Yet when asked by the nonprofit Bishop Gassis Sudan Relief Fund in March 2006 to undertake a fact-finding mission to southern Sudan, I barely hesitated. Only a year had passed since a peace treaty was concluded between the southern Sudanese rebels and the government in the north, and I was anxious to see what Darfur might look like if it eventually makes a similar treaty. A longtime human rights activist, I was also curious about the practice of Catholicism in a country rarely associated with my faith.
My monthlong journey began at the thatch-roofed airport in Lokichoggio at Kenyas northern border, where I stayed overnight at a fenced church. There, kerosene lamps provided illumination, while a soccer match flickered on a generator-powered television set. A Kenyan supper companion told me he would never consider bringing his family to join him in this primitive outpost. Still, this way station was luxurious compared with the bare landing strip in Kauda, Sudan, where the wreckage of a crashed plane remained in mute testimony to a failed landing. I traveled in a Soviet-era cargo plane with Bishop Macram Gassis himself, a near-legendary Sudanese Catholic prelate with a long record of humanitarian achievements, for whom the organization I represented was named.
Following the local custom, I wore ankle-length skirts despite the suffocating heat. Local people soon crowded around me, eager to see their images on my digital camera. They always asked my namethat much of the language I understood. At 68, the same age as the bishop, I had been chosen for this mission largely because of my recent Peace Corps experience in rural Honduras, which had inured me to physical hardship. But southern Sudan offered an even more challenging environment: no phones, no mail, no electricity, no clocks, few roads and no water in the dry season except for a brackish liquid seeping up from holes hand-dug in dry riverbeds.
There was almost no transportation. Scarce vehicles and fuel all had to be airlifted in; the few camels or donkeys were already heavily laden and not available for hire. Siliri, a de-mining organization, had designated safe areas with white stones; but such efforts had only just begun. I saw the skeleton of a car that had been blown up after hitting a mine.
A Bishops Good Works
Bishop Gassis had stepped into this waterless breach and arranged for a Thai-manufactured rig to drill 150 boreholes up to 80 meters deep through layers of sand and rock, holes named for such distant benefactors as Senator Sam Brownback and Congressman Frank Wolf.
As the bishop approached one well, children took turns pumping furiously, filling gourds and jugs while goats and feral-looking pigs drank the overflow and women washed clothes nearby. Crowds usually followed the bishop, but here the women scrambled shyly away. Stop, dont run away, the bishop called out in colloquial Arabic. Who do you think provided you with all this good water? I, your bishop, did. The bishop was the final arbiter on the location of wells and structures.
Mass was usually celebrated under the trees as worshippers knelt on the bare ground. The image of Sister Bakhita, a 19th-century Sudanese saint and former slave, was often propped up nearby. Women wearing colorful headscarves and long flowered dresses, with plastic rosaries around their necks, chanted the Kyrie Eleison while beating drums and shaking homemade rattles. They also sang native songs punctuated by high-pitched ululations; men sitting apart provided low-note harmony. Boy and girl Mass servers deposited corn, papayas and pomegranates into an altar basket; a boy even handed the bishop a live chicken.
At one Mass, the bishop, preaching in both Arabic and English, appealed for dedicated catechists to assist his few priests and nuns. If you are a single woman, very good, if married, even better; if a single man, good, married, better still, but please, only one wife, he said. He asked the congregation to bring in an animal to sacrifice at Easter, a calf or goat, but no mere chicken. At another Mass he confirmed more than 100 people of all ages, including two blind men.
The bishops sermons warned of returning refugees bearing the scourge of AIDS, from which Sudan until then had largely been exempt. A nurse nun confided that girls who had escaped from Ugandas Lords Resistance Army were arriving pregnant or infected with H.I.V. after being raped.
Since the peace accords were signed in 2005 between Khartoum and southern rebels, the bishop had been working relentlessly to bring the area, he said, if not into the 21st century, at least into the 20th. While still unable to serve the Darfur portion of his diocese, in the rest of his territory he had begun building, rebuilding and operating schools, orphanages, chapels and hospitals. Water was key.
