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Small Signs of Hope in South Sudan

Posted by Br Bill Firman on 11 April 2016
Small Signs of Hope in South Sudan

We have begun to receive a little rain and that has moderated the heat a little. That's the good news. The bad news is that inevitably mosquitoes will re-emerge. Already, a couple of our members have contracted malaria. In our Colleges and pastoral programmes, people continue to respond well. There is much trauma to be healed and work to be done helping the dioceses with their pastoral structures and programmes. Almost every indigenous person can talk of family members lost and new hardships imposed. Many would say it was better before independence. Yet there is still there is a cautious optimism and hope.

The situation in Yambio, where we had to cancel in-service scheduled for January and February, has now settled down; but the situation in Wau has become somewhat less settled.  A time of stability and healing is needed. Our members are determined to deliver their services even if the situation is less than ideal.  The country needs new and insightful leadership but the structures, as in many African countries, do not seem to allow new leaders to emerge. Those with power hang on to power even if their people are suffering. It could be so much better but amid the fragility, we are moving forward. The grateful reactions of the people with whom we journey is more than enough reward.

It is Friday afternoon as I write and the Muslim community here are at prayer. I think we all continue to pray for peace in South Sudan but the rosary beads, prayer wheel, or whatever else, move slowly. Peace still seems to be coming. The first steps towards the setting up of the delayed transitional government are being taken but amid an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty.

Within our residential Colleges where we are training teachers, nurse and midwives, we have record numbers 108 in nurse or midwifery training in Wau and 119 in teacher training in Yambio.

In both Colleges, students come from all over the country from a diverse mix of tribes. Within each College, we are successfully creating unity in diversity, a future platform for peace.  The students, from many regions of South Sudan, plus the Nuba Mountains (ethnically Southern but officially part of the north) enjoy being together and help one another in their common goal to become professionals in their chosen careers. Nothing dubious about this. It is good news. The Nuba Mountains conflict, however, gets little publicity but the Sudan government continues, as it has done for years, to bomb its own 'citizens' in that region. It is particularly serious at the present time with even hospital and schools being targeted. Totally bad news except for the heroic efforts of some dedicated workers who continue to provide services there.

With the aid of some very generous volunteers, we have conducted successful in-service teacher training programmes in 'distant' locations where our tutors travel out for eight weeks rather than the students travelling in. So it was that we concluded the four-year in-service programme of teacher training in Agok with 67 graduates and in Rumbek with 27 graduates; and we began first year training in remote Old Fangak in Jonglei State with 85 eager students. This is also indisputably good news.

A divisive action of the Government, and certainly economic madness, was the decision to create 28 States instead of 10. No-one in Government seems to have thought about what such a decision will cost with 28 Governors and State legislatures to support instead of ten. The attitude, seemingly born out of the extraordinary generosity of other supportive nations, seems to be, 'Oh well, someone will give us the funding'. But the truth is many generous countries and donors are increasingly wary of giving directly to a Government when there is such chaotic decision-making.

This time last year, the exchange rate was about SSP 5 per USD 1. Early this year it was about 18. It then rose rapidly to 43 but has settled back around SSP37 = USD 1. The dubious good news is that for the past two weeks it has somewhat stabilized; but who knows why or for how long. Most of our income is in dollars but we are never sure we can get our own dollars from the bank when we want them. One of the most difficult issues of the present moment is the plight of the people.  Many people are hungry. Some are now reduced to having one meal a day. I offered some biscuits to one young man whom we have known for more than six years. He told me he had not eaten for two days. He declined the biscuits as he said eating them would only awaken his hunger. He did accept water.

Even some of the people who were on relatively large salaries are feeling the lack of buying power. What was once considered a good salary of SSP 3,000 per month equating to about $600 per month- is now worth less than $100 per month. SSP 3,000 used to buy 300 jars of jam; now SSP3,000 would buy only 30 if you really like jam!. Even the 'big men' are finding the times difficult as the Government has no money to increase salaries. In fact, some Government employees have not been paid at all for several months. But there have been no violent protests also dubious good news. The capacity of the people to survive in such difficult circumstances is quite remarkable. Some talk of 'going back to the village' to work in their gardens. We help a few of our needy neighbours but it is difficult not to create a pull factor: help given to some attracts others seeking help. It is a challenge. We pray the transitional government will be formed soon and better times for the people will follow.

Author: Br Bill Firman
About: Br Bill is the Executive Director of Solidarity with South Sudan.
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