Sunday, March 6, 2011

66. Cheating Children

66. Children can be Cheated

A recent evaluation report commissioned by the Jesuit Refugee Services in Juba stated:

‘…Key problems that need to be targeted now include the frequent absence of teachers from school, teachers who are present but don’t teach and teachers with limited teaching skills. … Most pupils could neither read nor calculate when they finished their third year of primary education.’

Building schools and giving more children the chance to attend schools is not enough. The children are cheated of their only opportunity to be educated if the teachers in those schools do not teach well. Three years of primary education and most children do not possess basic numeracy and literacy skills. Yet these are not kids of limited ability. Many can communicate already in several languages. One major problem is that the attendance of many of the children is far better than that of their teachers!

Not that it would be fair to blame the teachers! Most are very poorly paid and sometimes their pay is a month or two delayed in reaching them. So they need to do other work to support their families. The encouraging signs, however, are the large number who generously give up their vacation time to follow our in-service programmes. Solidarity with Southern Sudan is currently delivering the four-year GoSS teacher training curriculum to 176 teachers in three centres – Malakal, Yambio and Leer.

An additional 43 teachers are following a Foundation programme in Malakal where they are receiving instruction for eight weeks for 6 periods each day of seventy-minute duration - five periods of English and one of Maths. The Foundation programme is a preparatory programme, offered principally to improve their level of English so that they can commence formal teacher training next year. Additional to these 219 teachers, there are further in-service programmes to be offered during the year in Nzara, Renk, Wau and Bentieu as well as the beginning the two year full-time pre-service programme for graduates from secondary school who wish to train to become teachers.

Solidarity is making a determined effort to boost teaching quality in Southern Sudan. Our new purpose-built facilities are in use in Malakl and Yambio and one can sense the increased motivation and pride of the teachers in attending the SSS programmes. Without doubt the hardest task rests with Be Denis, Sr Luchita, Sr Sandra and the other tutors working in Leer for various periods of time. Whereas the tutors at Yambio and Malakal now live on-site, with the convenience that provides, in Leer it is a 25 minute morning walk, often in hot and dusty conditions, to the local primary school where classes are held - and a return trek about 5:30pm.

Our tutors accept this and the Sudanese are also an uncomplaining lot. Last week, I drove about eight hours from Riimenze to Juba for a meeting and two days later made the reverse trip. I was on my own and decided I did not need to rush but would be prepared to pick up women and children who tried to flag me down for a ride. So it was that I carried five groups of people for various distances to Juba and four more ‘hitchhikers’ on the way back. The first group of women were carrying their babies to a health care clinic. Two young girls were carrying a very heavy bag of grain. Most had quite heavy loads. A few were quite elderly. What astounded me was how far I carried most of these people. If not given a ride, they would have walked, what I would regard, extraordinary long distances in hot and dusty conditions.

Although I could communicate with very few of them myself, it was interesting to hear the chatter and one could sense their appreciation. I continue to learn from the people here to accept what I have with gratitude. Happiness does not come from having great possessions but from sharing what we do have with others. Even a cup of water, or a ride, is appreciated.

– Br Bill

Sr. Margaret Scott in Yambio

Yambio group

Sr. Rosa teaching in Makpandu Refugee Camp

Sr. Margaret Sheehan teaching in Malakal

Sr. Luchita teaching in Leer

Sr. Betty & teachers in Malakal

Sr. Barbara in Malakal meeting returning families

Sr. Barbara & Malakal teachers

Br. Julius CFC & Br. Heldon FSC

Br. Heldon teaching in Yambio

Br. Denis in Leer

Br. Bill speaking to students

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

64. Hiden Hazards

64. Hidden Hazards

Early this week one of the Comboni Sisters from Nzara was driving a carload of people to a gathering in another town, Maridi. Unfortunately she lost control of the vehicle and slid off the gravel road. The solid, four-wheel drive vehicle was badly damaged but no-one was seriously hurt. Here the red gravel is commonly called ‘marrom’, although I can’t find the word in a dictionary and am not sure how to spell it. It is easy to slide on such a road, especially if there are any corrugations or soft patches.

