Education and healthcare are just two areas in which the Diocese of Connor can help rebuild life for the Christian community in Yei, southern Sudan, according to the Ven Stephen Forde, Archdeacon of Dalriada.
Archdeacon Forde, who visited the African diocese in January, said: “The people in the church in southern Sudan have lost everything through 20 years of civil war. In that period of time they were driven from their land. Two million were killed and four million refugees fled to Kenya, Uganda, Congo and to camps in Khartoum. Some survived in the bush for 20 years.
“This is a rich and fertile land, and since the peace accord in 2005 these people have been returning from their exile. They have started from scratch to rebuild a land and to rebuild a church. They have no resources but they had a powerful and deep faith.
“What we can do is share the resources that we have to allow them to rebuild. What they have to share with us is that sense of how faith sustains you when everything else is lost.
“They have come through a conflict and they have things to teach us about entering a post conflict situation. One of the amazing things is the lack of bitterness about what has been done to them.”
Leading the Anglicans in Yei is Bishop Hilary Luate Adebe, who Archdeacon Forde describes as an amazing man. A senior librarian at the University of Juba, he was ‘internally displaced’ during the war and literally dumped in Khartoum with his family. He went to a displacement camp in the capital, and somehow managed to educate his children. In 1986 he started a church in the camp. The first service was attended by three people. Today more than 1,000 worship there. He later studied in England.
“He has a vision for organisation and works very hard,” said Archdeacon Forde.
Part of that vision is to build 100 new churches in Yei, firmly rooting them in the soil of the land. The diocese is made up of 64 parishes, and churches regularly attract 1,000 worshippers at a service. During December three new churches, funded by the American charity Samaritan’s Purse, were opened, and Archdeacon Forde visited these on his trip.
Another of the Bishop’s visions for Yei is improved education for children, and this is one area Archdeacon Forde believes Connor can help. “Buildings can be destroyed but what cannot be destroyed is education. If you can provide an education that is both education in faith and in skills and learning, that can never be taken from the children.”
The Bishop is hoping that Yei’s principal theological college, Bishop Allison College, currently based in Uganda, will soon return to Yei.
“One of the problems they face is that many of their most able people settled in Uganda, Kenya and Congo during the exile, and they have to draw them back to a situation where there are little resources,” said Archdeacon Forde.
The West Nile Training College in Yei is working to address shortages in basic skills like motor mechanics, carpentry and bricklaying. Once trained, there is a good chance the local people will be taken on by the UN and other NGOs who need people with the skills to rebuild the area.
In a very far sighted policy, men and women are taught together, and there is a drive to encourage families to keep their daughters, not just their sons, in education.
“One of the problems the church in Yei is facing is that although teachers are highly educated and motivated, they could be earning much more working as translators for the UN or NGOs. Connor could help by giving support to personnel structures in the diocese so they can afford to keep teachers, administrators and tutors,” said Archdeacon Forde.
The schools he visited comprised one or two classrooms made of mud and thatch. Outside, benches made of logs were erected under a mango tree. Inside, there were no desks, just well worn log benches. There are plans to replace one of the schools, at Mongo, and Agherton Parish, Portstewart is helping with that project.
Emmanuel School already has a new building, but two of the seven classrooms don’t have furniture. Money donated by Archdeacon Forde’s own parishioners in St Cedma’s, Larne, has helped buy stools for the children to sit on.
Archdeacon Forde was accommodated in a former schoolroom at the West Nile Training College, and was able to see at first hand the work going on there, and the wonderful craftwork done by the women as part of the micra enterprise scheme, using local materials including teak trees to make paper for cards and pictures.
He flew into Yei from Entebbe on a small Ministry Aviation Fellowship plane. Travelling around was difficult owing to the state of the dirt roads, and the potholes which could easily swallow an articulated lorry!
Living conditions are primitive, with no mains water or electricity. “In Yei the 21st century collides with the 19th,” said Archdeacon Forde. “The people eat little more than rice and beans, but they all have mobile phones. There is a kiosk in town to charge phones, and an internet café which is made of two garden sheds bolted together.”
At the town clinic, local people have to pay the equivalent of 32 pence to be treated, a large sum for people on an average income of $1 a day, but these does not cover the cost of drugs, which are mostly donated, and Archdeacon Forde believes that is another way Connor can help
The main purpose of his visit to Sudan, accompanied by Brian Lavery of the Church Mission Society Ireland, was to attend the Yei Diocesan Synod, which meets every three years. He preached at the pre-synod service, and his address was translated in Sudanese Arabic,
“The Synod lasted three days, and they worked very hard from 8am until 8pm. They drew together a constitution, set a budget and tackled the issue of land rights,” said Archdeacon Forde.
The diocese owns a large portion of land, granted to it in 1917 by a local chief who became a Christian. But after the war descendents of the chief returned, claimed the land and some has exchanged hands.
Speaking of the Synod delegates, Archdeacon Forde said: “These are people who live in a mud hut and walked two or three days to get to the Synod, grappling with issues that would test us in Connor. It was a very forward looking lively Synod that got a lot done.”
During his stay he visited Yei Theology College, where the syllabus includes Old Testament, New Testament, agriculture and health care. The library is a stack of books on a rickety table. “Suppport for theological training is another area we as a diocese could be involved in,” he said.
Archdeacon Forde described his seven days in Sudan as amazing. “We discovered that people who have nothing have learned what faith is because they depend totally on God,” he said.
“Parishes in Connor have plenty of resources. We need to gather these together so as a diocesan family we can support what is happening to people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”