Magical South Sudan

Click on thumbnailsDecember, 2012
By Jack Welsch

Audio Control:

This was my second time to the same county but the first to this country.  How can that be?  Because when I visited in 2010, Kajo Keji was in the southern part of Sudan.  Today it is a part of the world's newest nation, the Republic of South Sudan as a result of a referendum where virtually all of the people voted for separation from Sudan. 

It's only been 25 months since my previous visit but much has changed. Of course, most significant is the political change but more has changed as well. Since I was last there, the roads have improved, though many are still horrible. There are more bicycles, motor scooters and even four wheeled vehicles on the roads but the overwhelming majority of the people still travel by foot.

As on my previous trip, this visit was to Kajo Keji, a South Sudan county immediately adjacent to Uganda. In spite of ongoing unrest near the border with Sudan, Kajo Keji continues to be at peace. However, the destruction wrought by decades of civil war cannot be quickly or erased and the people are still in great need.

My first trip was to attend the openings of two schools built by the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, PA as part of the New Hope Campaign.  Now that construction of all six schools (plus the college, tailoring training center and bishop's house) has been completed, the purpose of this trip was to investigate how we can best support their ongoing operation. I traveled with Canon Anne Kitch, who was representing Bishop Paul of the Diocese of Bethlehem.

Friday, Dec. 7- Getting there, part 1 - Newark to Amsterdam

I left home about 12:30 for the solo drive to Newark.  In spite of the rain, I made good time but I-287 was backed up onto I-80 so I foolishly thought I'd do better by taking I-280.  What I didn't realize was that it required me to drive several miles directly through "beautiful" downtown Newark!  Ugh!  Finding the long-term parking lot was also a treat.  In spite of it all, however, I was at EWR and checked in with lots of time for a leisurely (though bland) meal at Chili's. My travel partner, Canon Anne, arrived shortly before boarding time.

Our flight was on time at 6:05.  As usual, I had trouble sleeping and was just dropping off at 4:30 European time when all hell broke loose with people yelling for a doctor and all the cabin lights coming on.  It appeared that someone had collapsed and was laying in the opposite aisle near the rear of the plane.  There was a lot of commotion for an hour or so but eventually things got back to normal and the captain announced that the guy was OK so we would continue to Amsterdam as planned.  In the end, I slept about an hour.

Saturday, Dec. 8 - Amsterdam to Entebbe, Uganda

After arrival at Schiphol, our breakfast was a pretty good ham and cheese croissant.  Our KLM flight to Entebbe pushed back a bit late but there was no anxiety since we had no connection to make.  Our first leg was to Kigali, Rwanda but, not only did we not have to change planes, we had to stay on our plane. 

Cottage at BomaEventually we look off from Kigali for the short flight to Entebbe and arrived so early that we had to await the driver to the Boma Guest House.  We had been unable to book two singles for the first night so they gave us a three-bedroom cottage.  It was OK as a place to sleep but not as good as the guesthouse itself.  The sitting and bedrooms are really nice but the shower facility was a little below the Boma's standard. The big issue was that the cottages are a few kilometers from the guesthouse and there are no restaurant or other services.  It was very late so, in spite of it all, it was great to get to bed!

Sunday, Dec. 9 - Entebbe

In EntebbeWe had arranged to be picked up at 8:00 and, amazingly, the driver showed up on time.  We were already packed and ready to go for the transfer to the guesthouse proper for breakfast and our single rooms.  Understandably, the rooms were not ready so we checked the bags and went for the included buffet breakfast.  Afterwards, Anne went to lounge and I sat at the breakfast table, grading papers.  The rooms were soon ready so, after dropping the bags, walked up the road a bit to have a look around.  Pool at the BomaWe did look in one shop but then returned to the Boma for lunch.  Entebbe is on the north shore of Lake Victoria, a very picturesque spot. The Boma is only about 4 miles north of the Equator but it wasn't uncomfortably hot; I suspect it is the lake that helps moderate the temperature. I spent the afternoon at the pool.

Since the Boma had free Wi-Fi, I tried to contact Lin on Skype but I had all sorts of problems with the Internet and eventually gave up.  Anne and I had dinner at 7:00 and I was back in my rook by 8:15.  The Internet was back up but I could still get no answer from Lin on Skype.  I got to bed about 9:30 but was awake at 2:00 with a thousand things going through my head. I hate it when that happens.

Monday, Dec. 10 - Entebbe to Kajo Keji

When I got up, there was a message from Lin saying she had just gotten home and was going to bed.  I tried Skype again and she answered.  Unfortunately, she could hear me but I could not hear her.  Talk about frustrating!