The day before this accident, I had driven from Juba to Riimenze, a trip of just over seven hours on unsealed roads. I always say a prayer of thanksgiving after a safe arrival. It is ironic that the really bad roads with massive ditches, too deep to be called potholes, are the safest sections because they force one to go very slowly! The better made sections invite faster driving – and more chance of misadventure! Here in Southern Sudan, I don’t have to worry about hitting an unexpected kangaroo but I have run over two snakes recently, I think. Maybe they took last second evasive action but I surmise I was a lethal hazard to them!

The check points on the road are also a hazard. Most of those people on duty at a check point just remove the barrier and wave cars through but occasionally one meets someone who is a bit officious. The recent trip back cost me two packets of cigarettes - which I had carried for the express purpose of bribery if required. Sounds awful but that is the practical reality. I would rather hand over a packet of smokes – which cost one Sudanese pound (about 35 cents) - than have to pull all the luggage out of the car and face a lengthy, pointless delay.

One of the most malicious hidden hazards is the smallest – the mosquito. Sister Betty, from Ireland, and I both take Lariam once a week and neither of us have had malaria. Most of our SSS members have, some several times. Apparently some people cannot take Lariam (or Mephaquin as it is called here) because of severe side effects. I am fortunate, as far as I am aware, not to have any but maybe the medication itself is a hidden hazard.

We have almost no effective refrigeration in this house. So left-over food needs to be eaten quickly or it may become a health hazard. Strange how life seems always to be a balance between too much and too little - or too soon and too late. Or maybe it just requires that we accept who we are, in the situation in which we are, and act to make the most of it.

Most of the people here walk long distances to where they want to go. Luckier ones now have push bikes. Some folk of ordinary means seem to be able to afford small motor bikes but only the ‘big men’, or whites like me, have cars or, more commonly, four-wheel drives. The clouds of dust caused by other vehicles are a hazard to me, obscuring clear vision when I am driving, but I guess I am a greater hazard to the pedestrians and cyclists as I career past them in a big four-wheel drive – albeit one in which the air conditioning is not working too well at present. I am sure the dust covered pedestrians feel sorry for me!

Hidden hazards? They may be hidden from others but we can’t hide them too easily from ourselves. Most of us are more aware of our problems and weaknesses than of our gifts and strengths. The biggest hazards come from within and the biggest danger is giving into self-pity or embracing an attitude of defeat.

Fetching reasonably clean water for the house here in Riimenze involves driving down a rough track, with ten to twelve ‘gerry cans’ in the back of the vehicle, to a 100 metre deep bore hole from which we hand pump water. I take one or two local workers with me – and sometimes the ‘odd hitch-hiker’ I may meet on the track carrying a gerry can on her head! I always take a turn pumping but I am grateful they take pity on ‘an old man’ and don’t leave me pumping too long! Unclean water is a real hazard. Access to clean water is a top priority here. Around the pump people share and help each other pumping. It is a happy place where kids gather. I find myself thinking that I wonder if they know water can be used for washing as well as drinking and cooking! The kids have great smiles. Even the hazard of harsh habitation can’t halt happiness! Maybe it helps to have less and learn to be without. Thanks be to God for simple joys.

- Br Bill

Saturday, January 22, 2011

63. Uncertain Times - by Br. Bill Firman

The voting is over, the outcome seems clear and there is general optimism that Southern Sudan has chosen a path to a better society. Life looks okay to me – and to anyone else with access to resources. These are good people used to making do and surviving happily on far less than we can. In an emergency this week, I drove another woman to hospital with Sisters Joanna and Josephine who had assessed her blood count as dangerously low. Hepatitis apparently, but maybe also appendicitis or worse. The people here know that they can turn to the sisters in times of crisis. At times, it literally is a matter of life and death. We took ‘Wife no.2’ to hospital. ‘Wife no.1’ demanded, from her husband, a share of his financial resources before he went to the hospital. Glad I don’t have to sort out that kind of issue! Living with four Sisters and one Priest, from five countries, is very easy, in comparison, and in fact. There is an energising love and compassion within our community which we try to share with the local community.

