In South Sudan : October 2011

“We are a nation in its infancy, we have only been in existence for three months and three days. But today we are first class citizens. What is our role in the construction of a new Sudan? Can love find its place in politics and development?” Bishop Santo, auxiliary of Juba, introduced straightaway all the stakes for the symposium “A church of each tribe, language and people” which was held in the capital of South Sudan last October, from the 13th to the 16th. One of the Taizé brothers who lives in Nairobi took part in this meeting.
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Young people in Rumbec

It was the first time since 1984 that the Catholic Church was meeting together and had issued a wide invitation beyond its walls: representatives from other churches, members of parliament and government representatives. The atmosphere was still marked by the proclamation of independence on July 9th 2011: gratitude, and seriousness in facing the unknown future.
Since the first expeditions by western explorers and the beginning of colonization around 1820, the destiny of the South Sudanese has been a path of suffering and humiliation. Turkish domination, the Mahdist revolt, the Anglo-Egyptian condominium, followed by a rapid decolonization that benefitted only the North, which imposed its yoke and its wish to adopt an Arab and Islamic culture. This provoked resistance in the South: mutinies, guerrilla action, exile. The price was high in human lives and in the slowing down of development, but this difficult and complicated path was also that of an entry into the world. “Hic sunt leones” (Here are the lions) – up to the 18th century, this was the only indication shown on geographic maps. In the course of conflicts, negotiations, remissions and relapses into violence, ebb and flow of refugees; step by step, an awakening to the world outside, a widening of contacts, took place. The year of 2011, with the independence referendum and the proclamation of independence six months later, crowned this international recognition. “We are the 193rd country of the United Nations and also the poorest on the planet…”: words which speak of pride in the path travelled and the immensity of the task to be undertaken.

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Preparing the prayer

Peter Tiberius has retired from teaching in the general school system, so he is doubly an “oldie” whose word and witness are respected. “From slavery to the independence of today, it is faith which has set us free! It is faith which has opened our eyes; which is why, having arrived at independence, we want to thank our predecessors and those who brought them to us. Our peoples have been marked by slavery. They doubted whether we had souls. The missionaries came with another outlook: they learned the local languages, they went to funerals, took part in official events. They believed in the evangelisation of free Africans. They did all they could to eradicate slavery. Africa is not a cursed land; its inhabitants were not born to become slaves. They are human beings worthy of being saved, liberated, evangelised, and developed. We did not exist: they put us on the map of this world; making us part of the universal Church. This was the conviction of Daniel Comboni, who had a double passion: for the Gospel and for Africa. He brought a renewed approach to the mission: the co-operation of all, the establishment of an autonomous African church, the importance of women. In practical terms, the missionaries introduced agriculture, the first machines, books; but also the search for peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and the welcome of others amongst tribes who were fighting each other. During the years of conflict and despite the expulsion of the missionaries, the Church was the only institution to have remained on the ground. The government betrayed us, the United Nations withdrew, the traditional systems were destroyed. The catechists continued to lead the local communities, who sometimes had to move, to take refuge. The Church provided emergency food, health, education, security, but also mediation in the peace negotiations. The Church was the only voice defending human rights.”

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Loretto High School in Rumbec

The stories follow one another, full of dignity, of modesty, of restraint about the sufferings endured. The organisers’ warnings and the questions from the public also reveal the vertigo experienced in the face of this new freedom.
At the end of the Sunday service at the cathedral, President Salva Kiir, a regular parishioner when he is in the capital, is invited to speak. An educationalist, he explains the action of the government over the last months and encourages each person to play their part in the effort that will be needed: “Independence is freedom, it is responsibility. We shall have to develop a radar for discerning what is good and what is not.”
“Juba is not South Sudan!” I am reminded by everyone I encounter, “you have to go into the provinces.” So it was that, after a 45 minute flight in a plane of the World Food Programme, I was immersed for a week in the centre of the country, in the region of Rumbek, capital of the State of the Lakes.
Two and a half hour’s journey north west of Rumbek, across the wooded plain and the marshes, the parish of Tonj is run by a team of Salesians. James is Indian, Pedro is Spanish, Henry Korean… He has introduced the young people to songs of Taizé, that he discovered whilst training in Brooklyn. This evening is the third invitation to an evening of meditative prayer. From 16.30 we go to join the young people who are practising their songs on the guitar, led by a Slovak volunteer. A Vietnamese brother organises the decoration on a little podium in the middle of the school yard.

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A church in Rumbec

We continue, carefully improvising two retreat days with the pupils of the Loreto School. There is a meeting under a tree at 16.30 for a reflection on the source of trust and the call of Christ. Then a first: half an hour of personal reflection in silence before welcoming what each person wants to share. “They don’t talk in small sharing groups, but if you invite them to express themselves in front of everybody and you listen to them, then they participate”, Sister Ann explained.
Each evening, in the sixth form classroom transformed into a prayer space, the whole school met together for a common prayer; with Prayer around the Cross on Friday, and an Evening of Light on Saturday. On Sunday a delegation of pupils joined the young people of the parish. After the service eighty young people from the whole town met together. Together, we watched the film about the meeting in Kigali, being prepared for November 2012.
In South Sudan the Church is still very close to its origins. As in other places and at other times, Christ communicates through the witness of communities who celebrate a God who is present in human suffering, who has given his life and opened a way of life through the greatest suffering and humiliation. He allows people to seek and find a meaning for their life even in the most dramatic circumstances. The first missionaries, the first African priests who consumed their life in the fire of the Gospel, substantiated his message of peace and forgiveness. Today those who consecrate their lives to him, and serve their African hosts as brothers, ensure that the relay continues.

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Sunday celebration at Rumbec

Printed from: - 18 May 2021
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