One of the things I'd been fretting about during the night was the weight of my luggage since we'd be flying to Kajo Keji in a small, chartered plane.  As a pilot, I understand the importance of weight and balance but had been confident that we'd be OK until I was told a third passenger would be flying with us.  Consequently, one of the first thing I did upon waking was to repack my luggage by isolating those things I could sacrifice if needed.

The White NileBreakfast was at 7:00 and we left for the airport at 8:00.  Our flight to South Sudan was a charter flight with MAF, the Mission Aviation Fellowship.  Now, I'm used to flying in the US where chartered and private flights rarely if ever use the main passenger terminals and where security for such flights is more user friendly from what is experienced on scheduled flights.  We had to go through a first security screening just to get into a waiting room to await the MAF representative, who showed up on schedule at 8:45.  Next step was weighing the luggage with me hyperventilating but I needn't have worried; there was no third passenger and weight was no issue at all.  After that, we went through security again, then emigration, then security a THIRD time at the gate!  Finally, we were on the ramp and meeting our pilot, Dallas, at his Cessna C-206, a single engine, 6-place airplane.  I was wearing a MAF baseball cap I'd gotten at Oshkosh last summer so Dallas recognized me as a pilot and allowed me to ride the right seat; the one where a co-pilot would have sat if there'd been one.  Meeting the planeI'd brought along a small headset so Dallas and I could chat over the intercom and I, for one, had a blast. At about 2 hours, this flight was too short for me. 

We landed at the Kajo Keji airstrip at 11:17, exactly as planned.  Meeting us were Stephen, who is our representative in Kajo Keji and Israel, Bishop Anthony's chaplain.  Unfortunately, Israel was at the airport because he was catching the return hop to Entebbe so we'd see no more of him during our visit. Also meeting the plane were countless locals, mostly kids, for whom I'm sure the arrival of a plane is a big occasion.

This was to be a busy day.  Our first stop was an unofficial visit to the Bethlehem Tailoring Training Center. One of the early works of the Diocese of Bethlehem, this center is essentially a trade school.  In spite of the "unofficial" nature of the visit, we were greeted in typical Kajo Keji style, with singing, dancing, etc. Anne and I were each given gifts made at the center.  With the Commissioner

Leaving there, we rode with Bishop Anthony to the Kajo Keji county offices for a visit with the new County Commissioner, Ben Yengi.  Though he was in a meeting, the Commissioner was very gracious and invited us to join them as they discussed Human Rights Day, which happened to be today.  Human rights is, indeed, a big concern in much of Africa and it was encouraging to see how seriously they take the issue here.  The Commissioner looked familiar and I soon realized that we'd met before!  Kajo Keji CountyHe and I had met and had a rather long chat two years ago during the dedication of the school at Sodogo. 

The county offices are on a hill and has a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside.  Also there is a small museum where we enjoyed a short visit.

We were fortunate to be house guests of Bishop Anthony Poggo of the Episcopal Diocese of Kajo Keji, Upon our arrival at the bishop's house in Romogi, we had a short rest and lunch before our visits to the two schools nearby.  Our first visit was to the Romogi Richard Earl Secondary School.  Mutual supportBecause the students were on break, there was no elaborate reception this time and we went directly to the meeting with the leaders of the school, PTA, community and local parish.  They were very open to our suggestions on linking parishes and we had a good discussion of what is needed at the schools.

Our last visit of the day was at the Romogi Barebo Primary School.  We arrived just as the students finished their exams and at the same time a strong and very concentrated dust storm hit, blowing away many of the test papers!  The strange thing to me was that people didn't seem very concerned about it.  Ar RomogiTo start things out, Anne sat on the ground surrounded by the kids and did a program on the Nativity.   I spoke briefly and then the student choir sang for us.

At the conclusion of that program, Anne and I did a brief reprise of the presentations we'd done at the secondary school.  What took us 2 hours at the primary school tool 30 minutes this time around. 

After walking back to the bishop's house, we had a rest period and I wrote a bit before dinner.  Earlier in the day I had watched someone chasing a rooster and thought little about it.  That rooster, accompanied by lentils and rice turned out to be dinner.

After watching the news and sending some e-mail, I hit the rack at about 10:30.

Tuesday, Dec. 11 -Sodogo and Dwani

It was hot during the night but not nearly as bad as the last time I was here.  I slept somewhat better but still not terribly well. I was up at 3:30 and again at 4:30. I'm not sure I slept after that and finally gave it up at 6:30 and showered.  Breakfast was at 8:00, Stephen arrived right on schedule (what we refer to as "American time" as opposed to "African time", which is much more nebulous) and we set off for Sodogo. 