Best wishes to all.

Br Bill

63. Uncertain Times

The referendum has taken place and there is little uncertainty about the result. Although it will be sometime before official results are announced, several states, including Western Equatoria, where I am at present, have announced results close to 99% in favour of secession. Here, in this small region of Riimenze, 671 voted for secession and only 8 for unity. By contrast, the Southern Sudan Referendum Committee (SSRC) states that only 58% of voters in North Sudan opted for secession.

The SSRC website stated on 21st January that out of the 3,932,588 people inside and outside the country that registered for voting, an overwhelming number, 3,138,803 had chosen secession while 44,518 voted in favor of unity. Those figures were based on the processing of 100% of the votes in North Sudan and 83.4% of the votes in the South. To that date, 5,972 blank votes had been cast and 7,745 invalid ones had been excluded from calculations. The further requirement that 60 percent of those registered must vote had been easily exceeded by last Wednesday, the fourth day of voting.

Fortunately in most places the situation has remained stable and peaceful. There have been few reports of violence and any that have occurred has been given customary prominence by the media. Certainly the country has been no less stable than normal and Southern Sudan has survived the referendum with more calm than most anticipated.

Many shops remain closed, however, with no indication of when, and if, they will re-open. In Yambio we have noted extraordinary jumps in the prices of some commodities in the space of a few days. Last week, the price of diesel increased from three Sudanese pounds per litre to four. Sr Margaret bought a fifty kilo sack of sugar for 195 pounds. A few days later, she purchased another sack for Father Mario at the Congolese refugee camp and the price had jumped to 220 pounds.

I noted a newspaper report which asserted that there is a foreign currency shortage in Khartoum that has led to the Government withdrawing subsidies on fuel and sugar. By the way, sugar is a key ingredient of beverages for most Sudanese people. This morning, at a break during an education meeting that Sr Margaret and I attended, I took one spoon of black instant coffee with no sugar in my cup. A priest had a third of a spoon of coffee with three spoons of sugar in his. ‘Three spoons’ seems to be the most common Sudanese practice. But to return to the uncertain economic situation.

At the same time as the dramatic increase in the costs of key commodities, there has been a significant change in the foreign exchange rate. A few weeks ago, one dollar could be exchanged for about 2.8 Sudanese pounds. For most of 2010, this rate varied between 2.6 and 2.8 with an occasional surge when dollars were in short supply. The last time I exchanged dollars, however, the rate was 3 pounds per dollar. Now I would expect to get at least 3.2. Is this the start of rapid inflation of prices within Southern Sudan - or a short term variation? I don’t know.

Since our source of income is principally, but not totally, the dollars provided by generous donors outside of Sudan, those of us working for Solidarity with Southern Sudan are to a degree insulated against such inflation; but for the people here, what they can buy with the few pounds they earn may become less and less. Their access to imported goods will decrease as prices rise and it would be only the local produce that they would be able to afford. This may be the start of post-referendum pain. If so, we hope it will not be too hard on the people of Sudan. - Br Bill

Yambio street

Voting poster

Preparing food

My life lies ahead

Justice symbol

Children helping

Azande homes

Azande graves

All hands

Thursday, January 13, 2011

62. Expectations and Events - By Br. Bill Firman

62. Expectations and Events

Much of world attention seems to have focussed this week on the referendum in Southern Sudan. Since the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) was signed in January, 2005, the United Nations and a plethora of Non-Government Organisations have poured billions of dollars into Southern Sudan. Why?

Africa is one of the richest regions of the world in terms of natural resources. Yet many of the countries of Africa, Southern Sudan among them, have endured torrid conflicts and living standards among the lowest in the world, as measured by western economic indicators. Undoubtedly, many of the former colonial powers have been guilty of exploiting the riches of Africa for their own benefits. No wonder that the great Protestant African missionary, Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965) proclaimed:

"A heavy guilt rests upon us for what the whites of all nations have done to the coloured peoples. When we do good to them, it is not benevolence - it is atonement."

