Learning to speak of God in South Sudan
The world’s youngest country, South Sudan, got her independence from the Republic of Sudan on 09-07-2011. Salva Kiir MAYARDIT of the SPLA (in power) is the country’s first and current president. Riek Machar, leader of the SPLA (in opposition) is one of the country’s five vice presidents. Power-sharing is the simple reason for such a number of vice presidents.
As is the case of many African countries, South Sudan is a rich-natural resource country criss-crossed everywhere by Africa’s longest river, the Nile. It is home to many ethnic/tribal groups. Sixty-four are known of which the Dinka, Nuer and the Shilluk are the majority. Peaceful coexistence for the time being is a rare reality among the ethnic groups. Tribal/ethnic conflicts are numerous and are part of the major causes of the country’s devastating wars.
Shortly after independence, wrangling for political power between President Salva Kiir of the Dinka ethnic group and his Nuer ark opponent, Riek Machar has often triggered political, ethnic, economic and other major crises in the country. In 2013, just two years after independence, a political tension between the two leaders began to simmer. In mid-December same year, what then was thought to be only a political power struggle between the two leaders exploded into a full-blown disastrous ethnic/tribal war between the Dinkas and the Nuers. 2014 was destined to be a year of desolation as the war left its horrendous consequences not only between the two concerned major ethnic groups but across every fabric of life of the South Sudanese; a gruesome loss of human lives, a mass displacement of people, a serious famine, lamentable human right abuses by way of exploitation of women and children, an utter distraction of human property and natural resources, dispossession and expulsion of other ethnic groups from their rightful lands etc.
Towns and villages are reduced to desolate wastes. Malakal, the capital of the Upper Nile State, second largest city in South Sudan and siege of the Malakal Catholic Diocese is the most devastated town. In the words of the Bishop of Malakal, his Lordship Stephen Nyodho, ‘Malakal is in ruin’! Renk, Wedakona and other towns and villages within the jurisdiction of the same Diocese are partly deserted up to now. It is in this ruined peripheral diocese that God has implanted us as Missionaries of Africa to be signs of hope and reconciliation through the proclamation of the Good News of his Son, Jesus Christ.
We are given a parish in Bor, capital of the Jonglei state and cradle of the SPLA of John Garang. Though not hard-hit by the recent war, Bor remains a fragile town in the midst of the oscillating tribal and political tensions that are hitherto thought to be latent. Bor is a flood-prone town and has recently been heavily flooded. In the rainy season Bor gets marshy and muddy. This reality not only wields a heavy effect on commercial and pastoral activities but becomes a real health hazard because many get broken bones with the mud. Though near Juba, the country’s capital, the only highly insecure two-hour drive road between the two towns is yet under construction. The best option for the time being is to board a thirty-minute flight by plane. Bor is an important administrative town. It has learning institutes including the John Garang University.
The Diocese of Malakal is the largest and most inaccessible in the country. It covers three administrative states. Yet there are not more than 18 priests (diocesan and missionaries combined) working in the diocese. So far only three female missionary congregations work in the diocese. In Bor, we minister to a cross-cultural, ethnic and migrant minority catholic community under the patronage of St Paul. History and living eye witnesses recount that St Paul’s Parish, Bor, was supposed to be opened by the Missionaries of Africa in 1982. Our honourable confrere, Bartholomew Burgos had arrived there and even procured some materials ready to kick-start the project. Unfortunately, the 1983 Sudan civil war broke out and aborted the project. In 1998, a full time catechist, Abraham Chol Nyok initially serving at the St Daniel Comboni Parish in Dongola arrived in Bor and began to animate the small catholic community. At his arrival, he found that the Episcopalian church was already well settled. Due to lack of structures of their own, the small catholic community worshipped in the church structure of the Episcopalian’s Church from 1998-1999. In 2000, the catholic community built its own Church and presbytery using simple local materials. These two structures are already more than 20 years and have given in to the test of time. The presbytery is falling away just whilst the Church only hangs now on some few hard woods. The fence of the compound is falling down.
The only strong structure is an unfurnished parish hall. There is one parish vehicle meant for pastoral activities for the seven vast outstations of which some are inaccessible due poor roads and high insecurity. These outstations include Pajud, Duk, Panygor, Pibor, Pachalla, Boma and another in Bor. To go to Pibor or Boma near the Ethiopian border, one has to come down to Juba and board a flight. On our military-escorted journey with the Bishop of Malakal by road from Bor to Juba, were astonished to see armed youth along most parts of the road. These are clear signs of fragile peace in the country.
The multiplicity of ethnic groups means that one will have to learn several languages as possible for the sake of the mission. However, for the time being, priority is given to Arabic, one of the two liturgical languages of the diocese of Malakal. Since our arrival in the country, we have focused on the learning of this important but difficult language in Renk north of the country near the border to the Republic of Sudan. As ‘pioneers’, the experience is very exciting yet full of dire challenges requiring our full energy, constant discernment, courage, determination and above all a solid faith and hope in the Holy Trinity. “To whom much is given, much is expected” (Lk12:48). As a Society, we have received immeasurably from the Master of the Mission. Come! Let us share mutually with our amiable suffering brothers and sisters of South Sudan. Indeed, the harvest is huge but the labourers are few!