Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sand Storms in Sudan

The sight of the massive surge of sand across the Sahara which I viewed from the window of the plane on my first trip to Africa in 2008 was a fearsome one. It must have covered hundreds of square miles of the continent. A tsumani of sand the color of ochre blotted out every other color and contour. I thought at the time that I would never want to be folded up in that gritty breath-stealing cloud. So much power over such a vast space!

Now, during Lent, as I remember this storm, I recall the tiny sand storm we had in Narus after school one day. I went into a classroom for shelter. I thought I'd be safer - NOT! There was no difference between millions of grains of sand and dust outdoors and the hundreds of thousands of the same inside. It got into every thing filling my eyes, ears, nose and hair. Eastern Equitorial Africa is not the Sinai or Arabian Peninsulas but it can be as brutal. The thought of how extreme the weather is fills me with admiration for the physical and spiritual stamina that those who work with the girls at St. Bakhita's and in the clinics possess. Here in America I feel caught up in what can be the soul-stealing lures of an affluent country - one that offers whatever one wants and dictates one's needs.

Let us pray, not only for the work being done in South Sudan by those working there but especially for the children and women who strain to get their basic needs for food, shelter and water met each day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Return to Narus has been many months since I blogged with you all.

This past June and July I spent 6 weeks in Africa: both in Nairobi and in Narus. It was wonderful to get together with my friends and co-workers and to see the girls I had taught - some of whom had graduated and were in the secondary school next to St. Bahkita's Elementary School.

Sister Ann Rooney, R.S.M. came with me and I took her on a "walkabout" with Anna Mijji whom I had trained to teach the Toposa women. We visited five of the seven bomas that make up the village of Nacipo. Anna showed us the large tukul the women had built with your donation monies to Mercy Beyond Borders. The women use this building made of posts, sticks and thatch when they meet with Anna for their classes in hygiene and nutrition and health. It keeps the sun and rain off them and also houses some goats at night. Many of women remembered me and I them. Sister Ann was impressed with how well the women did with so little and with how simply they lived. It rained while we were walking and we had to go into one of the larger tukuls (huts) until it stopped. It rained steadily for one hour and we slogged our way back to compound in muck up to our ankles.

My job in returning was to staighten out a money matter with a new bank that is located closer to South Sudan and just inside the Kenya border (Lokichoggio). I thought I had accomplish this only to find out that the bank did had not send both the ATM card and the bank book to Brother Mike Foley who graciously agreed to administer the funds while I was gone. Brother Mike has been in Africa for almost 40years. He teaches Chemistry and math at the high schoo. He was also the one who put in solar panels so we could collect solar power into the batteries stored on the compound so we could use our laptops.

While staying overnight in Loki, just inside the Kenyan border, I went for too-long-a-walk and found myself very far from the hotel in which I was staying. A man was taking his obviously intoxicated wife home from town. She could not stand and he would not carry her so he hit her with a switch from a tree near-by so she would get up. Obviously this did not work. Some other tribes men (Turkana) passed by and looked me over as I watched from a distance. I did not go to her aid as I may well have been injured for medddling in what was a "cultural" thing.

I waited several months before I told anyone about this and was told it was the correct thing to do. I had felt powerless to help another woman in a culture where wife abuse is not uncommon. I can only imagine how she and other women must feel when they are treated with less respect than is paid to the cattle. This does not lessen my love for the people of South Sudan but it does reinforce my commintment to help educate women and girls in regard to their dignity and basic human rights.

Keep this country in your prayer as they get ready to vote in January, 2011. Schools were closed in mid November so the older students could be trained in polling as they are the ones who can read and write.

I have decided not to return to South Sudan to live among the people as it took a toll on my health. Hopefully, someone will take my place - even if it is for just a few months. Let us continue to pray for each other.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Beat Goes On

Yes, it has been three months since my last blog. During the interim St. Bakhita's School has been educating over 800 girls. At present, the girls are on their spring break. They had to leave school early due to the fact that the organizations that have brought food to the several schools in the area in the past have not been able to do so. The school footed the cost of beans for 800 girls at $70 per day, a princely sum in South Sudan. Thus, they could not keep up with the cost and school let out early. It is also time for the elections in mid April and some of the girls are old enough to vote. Others are not sure of their exact ages and may vote anyway.