This week the referendum voting in almost all regions has been peaceful. The media has reported the signifcant deaths in Abyei but there has been surprisingly little violence elsewhere and good-natured optimism is the spirit of this time. Unfortunately, guns, the white man’s ‘gift’ to Africans, are to be seen in abundance and any disagreement has the potential rapidly to escalate into terrible conflict and slaughter. In this part of Sudan, the so-called, ‘Arrow Boys’, a citizens’ militia formed to combat the guerilla attacks of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), are armed with guns, not bows and arrows.

Be it through motives of benevolence or atonement, the world community is right to make every effort to promote continuing peace in all African nations. But it would be a mistake not to try to maintain some of the enduring values of these cultures which are so different from our own.

Last Friday, Sr Margaret Scott and I were about to leave Riimenze to go to Yambio (about 30 kms) when one of the local teachers, Simon, came to Sr Joanna requesting help for his wife, Eva. Without the aid of a doctor, in her tukul with clay floor, mud-brick walls and grass roof, Eva had given birth the day before, to a tiny but healthy infant. Eva, however, was bleeding significantly and was suffering from a low blood count .

Sr Margaret skillfully drove our four-wheel drive vehicle down narrow bush tracks to the compound where Simon and Eva lived with their family. Sr Joanna assessed that Eva needed to go to hospital but Eva did not want to go. I was struck by the tremendous sense of belonging, of being secure in one’s own place that Eva and her family possessed. To my eyes, the circumstances in which they lived seemed poor but the bonds were very strong.

The hospital, nonethless, could offer life-saving care and Eva was eventually persuaded to go with us to the Yambio Hospital. Some relatives also had to go with her to cook for her and look after her while she would be in hospital. That is the system here. I guess there are plusses and minuses to such an arrangement but better health care is undoubtedly one blessing bought by white people to Africa. Improving roads is another positive. Breakdown of traditional structures and family bonds are largely negatives.

The difficulty is knowing when to accept cultural expectations and when to try to change them. Some are obvious – accept the rights of others, improve the opportunties for women and girls, and turn away from violent conflict resolution. But it is less clear how to set such expectations without disrupting the social order. In the likely event of secession, establishing an egalitarian society without a dominant black elite, is a problem that has previously confounded many other emerging African nations. It would be good to be free of the threat of imposed Islamic sharia law but not good to become a society which is secular, hedonistic or destructive of family life. There is also the danger that some have unreal expectations that secession will bring immediate improvement in living standards. The first steps this week are going well but it would be fooiish to think the path ahead will not have some potholes. May God guide us down right paths.

- Br Bill

Local Children with Fr. Joseph in Juba

Frequent Small Visitor with Sr. Cathy

Fr. Alberto the Chef

Congolese Mother in Camp

Referendum Voting in Riimenze

Sr. Margaret & Sr. Josephine

Watching the voting

The Voters

Sr. Maureen McBride

Sr. Margaret & Children

Sr. Joana with Patient

Sr. Felista

Friday, January 7, 2011

61. Omar and Omens - By Br. Bill Firman

61. Omar and Omens

In an AAP report following the visit of Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir to Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, on Tuesday, 4th January, it stated:

"I personally will be sad if Sudan splits. But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides," Bashir said in a speech to senior southern officials broadcast live on state television. “I am going to celebrate your decision, even if your decision is secession." He had earlier been greeted by southern leader Salva Kiir on his arrival at Juba airport…Around 500 people gathered outside the airport, shouting slogans for separation such as "no to unity", and waving southern flags, but the atmosphere was festive.

I was one of the 500, but not intentionally. Fr Joseph took me to the airport just before 8:00am for a 9:30am flight to Juba. The route was lined with police and armed soldiers and several police queried us on our way to the airport. At one stage we were blocked and I got out of the vehicle and began to walk but shortly after, Fr Joseph, having charmed his way past yet another interrogating constable, picked me up again. I did walk the last three hundred metres only to find no-one was being admitted to the terminal and no flights were departing. So there we sat, or stood, about 150 people, until 11:30am. Flights resumed after President Omar Al-Bashir arrived and moved off in his escorted convoy. My flight took off just after 2:00pm.