The kids of SodogoAs we turned off the main road onto the road to Sodogo was where the going got rough.  Though the road had improved since my last visit, it still took about an hour of driving time to make the 35 or 40 mile trip. We arrived at 10:40 but, since many students were taking exams, we had to cool our heels until 11:30.  I was, frankly, happy for the opportunity to watch and interact with some other kids as they played football (our "soccer".)

After Anne and I did our presentations, we moved into the school to meet with the elders.  Once again, it was an excellent session and we received a lot of support for our proposed program. 

Ben's leopardWe'd planned on returning to the bishop's house before heading to the school at Dwani but it was 1:30 by the time we left Sodogo so we all agreed to just skip lunch.  When we had met with the county commissioner, Ben, yesterday, he had invited us to stop by his house to see his animals.  Since we were passing by, we did so and it was amazing.  He has what amounts to a small private zoo with several animals including chimps, leopards and what I believe is a lynx. 

Dancing in DwaniBy the time we got to Dwani, it was after 3:00 and the people had been waiting for us since 2:00.  That did not dampen their spirits, though, and we were treated to another great program of singing and dancing.  Anne and I did our respective "things" and, after yet more singing and dancing, we met with the elders.  Again, great interaction and mutual support.  It was 6:30 by the time we got back. 

After dinner it was just news, e-mail and bed.

Wednesday, Dec. 12 - Gaderu, Tailoring Center and Wudu

The old guysHappily, I slept straight through to 6:00 and was showered and ready to go by 6:30.  At 9:20 we set off to Gaderu. The first half of the journey was on a "good" road (read: "a dirt road without too many deep ruts") but after that, the road is horrible.  We received a fantastic welcome at Gaderu and the folks there had done a lot of work dressing the place up since my visit 2 years ago.  Meeting in progress...This program started with Anne doing her nativity presentation while I sat in the shade with the other old men.  By the way, the shirt I'm wearing in the photo is the one given me by the ladies at the Tailoring Center. It's clear I'm the oldest of the group.

As always, there was lots of singing and dancing.  I did so much dancing I was absolutely whipped!  Among the presentations by the folks from Gaderu was one from a member of the "Mother's Union".  Her words of praise for the work we have done and are doing were especially moving.

After Anne and I gave short presentations, we moved inside with the elders and again had an excellent exchange.

Bethlehem Tailoring Training CenterTaking a different and slightly better route back to Romogi, we had lunch at the bishop's house before the official visit to the Bethlehem Tailoring Training Center.  I had been sorry that I was unable to visit the Tailoring Center the last time I was here and happy for this opportunity.  We got a tour of this very nice facility and I bought another shirt for myself.  Unfortunately, I could not find anything for Linda.  Of course, once again we were entertained by enthusiastic singing and dancing. 

WudoAnother thing that I really missed last time was a visit to the market at Wudu, the large village near the airstrip.  That was today's last stop and it was great.  Because Stephen had some brief business there, our first stop was at a new and very modern bank.  While he was transacting his business, Anne and I were given a tour of the facility.

In addition to many stores, there is a huge open-air market in Wudu and walking through it was a great experience.  Wudu MarketI had greatly admired Father Edward's sandals and he said he'd gotten them from a shop in Wudu.  He took me there but, sadly, they were sold out.  We went to another shop as well but no dice. Rats; I really wanted a pair!

Back in Romogi, we saw the new diocesan offices, which will be occupied soon.   We also got a tour of the Cathedral that had been completed since my previous visit.  While not the huge, ornate structure we are accustomed to in the West, it is large, well equipped and very nice. 

Emmanuel CathedralStaying with us at the bishop's house were three consultants, Jonas from Tanzania and Jane and Francis from Kenya, who were facilitating a seminar at the college.  Having dinner with them was especially enjoyable and enlightening.

I had lots of frustrations with the Internet connection and accessibility of e-mail.  It really drove home to me the difficulties we will have in linking our parishes in the US with the ones in Kajo Keji.  We in the US take so many things for granted and don't appreciate how well off we are.

Thursday, Dec. 13 - Liwolo, the Orphanage and Canon Benaiah Poggo College

In RomogiI woke at 4:30 and checked e-mail since I knew the Internet connection via the college was up and free at night and figured traffic would be nil.  There were no new messages but suddenly I got a message from Linda saying she saw on Skype that I was on.  Sadly, we could not make contact, even via e-mail.  This is incredibly frustrating.  I waited a while to see if anything would come in but eventually gave up and went back to bed.  I was back up at 5:45 and, since the connection was to go down at 6:00 send her an e-mail suggesting she check her spam filter.  Up and showered by 6:30 I had time to write and do a little reading before breakfast. Afterwards, I "took my camera for a walk" to enjoy this wonderful place.

