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Gerard O’ConnellMarch 02, 2023
People sing before Pope Francis' celebration of Mass at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 5, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Author’s note: During Pope Francis’ visit to South Sudan in early February, I spoke to several women who are doing amazing work to ensure a future of peace in the country, particularly through education. In a previous article, I spoke to several priests and men religious. I report here on the work by two women religious, Sister Orla Tracey and Sister Alice Jurugo Drajea, and the work of the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Sara Beysolow Nyanti.

Orla Tracey, I.B.V.M., is a dynamic Irish Loreto sister who runs a boarding school in Rumbek, the capital city of Lakes State in war-torn South Sudan, and works for women’s education and to prevent child marriages. I met her in Juba after she had completed a 260-mile “walk for peace” (about half by foot) from Rumbek to Juba, together with 60 students, girls and boys aged 15 to 19, to meet Pope Francis. Rumbek’s bishop, the Most Rev. Christian Carlassare, led the walk. An Italian Comboni missionary, Bishop Carlassare was shot in both feet on April 26, 2021, less than a month before his installation. At the end of the journey, they were able to get a picture with the pope.

The walk was “a very positive sign,” Sister Orla said, “because 18 months ago this would have been impossible. The areas we walked through have seen a lot of insecurity, ambushes and attacks in recent years.”

“I think the sad thing about walking in this country is we only walk during war, when we’re fleeing,” she said. “But now all of a sudden, the Sudanese could see this band of crazy young people dancing, singing and walking on the roads, looking like they’re being displaced. But then they tell you that they’re actually going on a pilgrimage to Juba, ‘a walk for peace,’ to meet the pope. It’s something unheard of.”

She reported that “most of the young people in the group had never left Rumbek before; they couldn’t move because of the conflict…. They saw a mountain for the first time, they saw tarmac roads for the first time, they saw the River Nile for the first time!”

I met her in Sister Orla after she had completed a 260-mile “walk for peace” (about half by foot) from Rumbek to Juba, together with 60 students, girls and boys aged 15 to 19, to meet Pope Francis.

When Sister Orla came to Rumbek in 2006, following the peace agreement in 2005 that ended two decades of civil war, there were only two secondary schools in the state. “The bishop at the time had the vision that he needed a girls’ boarding secondary school, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out where he got that vision from because when we arrived everybody told us it was impossible. Girls were not even going to primary school, let alone secondary school.”

When they started the school in 2008, she said, “it was a nightmare at the beginning to get students because there was a lot of tribalism, a lot of misunderstandings.” Nevertheless, eight girls graduated from that first group, 10 from the second, and today there are 70 students. “Now there are 12 secondary schools in the state today, and girls are queuing to get into them,” Sister Orla said.

She said that across South Sudan, only 3 to 4 percent of girls finish secondary school education because most of them get married before finishing studies; some 10 percent of girls are married by the age of 15, and 52 percent by the age of 18.

Sister Orla introduced me to Sara Luca, one of the 12 graduates from the school who completed the walk with her. Sara is considered “old” because she is already 18 and not yet married. She told me that while her family accepts her decision to study, she knows many girls in her situation that “would be abused and insulted by their families because they’re still not married by age 18. Moreover, many relatives don’t want the girls to go to university because they say they will come back arrogant and not listen to the elders.”

Across South Sudan, only 3 to 4 percent of girls finish secondary school education because most of them get married before finishing studies.

Sister Orla applauded the governor of Lakes State who “recently signed a bill saying he will protect girls from early enforced marriage and protect the girl child.” She said the new law “has changed everything for us.”

The Loreto school that Sister Orla established has an internship program for girls. “Up to 85 percent of our graduates go on to university,” she said, “and we support them. Many will study within the country, but every year we send around 12 girls to study in Kenya.”

“Sending the girls to Kenya gives them an exposure, particularly to young African women from other cultures,” Sister Orla said. “They see them driving cars, owning homes, running businesses. They can’t see that in South Sudan at the moment, and so the hope is that once they have seen this, they come home and live it.”

Sara Luca told me she is a graduate of the school and a second-year intern. “Because my father has many wives and six children, it’s not easy to educate all of us, so I grabbed this opportunity of internship to come back to the family and work in Loretto.” Ms. Luca worked in the primary school and clinic and now plans to go to Nairobi University to study dentistry.

As for the funding of all this education, Sister Orla said, “We are still begging, we’re still very dependent on outside sources for everything we do, but now we’re trying to slowly start funding locally because some are getting better jobs.” But, she noted, business development is stifled by a sprawling aid industry. “You get more money working in an aid industry than you would working in other areas.”

Women Religious in Exodus

Sister Alice, a friend of Sister Orla’s, was born in Uganda and is now superior general of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Juba, the first local women’s religious congregation ever to be established in Sudan.

I met the always-smiling Sister Alice in Juba after the pope’s meeting with religious and clergy. She became head of the S.H.S. congregation in 2018. Since the congregation was founded in the early 1950s, she said, “we have struggled with a situation of war and many trials.” The sisters and all missionaries were expelled from Sudan at the outbreak of the country’s first civil war in 1964. They were forced into exile in Uganda, but when a civil war started in northern Uganda in 1979, the congregation returned to Sudan, only to flee again in the 1980s when the second civil war erupted in Sudan.