While I was in Sudan I hired two Sudanese women, Christine Aserwa and Anna Mijji to teach the Toposa women in regard to health, hygiene and nutritional topics. They have continued to teach in three villages (Nacipo, Narus, and Loolim) since I left South Sudan after Thanksgiving. Christine teaches the women about the tropical diseases which can be contracted by the tribes people because of poor hygiene habits; she teaches the local foods the women can prepare for their families which will give them the nutrients, vitamins and such, to improve their health. Christine also works for the Diocese of Torit with women's groups in the various parishes.

Anna Mijji teaches the tribes women to cook foods they rarely if ever eat, namely greens, cabbage, beans, rice, and so forth. She gets the women into the act by having them prepare the meal for the group after Christine finishes teaching a lesson. The first time I taught a class I asked the women why they did not eat greens and they told me that only goats eat greens, people do not! Then I asked why they did not buy cabbage or share one cabbage with another family and they said it was too expensive. I said that one load of fire wood sells for 5 Sudanese Pounds and that is the cost of one cabbage. They said they could not afford it was too expensive and I responded that they treat themselves to beer in town on occasion and that they could get half a cabbage once a week or so. I could tell by the look on their faces after the translation into Toposa that this was not going to fly. We still have a lot of work to do to not only give them the information and the experience of different foods but also have them see the long term benefits of balanced diets.

Anna has a grown son and a son and a daughter in primary school and another daughter in St. Bakhita Secondary School. Her younger son lives with her while her daughters board at the school. Christine's children are mostly grown and she and Anna live in Narus. Both are considered to be "doing well" as compared to most folks in the area, they still live in what would be considered substandard housing in first world countries. Christine's home is made out of tin and is quite hot during the day. She cooks on a small charcoal stove outdoors.

Anna's home is made from adobe with an dirt floor. She has a room for her and her daughters to sleep when they are home and a separate room for her son. There is also a very small room on her compound used for cooking. Both women have outdoor latrines. Life can be harsh in regard to how hard one has to work in order to get water, cook meals, wash clothes and keep one's rooms free from toxic critters. It is an never ending cycle. If you have a little more than the next family you are expected to share what you have and these women do just that.

Although I have completed my year in Sudan I am confident that these two women will carry on the health promotion work in the villages and that over time we will see improvement in general health and hygiene.

I expect to return to South Sudan in June to close out the first phase of this project for Mercy Beyond Borders and work with them in their planning for year two.

Your prayerful support sustained me all last year. I hope you will continue to support Mercy Beyond Borders so that Anna and Crissy can build on the work they have already begun.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Leaving Sudan

November 9 turned out to be my last class with the Toposa women. Anna and I had shopped quite a bit the day before for tomatoes, onions, rice and beans, tobacco, etc. We had to hire two Toposa girls to help us carry our wares back to Anna's home more than a mile away in the noonday heat. The next day the man who said he would drive us and our gear to Nacipo could not make it. So, we got everything together and paid a Toposa woman who was going to attend the class to help port our things to the village about two miles away. It was hot but bearable. Christine lives near Nacipo and we met her along the way. I was the only one who did not carry anything on my head.

65 women participated, not counting small children and the chief and his retinue; we met under two large nadapal trees. I taught them through interpreters (English to Arabic to Toposa) about whip worms and round worms and pin worms and the damage they can do to someone's intestines. We showed pictures since there was no blackboard (too difficult to carry). They seemed impressed and said that most of them and their children had suffered from worms in the past year or so. We handed out the vegetable seeds I had brought from Nairobi. When we had the question period after the presentation, one of the women thought it would be helpful if a large tukul was built to accommodate the number of women coming to these health promotion classes. It would be placed centrally. I said we would consider this but that they would have to build it themselves. They said they would build it but would need to buy poles and wire to bind the sticks and thatch together. I believe we will do this since the chief was there and said he was not against the idea. It shouldn't cost too much. I left early and walked back to the compound and Anna and Christine showed the women how to cook rice and beans. They said the women were most grateful.

