Hi, I’m Katherine Butterly from rainy Rathmines. I recently returned from a year with Jesuit Refugee Service in sunny Sudan. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. It wasn’t at all what I expected. I suppose it surprised me. I didn’t know that they would speak English. I didn’t know that they would be so welcoming. I didn’t know that they would be so happy. I didn’t know that they would actually be just like me. There is very little difference in personalities and the old adage is definitely true, people are the same wherever you go.
The sense of community is very strong. Out in the countryside where I was, you would never see someone left homeless or sleeping rough. They would always be able to rely on their relations to help them out of a quandary – with finances or moral support. People look out for one another. If you saw someone interfering with your friends crops you would chase them away yourself. If you were on a journey you would be free to stop in any house on the wayside and you could stay the night there, even if you do not know the family. You may even get a hot meal in your hosts’ house! What do you do an a journey the hunger pangs strike? You would be free to help yourself to a little spinach, a few potatoes or an ear of corn from a field you might pass. I’d like to invite the person who says that there’s no such thing as a free lunch to South Sudan. He could see for himself!
You have to get up really early if you want to get a spot at the water pump. There is usually a long queue. There is a fair system worked out. Everyone has an identical jerrycan for water. They are all bright yellow. How you know the difference is that some people tie a coloured string from the handle. Others mark their names onto the side. Each one puts their can into an orderly line. The jerrycans are like a clock. In the morning you can see them stretching far along a long line, no less than twenty cans. At lunchtime they stretch even farther, numbering about thirty or more. In the evening there are only half a dozen cans lined up besude the pump. You can tell the time from the length of the line. One jerrycan carries twenty litres of water. It is really heavy to carry. You wouldn’t believe how heavy it is. I thought my neck would snap in two. Most people carry them on their heads. The women go to fetch the water. It’s a very hard job. It’s easier with a bicycle. A family would usually get one jerrycan for washing themselves and one to use in cooking and washing the dishes. I tried to carry a jerrycan on my head but it was much too heavy and fell to the ground and cracked. What a wimp!
People eat twice a day. Life still centres around getting food. Most people grow it. You can buy some things in the market but not many. Basic necessities are quite easily available but you will need money to pay for them. There are no tomatoes in the market. You will have to go to the market early if you want to buy fruit etc. Earning money is very difficult. Some people don’t have enough to eat and just eat once a day. Cooking is done on a small charcoal stove outside. You can also make a little pit oven from clay and cook there. You can even cook delicious bread. The staple food is sorghum. Its quite like our mashed potato to look at. Instead of eating buns or cakes people put about seven spoons of sugar into their tea. They will have that with a bread roll for a treat. The tea is very sweet and thick. You should try it!
Most people work in their small patch of land beside their house. It is subsistence farming. If they grow a little surplus they will go to the market and sell some to earn money. It’s a very hard living, especially the long walk to the market balancing a heavy bag of potatoes or mangoes! People often take their children out of school to earn some money for the family. The kids can be seen breaking rocks to make gravel. They will sell this to people passing by to use in building. It’s very sad to see children doing this.
People have great hopes for the future. Most people will have had the chance to go to primary school for a year or two. Adult literacy rates would be quite poor. However, more and more children are staying on at school to do their Primary Leaving Examination. Although it is as rare as hen’s teeth, some do go to Secondary School and even on to university. I have a friend whose son even made it to Medical School in America on a Scholarship. There is a huge belief in Education as a ticket out of poverty. This is great plus for the work of JRS. We had about 500 kids sitting the primary leaving examination last year. I myself believe that education is the only long term solution. Food and medical aid are fantastic, but if you want to give someone a passport to their future, they have to be able to help themselves. If I had my way all the money on food aid would be spent on education! Then they could build their own irrigation systems, see better ways of farming and start to use the surplus crops for manufacturing! The possibilities are endless! It is a country rich in resources.
People get around on foot. They don’t measure distances in miles or kilometres. They will say that it is three days walk or two hours walk etc. You don’t see any obesity as most people live a physical life. They are will walk long distances to see relations and friends. The sense of time is the biggest difference between Ireland and Sudan. People are not in a rush anywhere!! I was so lucky to have made so many good friends in Southern Sudan.