| By James Bradshaw
Father Jim Greene’s time as a priest of the Missionaries of Africa has involved many faraway postings. The Callan native spent six years working in Rome, and seven years as an administrator of two places of pilgrimage in Jerusalem. During his 13 year period in Malawi, he worked in rural parishes during the country’s transition to multi-party democracy.
There, he began to focus more and more on issues of social justice, which included working to establish an agricultural producers union to assist small farmers.
For the last four years, he has been at the helm of Solidarity with South Sudan, a unique organisation which brings together members of religious orders from across the world to work on projects aimed at expanding South Sudan’s capacity in areas like education and healthcare.
Becoming Executive Director of the organisation four years ago was a new departure for Fr Jim, it being the first time in his long career where he had actively sought an appointment instead of merely receiving one.
He could have hardly chosen a more challenging environment to work in.
The United Nations compiles the Human Development Index as a measurement of the living conditions across countries, as determined by factors like average life expectancy, average years of schooling and per capita income.
Of the 191 countries included in the most recent Index, South Sudan was in 191st place, with the average person living to just 55 and with the median years of schooling standing at just 5.7 years.
The people of this conflict-plagued land have known little in the way of peace. Long before the arrival of British colonial forces, a sharp distinction existed by the north of Sudan (Arabic in culture and Islamic in religion) and the southern region, where the African natives had endured brutal slave raids by the Arabs throughout the 19th century.
Britain’s decision in the 20th Century to govern the northern and southern regions using different systems limited internal conflict but shut off contact as well, thus hindering social and economic development in the isolated south.
The southern region was included within the newly independent Sudan in 1956 against the will of the natives, many of whom had bitter historical memories of northern misrule.
Over the next six decades, the first and second Sudanese civil wars between 1955-1972 and 1983-2005 would claim millions of lives, until at last a referendum in 2011 resulted in more than 98% of southerners opting for independence.
While the people were euphoric at the possibilities freedom offered, they were starting from scratch and would have to create the political institutions, physical infrastructure and human capital which many new countries already possess.
This situation was made immeasurably worse by the outbreak of civil war in 2013 between forces aligned with the President Salva Kiir (who belongs to the Dinka tribe, who make up perhaps 35% of the country’s population) and the ousted Vice President Riek Machar (who is part of the second largest tribe, the Nuer).
Vicious fighting since then has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and displaced millions.
Unsurprisingly, South Sudan lacks the capability to deliver basic services to its people and is extremely reliant on NGOs and religious organisations.
The regional food crisis caused by years of drought in eastern Africa is especially difficult for South Sudan due to the near-total state failure. A majority of the South Sudanese people are now experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity.
In this environment, Solidarity with South Sudan has focused on identifying a number of key priorities like expanding the number of trained teachers and nurses, and teaching farmers basic skills to feed their families.
When the Sudanese bishops sought greater assistance from religious orders in the run-up to South Sudan’s independence, they envisioned that they would merely be additional service providers, but what came into being as Solidarity with South Sudan was something different: designed to support the country reach a point where it is not so dependent on external parties.
“What we do have is the capacity and willingness to live in inter congregational and intercultural male and female communities, and that is unique, and we would be there in terms of building capacity in view of handing over (to the South Sudanese Church). So Solidarity is always a temporary affair,” Fr Jim explained.
The Solidarity Teacher Training College in Yambio is a case-in-point. South Sudan’s population is extremely young and growing, but though there is a great desire for children to be educated, it is often not possible.
Schools do not exist in many communities, and where they do exist, facilities are spartan and educational materials inadequate.
There are 52,000 teachers in the country, but less than half of these have received a formal education themselves. As a result, the ratio of pupils to qualified teachers stands at 117:1, according to Solidarity, which runs one of just two teacher training colleges in the country.
Secondary school graduates from all across the country come to the city of Yambio to train here, and the college also offers a shorter diploma course for professional teachers looking to attain formal qualifications.
Keeping the facility going without interruption since 2011 has been far from easy. In 2016, armed men attacked the college, stealing the vehicles and assaulting members of the Solidarity community.
Violent attacks like this are far from unusual. Solidarity’s other Teacher Training College in the northern city of Malakal came to an abrupt end in December 2013 when Malakal became the site of some of the fiercest fighting between the government forces under President Kiir and the rival Nuer White Army.
Fighting intensified with the college grounds being a warzone, and on Christmas Eve 2013, four Solidarity members (one priest and three nuns, one an Irishwoman) were forced to remain inside a small bathroom, chosen due to the high window which limited the community’s exposure to bullet and rocket fire.
Malakal’s Teacher Training College remains derelict, but in Yambio Solidarity’s work continues, and in nearby Rimenze, the organisation runs an Agricultural Training Programme which is currently training more than 500 farmers in more efficient methods of raising livestock and growing crops.
The trauma endured by the Solidarity team in Malakal in 2013 is representative of what many people of South Sudan have experienced during the decades of conflict, and a big part of Solidarity’s work involves providing some level of trauma counselling to people.
“We have a Capacitar programme which is an entry level programme for people who have bad symptoms of trauma and how they can relieve those symptoms,” Fr Jim stated.
In a context where almost everyone has experienced trauma and where one-to-one counselling is not possible, these workshops offer some level of care in locations such as churches, schools and refugee camps.
In February, Pope Francis plans to visit South Sudan in the company of several Protestant church leaders as part of an ecumenical peace pilgrimage. The visit is likely to shine a light on a country whose struggles in recent times have escaped the attention of many in the West.
South Sudan is in a period of relative stability, with the 2018 peace agreement remaining in force, at least in theory. Looking to the future, Fr Jim is in no doubt about the scale of the challenge.
“This is still not a normal country, still not on a normal trajectory,” he said. “We are talking about revitalised peace agreements which are not fully implemented. We are talking about a government that has no democratic mandate.
“We are talking about a country that doesn’t have an independent judiciary or constitution. We are talking about a lot of sub-national and ethnic violent conflicts,” he continued. “While it has the appearance of normalcy, you have to know that this country does remain on the edge.”
Credits to: Kilkenny Live
12 January 2022
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