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Pentecost in the Sudan

sudan_01.jpgIn his latest missive from the Sudan, Richard O’Dwyer SJ describes his efforts to engage the services of a US group which is committed to low-capital technology in farming. He was looking for training courses for oxen drivers! Also, once again he takes to the rough terrain outside Lobone, in a bid to reach a remote mountain community in Lomarati to say Pentecost Mass for them. No journey in Southern Sudan, it seems, is without its adventures, and Richard describes his well. Lomarati iself he describes as “one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen”, and he was overcome by the warmth of the welcome he received.

PENTECOST IN THE SUDAN

Richard O’Dwyer SJ

I am happy to report on the day after Pentecost that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and working like blazes (no pun intended!) in South Sudan.  As you know a few weeks ago, I wrote to Fr Joe Okumu, the director of the Catechetical Training Centre in Gulu, northern Uganda.

I had occasion to return to Gulu to pick up some welcome mail from home and Amazon!  My driver, Emmanuel Duku and I also had to have damage to the vehicle we were using assessed in Toyota Gulu for insurance purposes.   We were also delighted to go to Gulu to pick up Pavel Adamacyk a young Jesuit priest from Poland, who is currently undertaking an MBA at Georgetown in Washington DC and who had volunteered to work for the summer in Lobone.  

A few days before we left for Gulu, I had visited the Tillers International website, an Amish grouped based in Michigan in the US who are committed to low capital technology in farming and for whom the use of oxen in ploughing is central.  Previously I had discovered they had run training courses for oxen “drivers” and I was seeking a contact in Gulu where they had run the course.  On the website, I came across the name of one Todd Whitmore, a professor of theology, at Notre Dame whose specialty was Catholic Social Teaching and who had participated in the training in Gulu in 2006.   He sounded a good safe bet to contact and I hoped Todd might be able to give me the name of a contact in Gulu.  Just before I left for Gulu on the morning of 21st May, I checked my e-mail to discover, that my letter to Todd had bounced back.  This was puzzling as I had pasted his address from the ND website.  Somewhat disappointed I set off for Gulu.  

We reached Gulu safely after a drive of 4 and half hours.  I picked up the mail at the Jesuit Residence in Sacred Heart Seminary in Lacor outside Gulu.  I had hoped to stay with the Jesuits but the only spare room was taken and so we drove to CTC to ask if we could stay there.  It was now around 5.30pm.  I met Fr Joe Okumu and he gave us a warm welcome.  I asked him if we could possibly stay at CTC and he shook his head sadly and told me that with so little notice it would not be possible.  I replied that I understood and apologised for arriving so late in the evening and started to walk to the jeep.  I heard Joe, laugh as he said, “Richard, Richard this is Africa! You are most welcome to stay here anytime!  Bishop Paride Taban, the Emeritus of your diocese in South Sudan often arrived here at 1 am and announced, “I know you are home, Joe, I need a room for the night!”  As I stood there, feeling hugely relieved that I had not to go around the hotels and lodging houses of Gulu to find a room for the night, I found myself laughing along with Joe’s practical joke.  He next informed that he had another friend staying at CTC, who had come from the US.  He went on to say that his friend was a professor at Notre Dame and that I might be interested in meeting him later on, his name Todd Whitmore!  I was utterly astonished.  Incredulous, I told Joe that I had tried to contact Todd by e-mail a few days before but had been unsuccessful and now we had met in Gulu!  Then I found myself bursting out laughing at the sheer joy I felt on this happy and serendipitous confluence!  What are the odds of something like this happening?  I reckon Paddy Power would give me very long odds indeed!  When Todd returned for dinner later that evening, Joe introduced us to each other and we spoke for over two hours about oxen and low capital technology!  Having facilitated a number of workshops on ox ploughing in most of rural villages in northern Uganda, Todd told me that he had been hoping for some time to begin running workshops in South Sudan, beginning with, Lobone!  Serendipity to the power of ten!! 

On Pentecost Sunday, I had again planned to travel to Lomarati, the mountain location where people had requested that I say mass.  No one among my colleagues in Lobone had ever ventured there!  What awaited me I found myself wondering as Pentecost approached?  Both our JRS drivers had gone to Uganda.  So at 8am on the morning of Pentecost, I set off in one of our Toyota Hiluxes with two JRS colleagues from Lobone.   The plan was to drive to Kichenga, which involves two treacherous descents and ascents at river crossings and to walk into the mountains to Lomarati.  You might remember the famous road trench I mentioned to readers before!  Thank God it had not rained for two days and we reached Kichenga safely thanks to some superb driving!  We were met by the catechist from Kichenga who was going to accompany us to Lomarati.  He calmly told us it was possible to drive the vehicle all the way to Lomarati on a “green road” bisected by a track for walkers and cyclists.   “Easy for you to say old flower,” I thought to myself, “I have drive up a bloody mountain straddling a footpath!”  I had visions of the Hilux becoming perched on the side of a mountain and me having to explain to JRS why I had not parked the jeep in the village of Kichenga at the foot of the mountains!  However, we set off and the road was actually a better road that the dreadful road from Lobone to Kichenga.  
It took us about an hour to reach Lomarati and it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen!  We found ourselves surrounded by glorious mountain scenery as green as Ireland.  And once again I was staggered at the warmth of the welcome we received from the people who were thrilled to have mass there for the first time since 1993!  The land is among the most fertile in Sudan, the corn was as high as an elephant’s eye, well almost!  We then discovered why the road was so good:  there was a tea plantation on the mountain slopes of Lomarati before it was abandoned due to the murderous presence of the LRA in 1993.  True to form, the LRA destroyed every permanent building in the village and on the former tea plantation!   I have to admit I could not help wondering if the mountainsides here would support the vine!  I found just a tremendous spirit among the people here: they had cultivated a huge area of land by hand!  A beautiful crystal clear, fast flowing river dashes through this high valley which is too high and cool for many of the bugs and insects that afflict lower lying areas!  Our offertory procession/Collection brought forth the first fruits of the crops of corn cobs and tomatoes, which were gratefully received by the presider!  Throughout the mass some of the women burst into the traditional. “Yielding” or high pitched song of joy!  It was a fitting way to celebrate the exuberant joy they felt on the feast of Pentecost!  We were treated to a vegetarian lunch which included a deliciously tart sauce made from ground nuts (peanuts to you and me!). 

We reluctantly rose from lunch to make our way down the mountain, a distance of almost 5 kilometres!  I took one final look around the beautiful verdant mountainous panorama that is Lomarati, silently promising myself a return visit! I was feeling deeply grateful for the privilege of seeing it with my own eyes, knowing that few enough Sudanese have done so!  The “green road” was as easy to descend as it was to ascend and gravity added a kilometre or two per hour to aid our rate of descent!  .  However, on the way down to the first of the river crossings, I almost toppled the vehicle as I rode to high on “verge” in my attempt to avoid the treacherous road trench.  I managed to right the jeep just in time, reverse a few precious metres and re-negotiate the descent a few millimetres at a time!  Another hour took us safely back to Lobone without any more Jeep acrobatics and we rolled gratefully through the gates of the JRS compound at a quarter past four with the sun beginning to dip towards the tips of the western hilltops.