It is not so long since messages from Lobone would have been written on paper and carried for days, maybe weeks, by a runner with a cleft stick. Richard O’Dwyer SJ wrote this message yesterday, 23 March. It carries the freshness of a man still opening his eyes to the strangeness of Southern Sudan, and coming up with ideas born of the collision between an educated western mind (remember, Richard was a quantity surveyor before he became a Jesuit) and one of the most neglected corners of Sudan. The people of this region need help on many fronts, but most of all,perhaps, they need help to learn to help themselves.
GETTING TO GRIPS WITH SUDANESE REALITIES
Richard O’Dwyer SJ
It is hard to believe that I will soon have spent ten weeks in South Sudan. Shortly after arriving here, I held a meeting with a group of representatives from our local chapel, St Kizito’s. Because the geographical area of parishes here is so large, consisting of a number of outlying villages, or bomas, each boma has its own chapel. The focus of the meeting was the challenges facing the chapel as a Christian community.
When I wrote up my notes/minutes of the meeting I found that the group had presented over thirty challenges! Among the challenges mentioned were: training of young people in faith formation and for peer ministry; the lack of proper full-time training for catechists; and the physical distance of Lobone from Torit, the seat of the diocese, which means that movement is not easy because of bad roads, mountainous terrain and rain.
It seems that places like Lobone have been neglected by the diocese because they are out of the way and on the edge of the diocese. The other big issue is that people have been traumatised by the 20-year civil war and are in need of psycho-social healing. Another related issue is that people from South Sudan who fled the war became used to a handout way of living. Food, water, clothing, etc. were provided free of charge and did not involve much effort on the part of refugees except showing up on time at a distribution point. Likewise in education, everything from teachers to chalk and copybooks were provided by NGOs.
Another important issue for the group has been the celebration of the sacraments. None of the outlying chapels has a permanent priest providing regular ministry, and this has left many children un-baptised and unconfirmed and many couples without the opportunity to have a church wedding. Families have not been visited in their homes by a priest for many years and feel neglected by the Church.
The other issue is the lack of permanent church buildings. Lobone is the only chapel that has any kind of building. The chapel in Lobone is a grass-roofed building, with bamboo poles fixed to the wooden tree trunks that that support the roof. People have a strong sense that they do not matter or are very low down on the diocesan priority list. The other five outlying “chapels” meet under trees and have no chapel buildings of any kind. The only way that people can clear land in most parts of South Sudan is by setting bushfires to burn away heavy bush and allow cultivation to take place. Sparks from previous bushfires have burned down two previous grass-roofed chapels. The chapel council member told me if our present chapel were to burn down, it is doubtful if the people would have the energy or the will to re-build it.
This brings up for me, the whole issue of cultivation as a serious barrier to development. Cultivation here is by hand-held hoe, which is pure murder in humid 30°C + daytime temperatures and is what condemns people to subsistence-level farming. Forgive me if I have mentioned already in my missives to AMDG Express my impressions about the agriculture of South Sudan.
A colleague and I recently have written a proposal to the JRS Regional Office for East Africa in an attempt to raise the level of agriculture from subsistence, that is, providing just enough to feed one’s family, to a basic commercial level, that is, providing a sufficient surplus that can be brought to market and sold for cash or in kind.
This will involve the purchase of two pairs of oxen and two ox ploughs. We also need to find a suitable person to care for the oxen and equipment, possibly providing training for him or her. A pair of oxen and a plough costs roughly US $900. Our suggestion was very well received. In addition, we would hope to help set up beehives and a couple of small banana and cassava plantations. Banana trees start to produce sucker plants after a few months, which can in turn be planted to produce fruit in due course. The people are in dire need of income-generating activities to give them some surplus, which will begin to enable some basic commerce and trade. In my limited experience, virtually everything in South Sudan has to be imported from Uganda and the northern Ugandan towns of Gulu and Kitgum are booming on the back of the huge outflow of funds into them from South Sudan. This needs to change if there is to be some surplus cash left in Sudan.
I hope any professional economists and agriculturalists among the AMDG readership will forgive so basic an analysis of the socio-economics issues in South Sudan!