Fr Alan in South Sudan: Do they know it's Christmas time? - Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
05 Jan 2023

“Growing up in Ireland, it was impossible to get through December without hearing Do They Know It’s Christmas? repeatedly. Like crackers with bad jokes, or recipes that try (in vain) to make brussels sprouts tasty, the song was an essential and important part of festive season. It electrified people and called them to act in solidarity with the people of East Africa who were suffering from famine in 1984. As I wandered around the Loreto convent in Rumbek almost forty years later, I could hear it again – repeatedly. One of the sisters in the community is a keen Christmas music aficionada – and when I say keen, I mean really keen!

The run up to Christmas in Rumbek has certainly been busy. We finished up work in the Catholic University on the 16th, concluding the first half of our bridging course with our new students. Due to conflicts that eventually led to South Sudanese Independence and the civil war of 2013, levels of education remain stubbornly low. Consequently, everyone beginning our degree programmes must undertake six weeks of intensive maths and English to prepare them for third level studies. We are hoping to welcome almost forty new students who are planning to study a degree in either business administration or English and English literature. We have a record number of women joining our courses, which is a real gift. They benefit from a scholarship programme supported by the Mission Support Centre that reduces their fees and supports their studies. In our small way, we are looking to redress the gender imbalance in education that excludes that vast majority of women.

This last year has been one of the most peaceful in Lakes State, but it does not happen by chance. Initiatives on many levels in both Church and state work to create a safer, more secure environment. Just before Christmas, Sr Orla planned a peace walk with the young women from the Loreto internship programme. Over twenty of us began before dawn and walked towards Cueibet, a parish some 50km away. We got most of the way there, before the temperatures went up to the high thirties. Part of the reason for the walk was to model how young women from different ethnic groups all around the country journeyed together in solidarity and encouraged people they met, especially young girls, to pursue a brighter future.

We all went to a local parish where I was celebrating Mass for Christmas Eve. It was to begin at 8:30pm, but, based on my experience from being there last year, I settled on a wall outside and welcomed people as they gradually arrived. In no time at all, the church was packed to the rafters, and we all welcomed the birth of Jesus with joy and song. Previously, it would not have been possible to have so many people out that late at night, but now the streets were busy with groups of people on their way to their churches. They absolutely know it’s Christmas time.

For Christmas Day, the girls who stayed with us for the holidays cooked the food, while I was off for another Mass. Each year a group remain in the school, either because they live far away from Rumbek or they cannot go home due to a forced marriage issue. Either way, we all sat down to a lunch of pork, sakumawiki (like cabbage, but not really), tamalaka (a peanut and greens like sauce), paper food (not sure how to describe that one), and Irish potatoes (which are just potatoes, but in the market that’s what they are called). We were joined by our Bishop and some guests, including boys from the La Salle school who also couldn’t make it home. The day ended with Sr Orla introducing the girls to Monopoly, which in retrospect, based on years of inevitable conflict in Irish homes, was not the best idea. Still, good fun was had by all, even if the Bishop’s team cheated.

So, we are looking forward to the New Year with a sense of anticipation. The new library renovation for the University supported by the MSC benefactors will be completed in January. I won’t have to worry about the bat droppings landing on my desk anymore through a ceiling that looks like Swiss cheese, and the students will have a place to study and do group work. The Pope is planning to come to South Sudan in February as part of an ecumenical peace initiative. The Loreto team and students will lead an eight-day walking pilgrimage to Juba for the event. It should be a wonderful occasion. Please do keep us in our prayers, as you are most assuredly in ours.”

Wishing you and your families every blessing for 2023,
Fr Alan

Read more from Fr Alan’s missionary journey in South Sudan: