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Sr Ailish in Yambio

Sr Ailish O'Brien with her Level Two students at teacher training in Yambio

Sr Ailish O’Brien with her Level Two students at teacher training in Yambio

Sr Ailish O’Brien, RSM, a sister from Ireland recently joined the teacher training Community in Yambio and already she has sent her first impressions of life at in and out of the classroom.

As I write, I have been living in South Sudan for a total of twenty eight days!  Looking back, I can hardly believe how different the life being lived now is, from that which I left behind on July 24th last.  Due to the short period of time covered by this reflection, it is an account of first impressions only, so please forgive the lack of in-depth analysis or consideration of the political and human situation in this country.  I am only beginning to experience first-hand and to understand the implications of living in a land suffering the turmoil of civil war.

Landing on the runway of Juba airport on July 25th was a significant moment for me.  It meant the long process of volunteering, applying, interviewing, medical procedures, vaccinations, moving away from the congregational communications office, shopping, packing, bidding farewell to friends and colleagues and the dreadful wrench of leaving family behind, had finally come to an end and the mission had begun.  I was exhausted!

However, the welcome and hospitality extended by the staff of ‘Solidarity with South Sudan’ Headquarters in Juba worked wonders, and after two days in the city I boarded the 20-seater plane bound for Yambio.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget the pandemonium and chaos at Juba airport in the ‘domestic flights’ section on Monday 27th July.  The departures area consists of one concrete floored room absolutely packed with people and luggage, all intending to fly domestically that morning.  I could only see one man at a makeshift check-in desk and one scales to weigh the bags.  It is still a mystery how I managed to get on the correct plane and that my bags landed in Yambio at the same time as me!

What an extraordinary experience to arrive somewhere and not really know where one is, or anyone else there!   Yet, the people I have met in the last twenty eight days have opened their hearts to me and have treated me as a long-time friend.  I have felt immediately comfortable in their presence and the process of adjusting to a new world has been accelerated as a result.

Having said that, it was quite a shock to find myself standing before a class of twenty three trainee teachers on my second morning in Yambio!  I was the new English tutor and it was up to me to hide my apprehension, as the students had full confidence in this most recent arrival from Ireland.  Now that the timetable has been finalised, I am assigned to teach English to three different classes and music to two classes.  So I’m more than fully occupied and the class preparation and correction of assignments is in full swing.

The Solidarity Teacher Training College at Yambio is an extremely efficient learning institution with a welcoming and respectful atmosphere towards all who come seeking training.  Its mission is to contribute to the development of South Sudan through education.  With a charism of being in solidarity with the people, the fact that a student has no funds to contribute towards tutoring and upkeep is no barrier to acceptance.  At present there are about 110 students enrolled from all states of South Sudan, and the Nuba Mountains.  Pre-service students in their 20s sit beside untrained, previously serving teachers in their 50s who are getting their first chance at training, albeit at the latter end of their teaching careers.  Members of each tribal group study together, eat together, pray together, relax together and work together in solidarity with one another and in peace.  In South Sudan, this is a great witness for a new country struggling to forge its identity and its future.

Mirroring the composition of the college students, the community I now live in has nine members – six sisters, one lay female volunteer and two brothers.  The sisters are from Ireland, the US and New Zealand, the volunteer is Australian and the two brothers are from Ghana and Nigeria.  In solidarity with the people of South Sudan, the community lives, works and prays together in peace and respectfulness, despite the differences in nationality, congregation, charism, gender, age and language.  This community is, of itself, a witness to peace and harmony for the wider community.  Since I arrived, we have also hosted twelve visitors, so there is plenty of variety and fun.  There are also two cats, one kitten and an amazing array of four, six and eight legged creatures, not to mention the flying species!!!

Opening Mass for second term Yambio Aug 2015 (350x207)On a slightly worrying note, the sound of gunshot was heard every night during my first week here in Yambio.  As a result, local people gathered their meagre belongings, and women and children moved to the interior for safety, while the men stayed behind to defend their homes and businesses.  For a few days, it seemed that Yambio might become the scene of intense tribal fighting.  A curfew was announced and all students and staff of the college were in lockdown for a number of days, never leaving the compound.  It was disconcerting to say the least, to know that such danger was around and there was absolutely nowhere to go.  Travel was impossible and internal flights to the area had been cancelled.  Thankfully, peace has been restored and life has returned to a level of normality.

Our local church community, on the outskirts of Yambio, meets for Sunday Mass under a grove of mango trees.  Each member of the assembled congregation arrives carrying a chair, and sits on it for the two hour celebration of Mass, and then carries it home.  I found it strange, the first time, to watch the stream of people walking towards the leafy ‘church’, each man, woman and child carrying a chair to sit on.  The singing is just gorgeous and the readings and Gospel are proclaimed in English, as well as the local language, to facilitate those who are not local to the area.  It really is a celebration to look forward to at the beginning of the week.  I have also attended Sunday Mass at the main church in town and the choir there is magnificent.

I have just set up a music club in the college and this morning, seventeen students came along to learn how to play the tin whistle!  It was great and I have thirty tin whistles here so each student had one to practise on.  Our goal is to be able to play the South Sudan National Anthem for the college graduation ceremony in November.  I think we’ll manage that.

This area of South Sudan has an equatorial climate and the environment is lush and green, with a profusion of banana, pawpaw and orange trees.  As it is the rainy season now, there is no shortage of rain, and people are planting crops, even as they harvest the fruit of their labours from an earlier planting.

The latest Peace Agreement has recently been signed by the President of South Sudan and a complete ceasefire has been called for.  However, reports suggest that this ceasefire has already been violated.

You might remember a prayer for South Sudan.

Sr. Ailish O’Brien, Yambio, South Sudan