Juba, South Sudan — A bumpy cargo flight from Nairobi to Juba, South Sudan. Another flight north to the Yida refugee camp, home to 70,000 refugees from the country's civil war, which began in 2011. A warm welcome there, and after lunch, an eight-hour drive on a rough road across the border into Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Seeing so many people walking long distances under the scorching sun and in extreme heat gave us a reason to bear the discomfort.
We arrived at the small town of Kauda at 10 p.m. to a rousing welcome from three very courageous sisters, members of our Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood. The next morning, some catechists and parishioners paid us a courtesy call to express their deep appreciation for what the presence of our sisters means to them. It was such a humbling experience, considering that some of them walked for hours, carrying what little they had to share with us.
The Nuba Mountains, in the border state of South Kordofan, is an extremely marginalized area. Geographically, it belongs to Sudan, but it is also home to rebels with strong local support and is often bombed by the Sudanese government in Khartoum led by President Omar al-Bashir. On the other hand, people supporting the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North battle for their land and rights.
This year, the Nuba people face a challenging fighting season, which typically begins by December, after the rains end, and runs until June. Poor rainfall and subsequent poor harvests, along with the presence of Sudanese military forces in key agricultural areas, has led to famine. And many are now skeptical that an easing of U.S. sanctions announced in mid-January will bring any real relief to the people of the Nuba Mountains.
People of the Nuba Mountains often run into their foxholes to take cover from the warplanes that have shamelessly thrown bombs on innocent civilians for more than five years. In November, the month I visited with some donors to a hospital here, a fighter plane dropped two bombs that fell near a primary school, injuring four people and destroying four homes. In June, a bomb partly damaged the Daniel Comboni Teacher Training College, where one of our sisters is the college principal. A primary-school teacher was hurt.
Women and children continue to be affected more by such bombings because the able men are soldiers at the frontline. Many men have been injured or killed and many others affected mentally by the shelling and seeing their colleagues perish one by one. Please let's join hands to pray for an end to this inhuman act.
Lack of infrastructure — including roads, health care and schools — contribute to the remoteness of the Nuba Mountains and the suffering there. So does al-Bashir, whose policy is to keep out humanitarian aid.
Mother of Mercy Catholic Hospital in Gidel, outside of Kauda, is the only hospital available to the Nuba people and victims of the civil war. The charitable work of the Sudanese diocese of El Obeid, it is meant for 150 beds but now takes in as many as 500 patients, a number of which are wounded soldiers and tuberculosis patients. In conjunction with the hospital, our congregation, which established its Nuba Mountains mission in 2005, opened a small dispensary in Kauda. It serves a multitude of patients who can hardly pay for the medicine. A German aid organization runs another small facility in Kauda.
The Nuba people are very friendly and generous despite the challenges of war, hunger, harsh weather, lack of formal education — you name it. Basic needs like soap and salt are a luxury. Someone might work the whole day only to ask for these needs in return. Yet their generosity reminds me of the Gospel story of the widow's mite: They are always out to share the little they have.
What is saddening is that girls are married off at a tender age though many really want an education. More often than not, many parents (especially the mothers, given that the fathers are in the battle) cannot even afford the little money charged for school fees.
The Catholic Church and the nongovernmental organization Samaritan's Purse, which drills bore holes for water, are performing an invaluable ministry in the Nuba Mountains. In addition to our congregation — a fourth Missionary Sister of the Precious Blood joined the mission in February — two Mercy sisters from Australia, three Comboni sisters and two Apostles of Jesus priests work in the area.
It is worth acknowledging the invaluable efforts of Bishop Emeritus Macram Gassis of the El Obeid Diocese for inviting all these religious congregations to the Nuba Mountains and for putting up the Mother of Mercy Hospital, four primary schools, a secondary school and the Daniel Comboni Teacher Training College. They are the only schools really functioning.
In addition, an ambitious young former student from the college, Kunda Zacharia, has taken up the challenge to start a school in an area that had none. Though it lacks proper classrooms, chairs, books, pens and more, one cannot stop marveling at such initiative and passion for education. He surely would need any kind of support.
In the Nuba Mountains, I am inspired by the good relationships among Christians, Muslims and traditionalists. Their fight against their common enemy, the government in Khartoum, unites them; differences in beliefs are not an issue. Feast days bring them together irrespective of their faiths. Every new day is a gift to thank God for, praying and hoping for another peaceful day. Inshallah.
Two active Catholic parishes, Kauda and Gidel, serve 41 very needy outstations, which are referred to as chapels. Kauda parish has one Apostles of Jesus priest (abuna in Arabic) and a brother, and Gidel has two priests. The nearest parish to those two is in Heiban, an area that is prone to bombings. Six children were killed in a bombing in May 2016. The priest, Abuna Tutu, has been there for the last 13 years and isn't ready to leave his Christians without a shepherd.
Since it takes so long for the few priests to visit each chapel and celebrate Mass, very committed catechists serve despite the fact that they do not receive a stipend and have to fend for their families. The few catechists who are trained, in turn, mentor those who are not. Another kind deed would be to look for ways to give them a little remuneration and to offer a catechetical course to at least some of them.
In all, the presence of the very few courageous and committed sisters and priests is transforming, especially in Kauda and Gidel. Theirs first is the ministry of presence: listening to the stories of the traumatized people of Nuba, encouraging them with hope and showing them the face of God in their selfless service to them. In turn, the testimony of the Nuba people speaks volumes as it gives us another way of looking at mission today.
Indeed, with bold humility, we can rightly say we have listened to the wish of our founder, Abbot Francis Pfanner: "With all this, however, we do not lose sight of the Sudan."
We need to pray together for a lasting solution to the senseless conflict that has seen huge numbers of deaths and maimed and displaced people under the watch of the United Nations. It will take President al-Bashir's change of heart to give back to the Nuba people their dignity. Is he ready?
[Kenyan Sr. Caroline Mjomba is the East African provincial superior of the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, founded in 1885 in South Africa.]
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