Muslim pupils as well as Catholics and other Christians attended the bishops schools. The U.N. World Food Program provided daily meals. A special effort was made to enroll girls, though boys predominated. Some teachers were nuns, others English-speaking locals or Kenyans and Ugandans hired on yearly contracts. During the civil war, schools were targeted by government bombers reportedly trying to wipe out rebel spawn. One of the bishops schools was destroyed by shelling; another was bombed, killing 18 children and maiming several others. Unlike the situation in the north, Sharia law does not prevail in the south. When Muslim-Christian intermarriage occurs, the children become Muslims.
A sewing workshop, run by a Portuguese nun who has spent 20 years in Sudan and is fluent in Arabic, began with a lesson on the equality of husband and wife in marriage. All the women had arrived promptly, using the sun as their only timepiece, eager to take turns using three treadle sewing machines. Women also worked alongside men at the bishops construction sites while their small daughters cared for younger siblings, carrying around babies almost as big as themselves.
Safety a Relative Term
Lured by the availability of water and promise of peace, semi-nomadic Nuba and Dinka herders were moving back, often settling in the hills for safety should government bombers ever return. There I saw them constructing new huts and livestock fences from dry bramble bushes and preparing the terraced hillsides for planting. Several teenage boys told me they had returned on foot all the way from exile in Uganda, considering southern Sudan now to be safe. Yet fighting could still break out anew if the south eventually decides to secede from the north, as permitted by the north-south peace agreement. Oil reserves are located in the south, a serious complicating factor.
Southern rebel forces manned frequent checkpoints, giving us the feeling we were under siege. Our party breezed past, though, thanks to the bishops armed rebel bodyguards. Most men carried AK-47 rifles, knives or machetes; shootings and stabbings were not uncommon. Nongovernmental organizations, as well as the bishop himself, operated from within walled compounds where all staff members slept at night and vehicles and diesel fuel were kept under guard. One evening I accompanied a deacon as he drove a woman with a bullet wound to a clinic run by Save the Children. We never found out who had shot her or why. Another woman told us her teenage son had disappeared en route to relatives in Khartoum. She feared that the boy, if still alive, might have been kidnapped into slavery, a practice not yet eliminated in Sudan.
Some of the tall, slender southern Sudanese bore horizontal scars on their foreheads or were missing two lower front teeth, pulled in a rite of passage. Both men and women made a point of vigorously shaking my hand; one man had only finger nubs, probably from leprosy.
Because I sometimes stayed overnight at a nuns compound, locals called me Sister Barbara. My special friend was Soraya, a widow with two children who tended the nuns garden. Though I had to strain to decipher Arabic and suppress my urge to speak Spanish, language differences proved relatively unimportant. Women often walked alongside me, holding my hand or fingering my gold earrings. My belongings, left unguarded in an open hut, were never touched. When I dropped a paper clip in the sand, a woman hastened to return it.
I was once startled to see several Dinkas emerging from the woods bearing spears, but was assured that spears are now used only for hunting. On another occasion I was briefly caught outdoors alone in a blinding sandstorm that stung my skin and left me temporarily disoriented. In the evenings I saw miniature deer and flocks of wild guinea hens. Poisonous snakes sliding down from trees at night left telltale trails in the sand.
I often drank well water or drank from the common cup passed around to guests in a spirit of hospitality. I was offered strong sweetened tea in a tiny glass and once a goat was slaughtered in our partys honor, the chunks of meat served on spongy pancakes.
I learned nothing about the practice by Muslims and Christians alike of a severe form of clitorectomy. The practice is associated with a doubling of maternal and infant mortality, yet outsiders working in Sudan told me it was not considered a priority issue, given other urgent needs.
Outdoors at Easter Sunday Mass, amid pink desert flowers and stately baobab trees, congregants joined the bishop in expressing thanksgiving and hopes for a permanent end to the hostilities that had killed, starved and injured so many among them. A goat was duly sacrificed. They also prayed aloud that their brothers and sisters in Darfur would join them on the path to peacea peace that despite international pressure still remains elusive. From their own experience, they knew well that any peace treaty in Darfur would be only the first step on a long road to recovery.