Three days later we were to go to Loolim. I sent Anna and Christine there but because the tribesman who said he would tell the women of the upcoming class failed to do so, only 25 or so women attended. They were most enthusiastic and I know they will get word of a tukul to be built in Nacipo and they will want one too and their village is much larger than Nacipo.

I had already said good-bye to the St. Bahkita school girls at their end-of-year party which was quite an event. Many speeches and tribal dancing and recitations followed by an excellent meal. The goats were prepared in three or four different ways and I ate a little of each. Afterwards there was a dance with the Comboni Boys' 8th graders. You must realize that the "boys" are in their late teens and twentys and the girls are mid to late teens. There was a full moon and the night was magical.

On November 22, The Maryknoll sisters, Madeline and Theresa, prepared a Thanksgiving Day meal because I was to leave the next day. It consisted of a luscious tuna casserole with dried vegetables and pumpkin pudding. After dinner we sang "America the Beautiful." During my year here in Narus I always had breakfast with them and ate lunch and supper with the Ugandan sisters. All have been most gracious and helpful to me.

Two days before I left Narus, I went on a three-hour hiking tour with Anna; we visited four villages and one small cattle camp tucked away behind a hill. Several Toposa families from near Nadapal had come to live there and set up an interim camp. There were cattle, goats and six or so camels. They slaughter the camels and sell the meat in Narus. I also saw women hanging out goat meat to dry and 7 and 8 year old girls balancing water containers on their heads as they headed from the bore hole to their village. Anna knew everyone except the people in the cattle camp.

I said so-long to the sisters and the compound personnel as I loaded up my two suitcases and a duffle bag full of memorabilia the Toposa women had given to me - a pipe, two beaded arm bands a four inch thick beaded waist band, two herding sticks taped together and a beaded goatskin skirt I had bought. Sister Susan Clare had already left for Uganda and Sister Edvine, Headmistress and Sister Agnes, Pre-Unit teacher remained. Sr. Agnes came with me to Loki where I took a plane to Nairobi.
I hope to return next spring and stay until June. I left the educating of the Toposa to Christine and Anna who are far more able than I and who understand the needs of the women. They will carry on the Toposa Women's Health Promotion Project while I am gone.

Now I am in Nairobi seeing some of the friends I have made here and taking care of odds and ends. Will fly out on Dec. 20 and get into San Franciso on Dec. 21 where my friends will collect me.

The Kenyan Sisters of Mercy in Nairobi have been most hospitable and patient with my many comings and goings as I used their convent as my base when I was in town. I am grateful to them and to all the sisters at the Diocese of Torit Compound for their patience with me as I struggled with customs and culture and food and scorpions.

I will take a several month hiatus and give some fund raising talks while at home.

I am deeply grateful to you who have read this blog and to others who have emailed me words of support and for all your prayers which kept me focused on the St. Bakhita school girls, on the Toposa and on the God in whose loving gaze all this makes sense.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Since I last wrote there has been more violence at the border of South Sudan and Kenya such that we had to postpone our flight for five days (border was closed for several days). Now the Kenyan army has 7 outposts in the land the South Sudan Toposa feel is theirs. A few days before we flew in to Loki, hundreds of warriors massed less than a mile from our compound. Things have since cooled somewhat.

While I was in Nairobi I made my retreat at the Passionist Retreat Center in Karen, just outside Nairobi. While attending daily Mass I met Sharon McMillan, a Notre Dame de Namur sister who graduated from Mercy Burl in 1966. She is only the fifth American I have met since January. She and I walked two miles in the rain to her convent where we had a breakfast of Peet's coffee and cornbread. I only mention this because it is not my usual fare.

Did some shopping for the Toposa women's project and bought fifty pounds of colored beads and fishing line, etc. along with close to 100 packets of seeds for them to plant during the next rain. The seeds included secuma wiki (collards) okra, squash, and chard.