"My" kids in LiwoloWe were off for Liwolo shortly after 9:00, arriving there 90 minutes later.  Some of that road has improved a lot but some is still unbelievably bad.  Unfortunately, a key member of the Liwolo community had died so some important people were by necessity at the funeral rather than with us.  While attendance may have been off a bit, it was still excellent. While Anne was telling the Nativity story, I wandered around taking photos, including some of Aunt Helen's portrait in the headmaster's office.  After the typical warm reception of music, dancing, and speeches and another great meeting, we left at about 1:30.  I was particularly happy, though to learn that the youth leader at Liwolo has e-mail access and to exchange e-mail addresses with him.  If all else fails, this will be a good start to my proposed program of linking individual parishes here with schools there.

How can you not love him??Our second stop of the day was at the children's homein Mosiko, near Wudu.  It was an especially moving experience, especially our visit to the "Baby Room" where the cribs are lined up along the wall.  Out of respect, I refrained from taking photos in that room but the images are burned into my head.  The toddlers were great and at one time I think I had 4 or 5 on each arm.  It was literally hard to walk without stepping on them.  It was a wonderful experience, though.  Any person who does not instantly fall in love with these kids has a serious problem!   We were treated to the obligatory singing and dancing and Anne did her Nativity story.  I cut my presentation really short. 

Canon Benaiah Poggo CollegeBack in Romogi, we ate and rested before visiting the Canon Benaiah Poggo College, a short walk away. The Dean, Father John Mano, was in Juba so after a short tour, we met briefly with the Administrative Dean, Fr. Fred.

Bishop Anthony had arranged a dinner reception at his home for the attendees of the seminar going on at the college.  Consequently, our last dinner was a huge gathering including clergy from throughout the diocese, the consultants from Kenya and Tanzania, an Archdeacon from the Diocese of Yei and two missionaries from Nigeria.  What a gathering it was!! 

Lin had discovered my messages in her spam filter so FINALLY we made contact before I hit the rack a bit after 10:00.

Friday, Dec. 14 - Romogi, Entebbe and the plane to Amsterdam.

I was up and showered by 6:30 as usual, transferred photos from my camera to my laptop and did a bit of writing before breakfast.  After breakfast, there was a debrief, after which I took the camera for one last walk. 

Close to heaven!Because he was flying with us to Entebbe, we left or the airstrip with Anthony at about 11:00 but stopped at the "Revival Center" in Wudu so he could pay respects to the loved ones of someone from there who had recently passed away.  The center is just across the road from the airstrip and we were still there when our plane entered the traffic pattern's crosswind leg above our heads.  Given that there were only 3 of us as passengers, we were surprised that the sent a Cessna Caravan (tail number 5X-FRU) for us but the pilot, Captain Achim Appel from near Frankfurt, Germany, said that was all that was available.

5X-FRUSince I was wearing my MAF hat, it was relatively easy to talk my way into the right seat again. It wa an especially great flight but the dream came to an abrupt end when we landed in Entebbe and had to stand in line for almost an hour to get through immigration.  It was 3:50 when we arrived at the Boma and after I sent an e-mail to Lin, I had a few minutes to sit by the pool, then showered and called Lin before having dinner with Anne on the porch.  The chili con carne appetizer was spicy and delicious but a meal in itself.  The pan fried tilapia was wonderful as well. 

After repacking, writing and reading a bit, we set off for the airport.  Security and check-in were not nearly as bad as last time around but the gate area was an absolute zoo with a gazillion screaming kids. 

Saturday, Dec. 15 - Amsterdam, Detroit, Newark, and home. 

Though horribly long, the flight to Amsterdam, the layover and the flight to Detroit were all, fortunately, unremarkable.  As usual, I slept very little during the flights.  In Detroit I discovered that we'd been re-booked onto a flight much later than the one we'd originally scheduled.  We got re-booked but, big surprise, the bags didn't make it to Newark with us.  Anne chose to have hers forwarded to her home but I elected to wait an hour to get mine off the next flight. 

It seemed to take forever to get to and out of the parking lot but eventually I did so and made it home, totally exhausted, in time for dinner.  My "day" had been about 46 hours long!

Epilog

The trip home was absolutely grueling and, as I get older, such things become more difficult. As a result, I told Linda I'll never do it again.  In fact, I told her to throw cold water on me if I even talk about it. However, as I review the photos I've taken of those wonderful kids, other emotions set it. I cannot look at those kids nor think of the wonderful folks in Kajo Keji without a smile coming to my face as tears come to my eyes. I realize that, if I have an opportunity to return, I may have to be tied to the mast like Odysseus when he heard the song of the sirens.

If you want to see a LOT more pictures of this trip along with a map showing the route followed, see my blog on TravBuddy.