Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Br Bill Diaries

As we move towards Christmas and all that implies it may be useful to reflect on Br Bill's experiences in the Sudan, most so different from our own current lives.

The stories of the ‘Lost Children of Sudan’ are forlorn and dispiriting. ‘How could people treat
children so badly?’ I wondered, as I read of their plight in several books on Sudan. Now, even
with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in place and many signs of progress towards improved standards and more normal living, the fear and the appalling treatment of people by the rebelgroup, the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” (the LRA) is very much a concern in the Western Equatorial province of Southern Sudan, near the boarders of Congo and Uganda.

Since independence in 1962, Uganda, a very fertile country, has had a succession of Presidents of whom the best known was probably Idi Amin (1971 to ’79). Amin came from the north of
Uganda and was one of the Acholi people who regularly have held high rank in the army and
considerable influence in Uganda under a succession of northern presidents. All that changed in
1986 when the military junta of Tito Okello was ousted by Yoweri Museveni from the south. He
has been in power ever since and the Acholi have suffered from being seen as the supporters of
the former leaders. Gradually an Acholi resistance movement grew. Initially it was called the
Uganda People’s Democratic Army and, later, the Holy Spirit Movement. It was led by Alice
Lakwena, a woman who saw herself as a kind of prophetess giving back to her people some selfrespect. She led a revolt in 1987 but was defeated and fled to Kenya. Out of the remnants of the Holy Spirit Movement grew the LRA.

The LRA is now led by Joseph Kony, a relative and disciple of Alice Lakwena, who believes he
is endowed with some supernatural powers and chosen by God to be the new president of

Children are more easily trained. The LRA are trained to be incredibly vicious, not only to kill
but also to cut off ears, lips and other parts of the body leaving people permanently disfigured.
Their activity has spread from Uganda into the Congo and parts of Southern Sudan. Even as I
write, about 80 local men from the Riimenze area, where Solidarity with Southern Sudan is based in this part of the country, have gone from here to oppose the LRA at Sakure. There have been sporadic efforts to eliminate the threat of the LRA but so far neither military action not dialogue has been effective.

Some 20 kms along the road from here to Uganda, the Sisters took me to visit Makpundu, a
refugee camp for thousands of Congolese who have fled from their country to lesser danger in
Southern Sudan. I am grateful for my limited ability to communicate in French and wish that I
was more fluent. These people have built their tukuls (simple native houses) among the teak
forests of Southern Sudan and now eke out a determined existence. They are prepared to work
and some have been employed to build a brick and grass-roofed tukul for the sisters’ watchman at Riimenze.

As refugees, these Congolese are receiving some assistance from the UN but the standard of food
delivered is poor. The sisters from Solidarity with Southern Sudan try to help them in any way
they can and regularly donate some better quality rice from community funds. Along with a
generous Italian priest, Father Mario, the sisters are bringing the gentle love of Christ and hope to these people who have seen times of hopeless despair. As always the children are full of life and hope while the adults work to shelter them and to nourish that hope.

The children love to shake hands. I think they are especially delighted to shake the hand of this
strange white man walking smilingly among them. Some of the local Sudanese people resent the
fact that these refugees are given UN assistance while IDPs (internally displaced persons within
their own countries) do not qualify for assistance. Actually we talk often of the dilemma of handouts to the needy which can destroy motivation to work. In the Sudanese culture, where women are expected to work, bear children, carry water, cultivate in the gardens and so on, it is not easy to find men willing to work.

Sister Jenny and I took the land cruiser out along some rough tracks to pick up some grass which had been cut for the roof of the tukul being built for the watchman. When Jenny, who was
driving, took us roughly over a couple of bumps, I muttered in jest to Jenny: “Women drivers!”
for which comment I received a quick good-natured punch from my Chilean pilot. The two men
in the back erupted in laughter to see such an exchange between a man and a woman. It would
not happen in Sudanese culture. For my sins, Jenny handed me the wheel for the next couple of
trips and she erupted with delight: “Men drivers” when I went over a rough bump – again to the
delight of the men in the back.

My notional understanding of the pain and fears that have afflicted the Congolese or Sudanese people with whom I struggle to communicate will never be the same as theirs. The large house in which I reside is very different from their tukuls, but that is something to accept, not to worry about. The people of Southern Sudan will always view me with some envy and suspicion; but I am also uncertain about them.

Our paths are crossing on different, individual life journeys. I have new co-workers and friends
from other distant countries who may be labelled as “missionaries” (although the faith we bring
may not be so strong as that of some of the people here) and I am making new friends among the
people of Sudan - slowly. This is a patient, timeless land where there are some wonderful
perspectives on life even in the midst of culturally disappointing aspects such as the treatment of
women. People have time to think, to pray, to live together and to be at ease together. The hymns at mass are rhythmic – and long! People celebrate and appreciate good and simple joys together.

Most local people are very pleasant, cheerful and welcoming. While most are helpful, it is less than pleasant, however, for this white face, probably the only one in view, to be pursued around the market place, by an aggressive young man with glazed eyes, obviously drugged in some way, demanding money. I consistently refuse - and he scribbles with nail polish on our Toyota just as we drive off. It is more disturbing that the LRA have occasionally invaded even major towns such as Yambio. Last Sunday night, our Church bell tolled unexpectedly. When Sr Margaret and I went to investigate, two young men told Margaret the LRA were thought to be in the area. I actually slept well that night but some of the Sisters did not. We found out the next day it was a false alert.

Security is an issue for all. The invasion of a snake into one of the sister’s bedrooms created
another kind of insecurity – although that particular snake is no longer a threat! We saw one tukul recently with two dead snakes draped on its roof. With good reason, the ground around tukuls is kept very clean and clear. The local Sudanese live with uncertainty – and we share that uncertainty, in a different way. The white person has more ways to escape danger but less ability to blend into the background should danger appear. The fact that we are here brings hope to people who could otherwise feel hopelessly forgotten and ignored. We share their best and a little of their worst. We are Christians together, gifted to live with eternal hope.

Br Bill

1 comment:

Peter Eichstaedt said...

For an insightful look at Kony and his LRA, see the book, First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army.