The day after we (Sisters Madeline and Theresa and I) returned, St. Bahkita's school threw a good-bye party for the girls (class 8) to which the Comboni Boys school (class 8) was invited. There were two hours of speeches, then a delicious supper followed by dancing under an almost full moon. Truly magical. On the following Monday all class 8 students were driven to Loki in Kenya where they will sit for their exams. The outcome of these exams determines whether or not a student can attend secondary school. You need a score of 250 out of 500 to make the cut off.

If I can get a vehicle Anna and I will go to the village in Loolim to give a class for the women there on Nov. 11 and then back to Nacipo on the 21.

There is not much else to report except that I finally got a ticket home and will arrive on Dec. 21. Don't know yet if I will be returning in the Spring.

Again, I appreciate your emails to me at (in case you forgot)

God bless you all and your families.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Things have calmed down since I last wrote. The drought is in full swing even though we had some rain last week.

Two Saturdays ago we began an outreach program for the Toposa women of the Narus area. Anna Mijji, Lucy and Christine are working with me or more correctly, I with them to educate the women in the areas of health, cleanliness and nutrition. Our first class was held on Sept. 19 in the parish hall. 30 women were present, not counting children. It had poured the night before and was misserably mucky outside and it took 20 minutes just to get to the parish hall from our compound. The lesson was on washing hands before cooking and of course after going to the bathroom. The Toposa go outside the village when they need to go to the bathroom. However, goats and such wander around and get offal on their hooves, etc. and bring it into the tiny villages where toddlers play. They in turn get this on their hands and when their mothers pick them up they get it on themselves and if the mothers forget to wash their hands (they dont wash) it may get into the food and if the person who defecated has diarrhea and/or worms, then the rest of the family may also get this. I mimed this little scenario and the women clapped at the end - probably in relief. We also talked about the advantages of eating greens several times a week. Afterwards we entertained questions and comments such that I will be getting seeds for green leafy vegetables for them to plant when it starts to rain. I also suggested that they use the money they make when they sell firewood for greens once a week. They didn't like that idea. As the women left the parish hall where we had met, we gave each a large bar of soap and a large plastic cup with ground maize, enough for one meal of porridge.

The following Saturday, we met 55 women at the Nacipo primary school. Nacipo is a collection of five villages under one chief. The chief's three wives were present. I did the mime of how to give your family worms and diarrhea but the audience did not clap. This was a far more sophisticated audience. We taught pretty much the same things and had pretty much the same questions afterwards.
We gave out soap and maize but because the weather was good, Anna showed and had the women help her prepare some greens. The younger women took our other large pot and filled it with the leftover maize and made porridge. Between the cabbage and the porridge we fed over 100 people counting children. The chief's #1 wife wondered why her husband received tobacco and the woman did not. Forunately I had one roll left over so I gave it to her and she sniffed it and found it to be adequate. She cut some shavings for herself to chew and gave some to the other women who had brought their pipes. They were a happy contented lot. They suggested that we give them clothes so we thought of buying bolts of good cloth and cutting it into two meter segments and giving them this instead as their clothing is threadbare. I must admit I really enjoy working with these women. They do ALL the work while the men sit under trees all day.

On Mercy Day, 09-24-09, I was stung by a scorpion who had gotten into my unzipped suitcase. The pain was worse than an acute appendicitis or muscle spasms which cause you to be taken by ambulance to the hospital. The interesting part was how you are treated: half folk medicine and half modern medicine. I went to the Maryknoll convent where Sisters Theresa and Madeline wiped my finger and a straight edge razor with a sterilizing agent and then Theresa made a fair cut next to the sting and squeezed my finger until it was bleeding freely. Then she placed a black stone on it and taped the stone securely. The thought is that the stone will suction out the poison with the blood. Psychologically I felt good but I was still in agony. Fortunately, Charles, the clinic director, came to the convent compound and gave me two pain shots and I was good to go by the next morning.

I'll be going to Nairobi on Oct. 7 to make a retreat and buy some things for this new project. Will be back in South Sudan around the 25th of Oct. or so. I do not know when I will be returning to the states. Am having an awful time getting my return ticket changed and I started the process in early Sept.

Owls wait for full moon light,
while in my room I hide,
Terrors burrowed in the thatch,
God, let them stay outside.

