Richard O’Dwyer SJ in South Sudan is still registering first impressions with the freshness of a new arrival. Here is his Easter message: “Just after I had shaken the last hand and wished the last of the congregation Happy Easter after our Holy Saturday Vigil, I was informed that the mothers of our newly baptised infants wanted to meet me in the afternoon of Easter Sunday. Feeling pretty tired and not quite knowing what to expect, I groaned inwardly and muttered something to myself, if I am to be perfectly honest! However, on Easter Sunday morning I discovered that the “meeting” was a party to celebrate the baptism of the children.” I was invited to the home of our storekeeper, Charles Odera and his wife Florence, whose child was among our newly baptised. I have to come to know Odera and Florence and to like them very much. I doubt if either one of them is older than twenty-five. So as the day wore on I began to look forward to the “meeting.” I arrived at 3pm intending to stay for an hour or two. I duly walked to the house and was brought in to the home or tukul of this young couple as it had begun to rain. In the middle of chatting to Charles my eyes began to close and four busy days of Easter began to catch up with me. I decided to be honest and told him I was feeling drowsy; he smiled and told me to feel at home. When I woke up we continued out chat outside as the rain had stopped by then. By this stage a good number of people had arrived and I was warmly greeted by all. We were served a full dinner by Florence who had gone to enormous trouble and expense. After dinner the singing and dancing began and I was invited to join in! I did my best and was duly appreciated; unfortunately this is the age of mobile phones with cameras, yes even in darkest Sudan! I had to watch my efforts at Acholi dancing on a phone with lots of megapixels! Squirm, squirm!
As the evening wore on, I was asked a lot about Ireland. My intention to stay for an hour or two stretched to 5 hours spent among charmingly warm and joyful people. It was now after 8pm and quite dark and I began to visualise every snake in Lobone deciding to bestir themselves and slither across my path on my way back to the JRS compound. When the catechist suggested that he and I head back to the JRS compound. I felt glad of his company. As we stood to leave, the mothers stood as one and began to sing and dance. I thought to myself, “How lovely, the group are going to accompany us to the gate of Charles and Florence’s compound!” As I moved through the gate, I was preceded and followed by singing and dancing and before I knew it I was being chaperoned along the road to JRS, a good kilometre away, by a delightful group of guardian angels! When we reached JRS I felt I had been given my own Emmaus experience a la South Sudan, because I too had been graciously accompanied as I walked along the road.
I travelled to Gulu in northern Uganda to meet with Fr Joe Okumu who runs the Catechetical Training Centre on Tuesday of Easter Week. I had contacted Joe at the suggestion of Tony Wach SJ in Kampala. I had received an e-mail from Joe, enthusing about his past contacts with Sudan and inviting me to meet him in Gulu. When I met with Joe, he told that if I could find 10 catechists in Lobone and the neighbouring villages, he would seek funding from Europe and train all of them using the funding! I was delighted with his offer and started the ball rolling straight away.
I told Joe that I needed to have some Sacramental Record Cards printed for Lobone and asked if he knew where we could find a reliable printer. Without knowing it, I was in for a big treat! Joe took me to the Comboni printing works on the outskirts of Gulu and there I met Fr Giuseppe Clerici, who has been working in Uganda since 1966! Fr Giuseppe is 73 years old but he had the demeanour and energy of a mischievous teenager showing off his new computer or electric guitar! Before I knew it I was on a guided tour of the works and he had talked me into ordering a few thousand cards and like any good salesman had me salivating over several of his publications! A missal in Acholi, a catechism in Acholi, and then some free samples as if I needed any persuasion! I erred when I described Angelo as a good salesman; consummate is the word I would not hesitate to associate with him! He recognises a true believer in books when sees one!
On the Third Sunday of Easter, I headed to Palwar to say mass at the other end of the Lobone district. We celebrated mass not quite in the shade on a simple wooden table. All of the people in Palwar only returned from the refugee camps in northern Uganda 12 months ago, as this area was a favourite theatre of operations for the Lord’s Resistance Army. People had a simple choice to make: flee or die.
I have been attempting chunks of the mass in Acholi as I have a missal in that language and it is basically phonetic. Like the Irish and the Spanish, if you are prepared to have a go at speaking the language, the Acholis take you to their hearts. But even before I began to say the mass, I could pick up the happiness and appreciation in the faces in front of me! My standing there communicated to them, that somehow they still mattered, that a priest who came from God knows where, rose early that Sunday and showed up on their doorstep as arranged. I read somewhere in the last 6 months that action brings hope! I felt more that a touch of Easter joy on that beautiful late April morning. Here I was standing on sticky muddy ground, in a forest clearing, shaded by a canopy of mahogany. Inexplicably, it felt to me that I was more than a priest saying mass like countless others all over the globe. Almost without realising it, I had become an unlikely symbol of hope. My being there seemed to personify a future for a people whose smouldering wick of hope must almost have blackened to despair but amazingly had not been extinguished. Extending the words, “Peace be with you” to these people, meant more than a polite handshake. It meant a homecoming, a return to wholeness and normality needing, demanding celebration, joy and exuberance.
And so it was. They never stopped dancing, singing and rejoicing for the remainder of the mass. After mass it continued for over an hour as I ate lunch with the “elders” of the chapel council and for the second time in as many weeks, I was feted as I reluctantly left a celebration of new Easter-bred life. There was a procession of singing and dancing young people, preceding our jeep all the way down the bumpy road to the river bridge until we crossed and climbed the hill for our homeward journey to Lobone!