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When Richard O'Dwyer writes from South Sudan, the newest country in the world, you feel that he is still holding his breath, hoping that this land which he loves will come through the hazards of nation-building...

Among the Dinka

When Richard O’Dwyer writes from South Sudan, the newest country in the world, you feel that he is still holding his breath, hoping that this land which he loves will come through the hazards of nation-building…

When Richard O’Dwyer writes from South Sudan, the newest country in the world, you feel that he is still holding his breath, hoping that this land which he loves will come through the hazards of nation-building.

I am writing on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in December from Rumbek, the capital of Lakes State in the middle of South Sudan.  I came here in mid-April 2013 to begin working on developing a new Jesuit farm/technical school and to open up a 120 hectare (300 acres) farm about 12 kilometres to the southeast of Rumbek in an area known locally as Akol Jal. The project is known as MAJIS (The Multi-educational and Agricultural Jesuit Institute of South Sudan). When I arrived 3 new buildings were nearing the halfway stage of construction: a two classroom and administration block, a barn/store and a 3 bedroom residence. I was due to take over running MAJIS from Fr Francis Njuguna, a Kenyan Jesuit.

The first thing that struck me on arrival was the heat. I had grown accustomed to the cool mountain valleys of Eastern Equatoria during my 4 years in Lobone. Now I found myself in the blistering humidity of the Nile basin. Secondly, although I had known some members of the Dinka tribe in Lobone, I had arrived in the Dinka heartland. Let me give an example from Ireland. It would be like a Dubliner living in Kerry and knowing a couple of lads from Tyrone who also happened to be living in Kerry. The Dubliner subsequently moves to South Armagh into a hotbed of republicans who have not decommissioned their weapons and who like to walk around their farms with their automatic rifles slung over their shoulders and with no sign of a ballot box anywhere. They do carry magazines but not of the Hello variety.

The Dinka have a fearsome reputation among expatriates all over South Sudan. They are a tall, slim and graceful people but they are warriors who like nothing better than a good scrap. One of the first stories I heard was of two Korean missionaries, a priest and a sister on their way out of Rumbek in the rainy season on their way to another town who splashed some soldiers by driving through a road crater full of water. The word pothole is a less than adequate noun for the holes that litter or should I say comprise the “roads” of South Sudan. The Korean sister became ill further along the road and the priest who was driving stopped the vehicle. However, the soldiers had followed them in another vehicle and when they caught up with the Koreans and gave both the priest and sister a very severe beating. Welcome to Rumbek! I can honestly say that to describe my driving as defensive during my first few weeks in Rumbek (during the rainy season by the way), as understatements go it would be a contender for a gold medal if understatements featured in the Olympic Games! On the other hand there is a small group of Irish Loreto sisters who run a superb primary and secondary school for girls just outside Rumbek. One of them,

Sr. Kathleen from Donegal, also splashed a soldier while driving through a puddle. She wisely stopped the vehicle she was driving and got out to see how much muddy water she had deposited on the man’s trousers. When he began to remonstrate with her, she ordered him to remove his trousers so that she could take them home to Loreto, Rumbek to wash them. He clearly understood and declined her kind offer as he clearly did not want to return to barracks minus his trousers!

On a more serious note there have outbreaks of serious inter-clan violence among the Dinkas. Often the disputes are over land ownership, water rights and stealing of cattle. In former times when the arms used in clashes consisted of spears and bows and arrows only a few people died or suffered wounds. Now young men and, sadly, young boys armed with AK-47 automatic rifles can kill large numbers of people in seconds.

There is a second serious issue facing the Dinkas and that is forced marriage of girls and young women in exchange for large numbers of cattle, sometimes up to three hundred head of cattle. A few months ago a young girl was taken out of Loreto Rumbek on the pretext that she needed to be present at a marriage negotiation for a wedding that would take place after her graduation. She was very unhappy but agreed to go with her uncle. It turned she was brought to a traditional wedding ceremony and married off totally against her will. The Loreto sisters bravely went out to the husband and asked that the young one be allowed to finish her secondary education, as she had only four months to go. The sisters asked the UN mission in South Sudan and the Governor of Lakes State to intervene, as forced marriage is illegal under the new national constitution. However, the UN and the governor kicked for touch and did not want to get involved. The girl ran away from her new “husband” who also had 3 other wives. She was found by the military in the bush when they were sent to look for her; she then spent several weeks in a military prison. The military’s line on her imprisonment was that it was for her own protection, as her new “husband” would be within his rights under traditional Dinka custom to kill her or have her killed for causing him shame and loss of face. The marriage was clearly not going to work, but her own family refused to let her return to Loreto, Rumbek. However, she was invited to her class graduation a few weeks ago and there was a very emotional reunion with her classmates. The sisters and the teaching staff of the school unanimously agreed to confer the young woman as the first recipient of the Loreto Rumbek Mary Ward Medal for outstanding contribution to the life and reputation of the school. She had been an exceptional student who had made a marvellous contribution to Loreto Rumbek during her time at school there. Her brother was invited to speak at the ceremony and he gave a very fine speech on women’s rights and the desperate need to bring to an end forced marriage of girls and young women as a means to acquiring large number of cattle. It is truly a repugnant practice and a dreadful violation of human rights.

Traditionally Dinka are cattle keepers and their life revolves around cattle. Every single Dinka child, both male and female is first of all named after a bull or a cow. The name will describe an individual animal; be it plain or dappled, that name will be given to the child. For example, the name Macar for a boy or Acol for a girl would mean the child is named after a plain black bull or cow, while Mangar for a boy and Angor for a girl would be a black animal with white spots. The Dinka word Ngor literally means storm clouds, which correspond to the white spots on the cow.

Perhaps I might be permitted to add some of my personal experiences and reflections on life in Rumbek. When I am driving back to Rumbek from the farm at Akol Jal between 5 and 6 in the soft light of early evening, I glance across the land on either side of the road and I feel I am driving through Eden. I am glimpsing green fertile land, dotted with mahogany, teak and many trees I cannot name. Deep inside myself, I feel a calm and tranquil gratitude for being here and for sensing that with good governance free from the stain of corruption and selfishness, with respect for human rights and the application of the rule of law with fairness and impartiality, the various people who inhabit this land could prosper and flourish and build a republic governed by and for the people, a nation they could truly take pride in and call their own.

At this point in time the country is failing as a state in many respects. We, the Jesuit community, came to this conclusion one morning at breakfast. Government is highly corrupt and ineffective. The rule of law is not operating in many respects and there are massive human rights violations all over the country. Government schools and hospitals are massively under-resourced and often run out of even the most basic drugs and medication. That very day I read the same conclusions from a Washington think-tank. I almost wish our worst perceptions had been wrong and contradicted, but maybe that is too much to wish for in this young and fledgling country. I believe it will take at least a generation or perhaps two before the country will begin to function and flourish. I hope and pray that selfless leaders, whose concern is the common good of all, will emerge from the struggles and growing pains of this, the newest country in the world.