Yes there were people chanting ‘no to unity’ and many were waving flags saying vote for secession. I was given one. Yes, there was a heavy security presence but, remarkably, the atmosphere was indeed ‘festive’, as the AAP report said, and optimistic. None of my fellow travellers at the airport expressed impatience. At present there are no signs of extra tension, neither in Juba, where I was, nor in Malakl where I am now.

In mass on Saturday, marking the attaining of the 101 Days of Prayer for Peace, Sudan Vice-President and President of the South, Salva Kiir, told the congregation: ‘Our President is coming and we should welcome him with courtesy’ - and that is exactly what happened. Al-Bashir said that he believes unity is the best choice for the southerners, but he insists he wants good relations with the south if it chooses independence. Last week, he pledged to

‘help build a secure, stable and brotherly state in the south if it votes for independence.’

Most here in Sudan would agree with State Department spokesman, Philip Crowley who said.

’We believe the right signals are being sent both in the north and south in terms of the upcoming referendum and respecting the results.’

So rather than increasing tension, the developing mood is relaxed and ‘upbeat’. There is a an emerging confidence that both north and south do really want a lasting peace and will work collaboratively to build their joint futures, after the south secedes.

I am told some northerners living in the south have now exchanged homes with some southerners who were in the north. There are many shops which are shut yet many are still open. There is still fresh meat fruit and vegetables available in the market. I am delighted to find that here in Malakal, diesel is again available and there is no drastic shortage of food or supplies which I had thought to be a very likely occurrence.

There has been massive movement between north and south. Today I saw families sitting under trees with all their suitcases and belongings. In the middle of the stadium there are huge piles of household goods brought with families from the north. There are many logistical problems and lack of infrastructure to overcome in the weeks and months ahead and there is no doubt that some will endure great hardship, but as we approach the 9th of January, the beginning of the week of referendum voting, the omens look good, much better than I expected. With Omar, I pray, ‘Al hamdu lilah’. (Thank God). - Br Bill

60. Faith or Foolishness - Br. Bill Firman

60. Faith or Foolishness

Tomorrow, I shall be back in Southern Sudan. At the SSS Board meeting a question was asked about the security and safety of our SSS members during the time of the referendum. Similar questions have been directed to me outside of the Board meeting by others interested in our work in Sudan and once or twice there has been almost a suggestion that it may be foolish for us to be in Sudan at this time of uncertainty.

My reply has been that those of us living and working in Southern Sudan assess it to be a situation where there is some risk and it is inevitabile that there will be varying degrees of anxiety about this. None of us are seeking to be martyrs for the cause but, nevertheless, we have assessed the risk and believe the right decision is for us is to stay. Most NGO personnel left the country during the election. We stayed. In fact many of the missionaries stayed right through the war years and the Church has great credibility in the eyes of the people because the Church, by the presence of both expatriate and local, priests and religious, stood in solidarity with the people during those devastating years.

SSS has taken care to establish a clear policy decision. Any individual SSS member who wishes to leave the country during this time of uncertainty may do so, even if the rest of the community decide to stay. But if the community decides it would be wise to evacuate, everyone must go: no individual may choose to stay behind. We think we are as well prepared as we can be. We have purchased reserved supplies of food in case it becomes dangerous to go out. We have discussed how to maintain communciation.

We have decided, however, not to invite extra volunteers to help during the first half of next year. The Sudanese people in the localities where we live and work know us and recognise that we are Church people. That is our greatest protection. Volunteers would not be so well known. So we have made a different assessment for short-term volunteers who could well have found something very different from what they had imagined.

It is not that we are expecting violence. I think the 101 Days of Prayer for Peace has helped greatly to bring both religious and civil leaders to focus on the strong priority, being expressed by the people, for peace. Add to this, the self-interest of those in power on both sides, and there is a strong recipe for peace. There is likely to be continuing peace because the leaders who led the fighting are now doing so well in peace-time. They are benefitting the most from the prosperity peace brought and now they have the most to lose.