Sister Alice Jurugo Drajea (Photo courtesy of Irish Jesuits International)
Sister Alice Jurugo Drajea (Photo courtesy of Irish Jesuits International)

“In all these ‘exoduses,’” she said, “the sisters remained resilient and focused on their mission even though about half of the number left the congregation because of this constant forced movement. No one was killed by gun until Aug. 16, 2021.”

Sister Alice told me that on Aug. 15, 2021, a great many people, including the sisters, came from all over to celebrate the centenary of the parish where the congregation was founded. South Sudan’s president Silva Kiir also attended. The next day, as people began returning home, a group of seven sisters and five laymen, including the driver and conductor, set out on a bus and were ambushed by armed men. The sisters sought refuge in the bush. One of them, Sister Regina Roba “was wearing a veil and was shot three times as she ran away. A second sister, Sister Mary Daniel Abut, the superior before Sister Alice, was lying on the ground. Sister Mary Daniel felt she could get up and return to the bus but when she turned her head, a gunman was standing there and just shot her right in front between the nose and the eye.”

The reason for the killing of the South Sudanese sisters remains unknown to this day. At their funeral, the local archbishop hailed them as “martyrs,” and during Francis’ visit to the church of St. Teresa in Juba, the pope listened to an account of their killing by one of the S.H.S. sisters.

Notwithstanding their nomadic and troubled existence, the congregation still has 180 sisters, Sister Alice said. “The work we do is mainly education at all levels: nursery, primary, secondary, and some sisters are teaching in universities. We also do adult education among the South Sudanese refugees in the camps in Uganda and in Sudan.”

Sister Alice studied education and religious sciences in Mater Dei Institute of Education, in Dublin, from 1990 to 1994, where she met Sister Orla. After her graduation, she returned home and taught for three years in the minor seminary of the South Sudan Diocese of Torit, then in exile in Uganda. After serving for seven years as delegate superior for her congregation, she returned to Ireland where, thanks to a scholarship from the Irish government, she studied at Trinity College in Dublin. She first gained a master’s degree in 2010, followed by a Ph.D. with a thesis on measuring childhood academic performance.

Her congregation today runs three nursery schools, nine primary schools and two secondary schools and educates thousands of children. But because of armed conflict in the country, Sister Alice said, “we also have to engage in social work, because after each wave of violence, we find children that are cut off from their families.” The congregation cares for about 100 such children, and provides them with food, clothing, schoolbooks and medical care. In addition, it has established homes for disadvantaged children. It has also established a whole village for disadvantaged children in the Archdiocese of Gulu, in the Nile Valley, composed of 10 interconnected homes, where a mother is appointed for each home and looks after four of five children, so the children feel they are in a family.

Asked how her congregation finances all this, Sister Alice said that “we don’t have much income-generating activity; we are always in need of financial support.”

“If the women of South Sudan are given an opportunity to develop, to have space to be productive, South Sudan will be transformed,” Sara Beysolow Nyanti told the pope.

Since there is such insecurity, I asked Sister Alice what future she sees for this land. “If only they could agree to come together and to cater for the people of this country, then we can have peace,” she said. “This country is beautiful. It has a lot of resources, including minerals. The soil is good; you don’t need fertilizer. People can feed themselves, but how can they do so if gunmen just come and shoot them when they are working in the field?”

She hopes Pope Francis’ visit can help bring peace, but said: “This will only happen if our government leaders listen to him and are committed to taking painful, very tough decisions to make peace for the people. It depends on them.”

The Rev. Jim Green, the executive director of Solidarity with South Sudan, an inter-congregational initiative, said Sister Alice, Sister Orla and so many other sisters working here are “terrific role models” for the women of South Sudan. They are doing “important work,” he said. “They are in contact with people, and they relate to women and to men in ways that we men cannot do.”

‘The world’s most neglected crises’

Liberian-born Sara Beysolow Nyanti is the humanitarian coordinator of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan. I spoke to her at Freedom House, before she and Pope Francis addressed 2,000 young, displaced people. She leads the U.N. humanitarian response with the help of 249 partners, composed of U.N. agencies and international and local N.G.O.s. The Catholic Church could be considered the 250th partner, she remarked, “but we don’t work directly with the church as an implementing partner.”

Nevertheless, she said, “the Catholic Church’s role is huge in terms of its participation in humanitarian response in every aspect, including around social cohesion, reconciliation, education, health and health services.”

The situation in South Sudan is “harrowing in terms of increasing humanitarian needs associated with violence and climatic shocks,” she said, “and I feel something needs to change, otherwise, we’re going into a complete downward spiral.” She emphasized the urgent need for peace in this land of over 12 million people where two million are internally displaced and 2.3 million are refugees outside the country. “South Sudan ranks fourth on the list of the world’s most neglected crises. It is also the largest refugee crisis in Africa. Extreme levels of food insecurity and malnutrition affect two-thirds of the country’s population.”

She drew attention to the insecurity people experience from ongoing violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, while children risk being abducted and recruited by armed groups. She said women and girls were “extremely vulnerable” to sexual and gender-based violence, with U.N. statistics estimating that four out of 10 have been victims to one or more forms of assault. She said women and girls were at risk for rape when they were just out doing their daily routines and chores.

“If the women of South Sudan are given an opportunity to develop, to have space to be productive, South Sudan will be transformed,” she told the pope. Francis agreed and in his speech said that “women are the key to transforming the country.” He appealed to all South Sudanese to “protect, respect, appreciate and honor every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother. Otherwise, there will be no future.”

Correction, March 7, 2023: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Sister Regina Roba served of the superior general of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Juba before Sister Alice. 

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