa and explicitly on Sudan, I set off from Melbourne to Sudan prepared, I thought, for almost any emergency – except deportation on arrival! After four sets of applications for a visa that simply “evaporated”, I arrived in Sudan armed only with an electronic copy of an internal Southern Sudan three-month travel permit. The photocopy permit worked fine in Rome airport, and at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, allowing me to board the planes but at Juba I met an abrupt: "We must have the original". The trouble was the original had been sent to Rome but it had failed to arrive by the promised date. So while I was being very compliant in the chaotic confines of the terminal, Fr Joseph Callistus, the Solidarity with Southern Sudan (SSS) Administrative
Secretary rushed off and found a local priest who came to argue my case, and guarantee I was of good repute (even while, I confess, I was indulging in a little graft)! After a long half hour, I was granted a reprieve on the promise that I return as soon as possible with the right travel permit. Thankfully, three days later my passport was duly stamped with a new six-month permit in place. I am legally here. I have been very warmly welcomed - both by people here, and the weather. Several times I have bumped around Juba on contiguous, gaping, and sometimes slushy, potholes called roads. There are far more vehicles in Juba than I expected, but then, this is the seat of the government of the south. Fr Joseph, from Sri Lanka, took me across the Nile, only about 80 metres wide here, and back - the first, I imagine of many crossings I might make.

Some great work has been done here to get things to this stage and very good contacts have been established with the local Sudanese people. We met Fr Michael, a Jesuit in his late seventies who has initiated a Catholic University. There has been a succession of introductions to religious of sundry congregations and diverse nationalities. We also paid our respects to Archbishop Paolino who, on his official day off, warmly welcomed Brother Heldon from India and myself. A trip to the Ministry of Education has also been on the agenda. I am staying on here to meet the Bishop of Yambio on Thursday before he heads to Rome. There is also a Ministry seminar on teacher education next week. The Teacher Training Initiative of SSS works in contract with the Government Ministry of Education. So it will be 26th before I finally reach Malakal.

There are two shifts for schooling in Juba – the first school operates from 8:30 to 1:00pm; and the second from 1:30pm to 6:00pm with a new cohort of students in different uniforms. But the same teachers work from 8:30am to 6:00pm. I'm told the teachers do get very tired by the end of the day! Normal class size is 80 plus but there are over 100 students in some primary classes – often taught under trees with no writing material. I read of a school in Akobo that has 2,600 students with a total of only 23 teachers. Education is highly prized.

The war has left many 17 to 27 year olds with no education at all - some are now in primary classes but others loll or roam the streets moving endlessly to anywhere. I have talked to one such young man who is keen to learn. He lost his dad in the war and his Mum to AIDS. He has had little formal education but is fluent in six languages, including English. He is very cheerful, helpful and keen to progress yet one cannot imagine the sadness he has had to overcome. He says he is nineteen but looks fifteen.

I have attended my first African parish mass with lots of antiphonal singing and long repetitive prayers - a simple yet profound experience for an hour and a half on a Sunday morning. So much the same, yet so different. Most days we have mass and community prayer in our house.
The house SSS has built here in Juba is more substantial than I expected – but has no hot
running water. Such is life. Cold showers are supposed to be good for one! The power has failed a few times but the back up solar system is good. The regular loud speaker blasts by the Muslims celebrating Ramadan, commence at 5:00am – somewhat irritating, especially on Sunday. Perhaps it is a sign that God never sleeps! No doubt the strident sounds will fade in time to become background noise. I am sure God would prefer a more peaceful call to prayer. At least the power failures result in Allah being saluted less raucously!

I have slept well enough beneath my mosquito net on a foam rubber mattress. The buzzing fleet eventually seems to gives up in frustration or I simply don’t notice anymore! So far my health is very good and the low fat diet should be doing me good. Today we had some ‘posho’, a kind of dough made from Maize flower. Just as well I like rice. The cost of food is a little higher than Melbourne. Fresh fruit and some vegetables are available, mostly imported from Kampala, but onions at A$13 per kilo are a surprise. I came across cartons of Fosters (500 ml cans) for A$44.

I think the calling here is for optimistic people - otherwise the obvious needs could become overwhelming. Further, the mixture of delightful, grateful people with those whose attitudes have been forged by weapons and war, could be quite off-putting. All want peace but are quite unsure how, and if, it can be maintained. Yes, one feels quite safe and there is a very cheerful optimism among the community members with whom I am living. All are happy to be sharing their gifts with those less fortunate but just as precious to God. It is good to be here.

Br Bill

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