South Sudan: When Life Can Be Beautiful

In spite of the horrors of war, life is beautiful in South Sudan, when children play together as brothers and sisters and do not see others as their enemies and threats – as some adults often do. This is the experience of Bill Firman, De La Salle Christian Brother and Executive Director of Solidarity of South Sudan.

It is beautiful when children are able to make their own toys out of simple material such as clay, and play their cheerful and peaceful games without any ambition or thirst for power and wealth  something that seems so rooted in the hearts and minds of many adults. Life is also beautiful when children with a pure heart believe, hope, trust, laugh, and enjoy life in simplicity, with the very few things they possess.

The immediate outlook in South Sudan remains uncertain, but many NGO personnel are now returning. A delegation from the UN Security Council is here. Their clear message is that the world is not abandoning the people of this strife-torn nation. I am witnessing the ‘miracle’ of what people are prepared to do when they are really motivated.

Recently I was at the Loreto school in Rumbek, where I saw another modern-day ‘miracle’, in which courage and the intelligent use of resources, provided by generous donors, is also helping the people here in this time of great need and vulnerability. Unfortunately, the high attendance rate of both teachers and students at Loreto school is not typical of many schools in South Sudan. The story of the ‘Loaves and Fishes’  and the emphasis placed by Pope Francis on the duty of people of faith to care and to share  was brought home to me. The holistic, Loreto approach shows how powerful a school can be in helping the deserving poor move from surviving to thriving. There are good things happening in South Sudan.

In his homilies, Pope Francis has emphasised sharing. If we only believe and share what we have, we can work such miracles. In South Sudan, we have a modern-day version of this. I witnessed this last week. There is a huge food crisis in South Sudan, and many people are hungry. Yet, against all the odds, Loreto Rumbek has been feeding many people each day.

Loreto is a school  a very good school, not an agricultural project. I am proud to be the chair of the College Board, because it is a school that is making a huge impact with the quality education it delivers. It consists of two schools: a day primary school for 542 boys and girls, and a secondary boarding school for 201 girls. Loreto also offers an Accelerated Learning Programme (ALP) for 146 people  a mixture of local children and adults who have missed out on the opportunity for formal education.

Over the past few months, food prices have risen dramatically, and it has become increasingly difficult to access food. It was obvious to the Principal of Loreto, Sister Orla, and her staff, that many of the local people were very hungry. Students returning to school had very little, if any, food at home. With the aid of a young Mennonite volunteer, Ben, who writes very good submissions, Loreto approached several donor groups, who agreed to provide funding for food relief. But the sentiment at Loreto was that the school could do better than just feed the students  especially the boarders entrusted to their full-time care. Loreto set about employing between 30 and 80 people each day to cultivate, plant, weed, and harvest various food crops – plus cooks, of course. They grew food; their wages injected cash into the markets; and the local economy began to function much better. Even more importantly, the people enjoy the dignity of working for their upkeep and for the schooling of their children, rather than having to beg for aid.

Along with the students in all three educational programmes, Loreto undertook to feed 60 teaching staff and all other employees, including the agricultural workers and block-makers. Altogether, Loreto undertook to feed 1,000 people per day. Somehow, almost miraculously, they managed to grow and buy enough food to do this.

In an enterprising initiative, Loreto is making its own concrete blocks, for future construction projects. Fifteen Senior 4 girls stayed back this vacation period to follow a ‘masonry programme’. In the first day they made 300 blocks!

Recently a Loreto Sister and qualified nurse, Sister Penina from Kenya, has joined the Loreto community. She has brought healthcare to all the students, workers, and their families. Penina is assisted in the clinic by a few local women and Loreto graduates. They care for many patients every day. The incredible impact of better access to healthcare plus nutritious, basic meals for the primary and ALP students has seen the attendance rate soar to 95%. The class attendance rate of the Loreto boarders has risen to 100%.

With faith and determination, Loreto has used its resources to help the local community as well as its students. Only on one day was there not enough food for the workers. At times, it seemed the food would run out; but somehow, enough was found. To me, this is a modern-day ‘miracle’ in South Sudan.

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