Richard’s Easter

April 21, 2009 in General, News

sudan_01.jpgThis is rare. Richard O’Dwyer SJ describes the impact on him of a ravaged corner of Sudan while the experience is still raw. Richard, formerly a chartered surveyor, is working for the Jesuit Refugee Service in South Sudan, and has just send the account below of Easter Happenings in South Sudan. The inhospitible terrain and the even starker histories of its denizens made a deep impact on Richard, but he was equally overwhelmed by the resilience of the people, the priests and the bishop of the diocese where he works. “I marvelled,” he writes, “at how these joyful, smiling people whose Church, town and whose very lives had been reduced to dust, were able to rejoice so exuberantly. I felt I was witnessing a new beatitude in the making.”


Richard O’Dwyer SJ

I arrived back from a week of rest and relaxation with my Jesuit brothers in Xavier House, Uganda, in time for Palm Sunday in Kizito’s Chapel. We blessed the Palm outside and processed into the chapel for our Mass and reading of St Mark’s Passion. The following day, I decided to drive to Torit, the seat of our Diocese, for the Chrism Mass with our bishop, Akio Johnson Mutek, and the priests of the Diocese. Our rainy season has begun and the our way led entirely along unpaved dirt roads, so a 6-hour journey lay ahead of my driver and me.

We almost came unstuck quite close to Lobone at our second river crossing close to the village of Kichenga. We had a tricky descent to the concrete overflow bridge over the river. However, as soon as we crossed the bridge we faced a rise of 10 to 20 metres. The climb out looked daunting because of the presence of a trench in the middle of the road. The trench had formed due to a complete lack of any road maintenance and the traction of wheels of trucks and other vehicles attempting to claw their way up the incline away from the river. The trench was not far off a metre deep and half a meter wide. On our first two attempts we could see the stress such hazards as trenches cause to the suspension, axles and wheels of even a sturdy four-wheel-drive jeep.

Twice, despite the best attempts of John my driver, our jeep slid uncontrollably sideways into the trench, and the impact of the slide and the poor road surface spread-eagled our wheels outward away from the vehicle, as if some giant and naughty child had attempted to pull them off by the inner rim! I marvelled at the strength that Toyota engineered into our Hilux jeep and the beating its suspension system could take. After the two failed attempts we piled every stone and felled branch we could find into the trench to try to give our wheels every ounce of traction we could muster. Our driver backed the vehicle all the way back to the bridge and then gunned the engine hard on high revs into second gear and with a roar she shot forward, the wheels grinding, gouging and biting on every square millimetre of surface that might help it climb and thrust; and up she rose triumphantly, bounding and bouncing her way away from the river up the incline. Full of excitement we ran after her, cheering the Hilux and ignoring the mud and muck, like a rampant, loose pack urging a plucky comrade towards a try!

After another five hours, we arrived in Torit! In many places along the route, we made slow progress as often there were more large water-filled craters than roadway. Calling such voids potholes does not do them justice!

Torit is not just the seat of our Diocese; it is also the state capital of Eastern Equatoria, one of the seven states that comprise Southern Sudan. Eventually the road had improved and then we reached a big T-junction. I knew we had to be close to Torit. This final section of roadway was much wider and veered in an easterly direction. John my driver said that were we to follow it we would end up in Nairobi to the southeast and if we made a U-turn we would end up in Juba to the northwest, with Juba hundreds of kilometres away and Nairobi twice as many again. We crossed yet another river bridge, the widest of the day. Every plank we crossed rattled nervously on the supporting steel flanges.

I am not sure what I expected of Torit. But whatever it was, it was not met by what lay before my eyes. The dirt road became the main street of Torit. Single-storey dingy and rundown shops lined the street. Most had red-rusted corrugated iron roofs. Not a two-storey building was in sight. No one living over the shops! We slowed at the Bishop’s residence. I have seen more pleasing entrances to derelict farms in Ireland. To say I was shocked to the core captures my feelings pretty well.