It is a limited analogy but consider what happens when we fly. Several hundred people board a plane. Those people have assessed the risk and placed their faith in the pilots, the air trafic controllers and those who built and those who maintain the plane. Boarding a plane only becomes foolishness, in retrospect, if that plane crashes! Flying is reasonable. If one joins the police, the fire brigade, the armed services, it is reasonable risk-taking.

If I were a married man with a wife and children, then my responsibilities to them would also become key considerations. Thus the decisions taken by many NGO personnel are also reasonable for them. But as religious who publicly profess faith in God and try to live by the meaning that brings to our existence, it is not a hard decision for us to stay in solidarity with the Sudanese people. Sudan is their country. Most of them have nowhere else to go. We will continue to offer programmes to help them have better opportunity.

If north and south separate and good relations, especially in trade, are not maintained, there will be great shortages of supplies in the south. This could lead to unrest and conflict. But it is likely such violence would build up gradually and we would have time to reassess our situation. Nonetheless, let us all pray for a peaceful referendum, followed by a mutually respectful transition process that maintains the peace.

- Br Bill

59. Sometimes There Is No Answer - By Br. Bill Firman

59. Sometimes There Is No Answer

Last Sunday I travelled on the Rome Metro, the underground train service, to San Giovanni, the station next to the Pope’s Cathedral Church of St John Lateran which is the oldest of the four Patriarchal Basilicas in Rome. On my ride to San Giovanni, I observed a relatively young woman, no more than 22, I guess, and carrying a young child, moving through the train with a cup held out, begging for money. I gave her nothing.

Just as in Sudan, there are many people in Rome trying to eke out a living: people selling leathergoods or toys on street corners, some busking and others simply begging. By chance, an hour later, as I returned from San Giovanni the woman was again on the train, child still on her hip,. There are many trains separated by only a few minutes. So it was indeed improbable that I would catch the train she was on. But there she was. This time I gave her two Euros. I watched others. A few gave; most didn’t.

There are worse ways for a young woman to make a living. At least I gave without expecting anything in return but I found myself thinking why did I eventually give to her but not to others who asked. I don’t really know, yet I felt compassion for this woman who seemingly had to use, some might say abuse, her mother-child relationship to stay alive. Another man on the train played a piano accordian and sent a boy, barely a teenager, with a much smaller accordian through the carriages to solicit money. Maybe busking is not begging, but in some ways it is. I did not give. My resources are limited.

In Sudan the average wage for an unskilled worker is about 250 Sudanese pounds per month. That equates to about $90 per month or an annual salary of $1,080. The local Church leaders instruct us to stay near to this level of remuneration. Yet I also know workers for some non-government organisations whose annual salary is 50 to 60 times that amount but significantly less than what many many could earn in their home countries. Some would call the low Sudanese wages grave injustice; but what should one do about it when one does not have the capacity to change conditions that are so wide-spread throughout the country.

A large number of priests have taken up well paid jobs with government minstries or non-government organisations. I find myself wondering how many of the teachers and nurses we are training will leave their key service delivery professions for more lucrative occupations. I suspect that it will be many years before salaries of teachers and nurses will be sufficient to make those professions more attractive in Southern Sudan.

I think, nonetheless, that it is imperative that we continue to strive to raise the standards of education and health care. I believe also in a just wage but it is difficult to define what that should be in such a place as Sudan. When faced with many needs and conflicting priorities there is often no immediate answer on how to act justly but sensibly.

There is one thing, however, that is very clear. ‘Judge not and you shall not be judged’. Some might condemn the woman with the baby on the train as abusing her child, that she is using her child as an effective way to make money. Others might see it is the act of a loving mother swallowing her womanly pride to look after her child. We simply cannot judge the motives of this woman or other people in needy situations.

Are we more likely to give to dishevelled and dirty beggars or to clean and well dressed ones? Are they in genuine need or are they ‘con artists’? Some solve this dilemma, as I must admit I often do, by simply ignoring the person. That is made easier by the fact that I usually don’t know what they are saying! But Christmas is coming, the celebration of Jesus born in a stable. The significance of that humble birth cannot be ignored.

- Br Bill