Chanting down the path come they,
leading cattle home.
Toposa herdsmen sticks in hand,
cattle never roam.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The day after I wrote the last blog I flew to Loki (Northern Kenya) where I usually get picked up and driven to Narus. Instead, Peter, from the diocese compound, picked me up in a taxi and I went to stay in a small hotel. Two days before there had been cattle raiding between the Toposa (South Sudan) and the Turkana (Kenya) and the day before some Toposa tribesmen had shot the number one Turkana warrior, one of his wives and three of their children. All this had taken place in no-man's land between the borders of Kenya and South Sudan. The day I flew in had seen a peaceful demonstration by the Turkana of Loki asking the govt. of Kenya to do something about the situation. That march turned ugly and a riot ensued, Sudanese offices were trashed and looted and stones thrown at all cars with Sudan license plates.

I stayed at the hotel for two nights until the Kenyan Army secured the area and we went in a convoy to S. Sudan. The raiding and fighting continued and carried over to very near our compound. You could hear the gun shots and our little clinic received several tribesmen who had been shot. Five Toposa and 2 Turkana were killed in the surrounding area. The tribesmen brought some of the rustled cattle into Narus, just down the road from us, and were distributing some of the cattle to the various chiefs. Neither the South Sudan nor the Kenyan governments have done much to get control of this situation.

Things have settled down a bit but the Kenyan teachers in both the primary and secondary schools have been unable to return to Narus. This is taking a toll on limited teacher resources. Not all the students have returned either, though most have. I filled in last week but only as a stop gap and reviewed material for three grades in one room. To top it all off, because of the drought, the garden which the girls had dug, planted and tended so carefully had all died for lack of water, even though they had carried water a long distance to water each of their plants. You can get discouraged in a hot minute around here but no one does. They work through it all and do the best they can and so do I.

Sister Angela, the nurse from Kuron Peace Village who was shot last February, and I drove in the truck which still has the bullet hole in the door where she was shot, to the town of Kapoeta, about two hours from Narus. This town had been captured by the govt of North Sudan during the war and wears its scars with pride. We saw the hospital which is operated by the diocese and is running on a skeleton crew and we also saw the two churches which were bombed during the war. (Sister Angela is shown in the picture above, caring for a pregnant woman who had walked 7 days to reach her clinic, given birth under a tree an hour before she got to Kuron, and then nearly died because the placenta had not come out. Sister Angela saved her life.)

The hospital in Kapoeta is clean and well run. It had several wards for new mothers and infants, active TB patients, and then a number of folks suffering from malaria. They even have a lab where they can test for a number of illnesses. I asked about HIV patients and they said they two last year and only one so far this year but they feel there are more out in the community. AIDS is not quite so rampant here as it is elsewhere in Africa because the long civil war isolated the region. Sister had to visit the UN Headquarters and Catholic Relief Services in order to see if they would give her the food she had requested last FEBRUARY. No, they had not even read her letter and proposal but they would get to it and no, they did not have any extra food to give to her to take to her clinic in Kuron, an 8 hour drive away. We finally got a little food from the hospital.

On the way back from Kapoeta Immanuel, our driver, who had been in the army during the war, told us that the main road in Kapoeta had been so heavily mined that they had to build a completely new road around the town. Sister herself can regale you with stories of her work with the Toposa in Kuron. She has 5 girls whom she helped to deliver and who are named after her - each is called Sister Angela. Sister tried to get the mothers to drop the "sister" but has had no success. Angela is very well respected for all she has done and the lives she has saved. The Toposa show their respect by blessing her. One man whose son she saved, covered her freshly washed and ironed white habit with tobacco juice. A woman whom she had helped blessed her with goat dung. The new school, newly painted, was covered in cow dung by the men as a blessing in thanksgiving.

Will begin a new venture this Saturday at the parish hall in Narus. Christine and Anna and I will begin an outreach program to teach the women about basic sanitation, nutrition and health, etc. I will report more on this in October. We will be serving maize porridge with sugar if any of you are interested and can make it to Narus on the 19th of September.

God pops out everywhere here and challenges us to recognize his presence in people and events.