As my eyes glimpsed a hotel in slightly better shape, my mind began to wonder whatever had befallen Torit. We drove to another diocesan compound on the outskirts of town. My question about Torit and its recent history would find an answer on a tour of that compound. I saw two newish buildings and what looked like army tents. I remembered the Chancellor of the Diocese from the AGM in February and he found me a room and graciously offered me some tea. Then he and Fr brought me on a tour of the compound. One of the first pieces of information they gave me was that Torit suffered a fate similar to Tobruk in North Africa in WWII; it had changed hands at least 3 times during the 1983-2003 North-South Civil war. In the fine diocesan compound as we walked around it, they pointed out shell after shell of derelict buildings, the Minor Seminary Building, the Major Seminary, the Convent, the Girls Secondary School, the Boys Secondary, the Bishops’ residence, the workshops that made everything from shoes to tables and chairs. The Italian Comboni missionaries who thrived here in the 1930s and 40s had had their entire mission reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment.

However, in true calculated fashion, the Khartoum government had taken over the technical school for training young men and women in trades, first looting the workshops for their vast array of tools before bombing them. The hope is now the technical school will form the nucleus of a new University of Science and Technology of South Sudan. Perhaps something can be saved of the marvellous vision of the early Comboni missionaries for future generations of South Sudanese. I found myself fervently praying it might be so.

The next day the Chrism Mass was held around 5pm in the twilight of the “town Centre” of Torit. For someone like me who knows the effort, creativity and beauty that goes into buildings, not to mention the materials and skills of the men and women who lay the foundations, walls and fit every timber, nail and bolt, I was deeply saddened to discover that all that remained of the Catholic Church which was consecrated as the Cathedral twenty five years ago were the entrance steps and the arches of the porch. The main church building was again rubble that I could only glimpse as dusk faded into night. We, priests and people, sat under a temporary stricture of wooden beams and uprights covered by the the ubiquitous corrugated iron!

And then, as the litugry began with beautiful music and singing, I marvelled at the resilience of the both people and priests and their bishop humbly presiding over all of us. I knew that everyone here except me had suffered dreadful losses of family and fiends, adults and children and now their time had come to sing. The corrugated ceiling over my head felt strangely comforting and nurturuing. I felt suddenly delighted I had made the trip, it was worth enduring every bump and crater and being bounced around for 6 hours the day before.

So here on the side of a muddy street, in a town most people in Europe have never even heard of, Bishop Akio Johnson Mutek invited God’s Spirit on the Oil of Catechumens and the Sick and when he poured the Balsam and breathed onto the Chrism its sweet fragrance filled my nostrils and once again, Africa, unbidden, anointed me. Towards the end of mass, the clergy of each parish were introduced and asked to stand and greet the congregation. I, an unknown stranger among them, was warmly greeted and cheered as one of their own. The mud and the rubble seemed less intrusive to my European sensibilities. I marvelled at how these joyful, smiling people whose Church, town and whose very lives had been reduced to dust, were able to rejoice so exuberantly. I felt I was witnessing a new beatitude in the making.

After supper, Bishop Akio Johnson hosted a supper for the priests. After we had eaten, he rose to speak. In the middle of his speech, I was astonished to hear him publicly thank me for journeying all the way from Lobone to Torit and for helping to re-forge a strong link between the Diocese of Torit and JRS.

The following morning I collected the oils for the people of Lobone. It was just as well I had a good supply of oil as we baptized 33 infants and babies at our Holy Saturday Vigil which took place under only candlelight and with a little help from Petzyl head torch! It was a marvellous celebration, full of energy and verve. The previous day we had walked a 2-hour Stations of the Cross all around Lobone, dry shod! Remember, this is the rainy season. The raindrops began to patter on our heads as we recited the final words of Station Thirteen about a hundred metres from St Kizito’s Chapel!