For years, Gary Smith, a Jesuit priest, led a familiar life in the Pacific Northwest. Then, one day in 2000, he left that life behind to spend six years among Sudanese refugees struggling to survive in refugee camps in northern Uganda. He traveled to this dangerous, pitiless place to be with these forsaken people out of a conviction that “Jesuits should be going where no one else goes.”
Smith’s journal is a vivid, inspiring account of the deep connections he forged during his life-changing experience with the Sudanese refugees in Uganda. Along the way, he discovered a suffering people who, despite being displaced by a brutal civil war, find the strength to let go of the many and deep sorrows of the past.
Ultimately, They Come Back Singing is a window to the spiritual life and growth of a priest whose generous spirit and genuine love allow him to serve—and be served—in truly extraordinary ways.
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About the Author
Gary Smith, SJ, worked for six years with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Sudanese refugee camps in Uganda. He is the author of They Come Back Singing, a journal of his time in Uganda, Radical Compassion, an account of his ministry to the poor and disabled in Portland, Oregon, and Street Journal.
Read an Excerpt
This is not a book about Africa. It is about my years in Africa with Sudanese refugees. It is not a sociological study of refugees; it is a portrait of refugee hearts. It is not a book about what I gave to the refugees, but a book about what they gave to me. It is not a theology of mission, but a story of mission.
I am a Catholic priest and a member of the Society of Jesus. Before entering the society, I attended college at San Jose State University and Santa Clara University. It was at San Jose State that I, an unreligious person, began—or was moved—to ask religious questions. Over a period of many months, I experienced a coalescence of extraordinary interior phenomena: a long uneven search for the meaning and purpose of my existence, a desire to end the conflict in my deepest soul between moral order and moral disorder, and an unaccountable, mysterious, and real attraction to Christ in the Gospels and in the Eucharist. This coalescence ultimately led me to Catholicism. At the University of Santa Clara, where I went to develop a theology that might help me better understand my faith, I encountered the Jesuits. I eventually chose to become a Jesuit because their following of Christ seemed to be what gave them life and love and hope in their committed service of the world. It was a big decision, one prompted by the same persistent tapping at my heart’s window that had moved me toward Catholicism.
The path since then has led me through many places and experiences in this country and abroad. I was ordained a priest in the seventies. Moved, again, to support and work with the poor, I spent the next several years in Oakland, California, as a community organizer with a team of Jesuits, helping people of poor neighborhoods organize and fight such social ills as vacant housing, drug dealing, deficient education systems, and an unresponsive city government. In the eighties, I decided to enter into the growing national issue of homelessness and went to Tacoma, Washington, to serve as the director of Nativity House, a drop-in center for street people and the homeless. In the nineties, continuing my street ministry, I worked with inmates in jails and with residents—especially the mentally ill—of low-income residential hotels in downtown Portland, Oregon. After eight years in Portland, living in the heart of the inner city, I was moved once again to think in a new direction.
Here is what happened: One night in Portland, as I was chatting with friends over pizza and beer, reflecting out loud about my ministry and life, I expressed to them—and, I guess, to myself, as I tapped into emerging realizations—that I wanted to be with the poor in a different way. Life was becoming too comfortable. I was feeling, I thought—and here it comes again—an invitation, a prompting to something more. Someone mentioned Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish existentialist theologian and philosopher, who talked about the “truth which is true for me,” for which he could live and die. Kierkegaard emphasized the movement of faith in a person’s heart, and the subsequent choices that take the individual into untraveled country, beyond the expectations and laws of religious structures and beyond the safe world of one’s everyday life and actions. As we talked about this “true idea,” I thought of a conversation I’d had months before with a Jesuit at a Baltimore meeting on domestic social justice issues. He had referred to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and its commitment to the refugees of the world. Recalling that conversation suddenly brought into focus everything that had been swimming around in me: the sense of wanting to do more, the desire to identify my “true idea,” and the awareness of the world’s cry for help. I mentioned the conversation to my friends. “Is serving the refugees an idea worth living and dying for?” someone asked. “And isn’t it true that the Jesuits should be where no one else goes?”
After we broke up, I slipped gently into a night of thought and prayer, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of the inner city, pondering my heart’s questions, tracking the way I was praying. There was something going on, a movement at the door of my heart. I knew the rhythm and insistence of that knock: God seeking entrance. It was not an agitated movement, but rather one of peace. What about the refugees of the world? Could I serve them? I lived in the presence of these questions for days, watching where my passion was moving, gauging whether I was at peace, and eventually talking it over with my spiritual director and one of my dearest Jesuit friends, Andy Dufner. Dufner always had a way of helping me see if I was on a quixotic pursuit or being touched cleanly and clearly by the gentle way of God. Eventually, we agreed that all the signs made sense, and I went to my provincial and laid it out in front of him. It was a tough conversation: he knew me and my ministry, and he loved me and did not want to lose me from the province. But he agreed with my discernment and recognized and named what appeared to be a “call.” With his blessing, I spoke to a JRS-connected friend in Washington, DC. Phone calls followed. An application was sent. The answer came: there is a place in Africa. In Uganda.
I never regretted the decision to go to the Sudanese refugee settlements of Uganda. I knew from the outset that it was uncharted territory for me and would be risky. But my entire life had been one of moving into unknown situations: converting to Catholicism; entering the Jesuit order; teaching high school; ministering in men’s and women’s prisons; organizing on the streets of Oakland; living among the poor and homeless of Tacoma and Portland; learning new languages and cultures in Mexico and Bolivia, China and Spain; loving and being loved by good and bad alike. Uganda was just another unpredictable endeavor in the unfolding mystery of my life, where I encountered a new culture, was challenged to break open the Gospel in a new way, and had to face my strengths and shortcomings once again. In short, following Christ in the service of Sudanese refugees became the idea for which I was willing to live and die. From the moment I landed on that dirt runway in northern Uganda, I trusted that God was with me, calling me, desiring me, comforting me. I trusted that God would disclose what I was to be in this new world.
I started thinking about this book in the latter part of my second year in Uganda. To stay sane and focused in the stressful and demanding world of the refugee settlements, I journaled. Often it was too hot to write anything but a few notes, to be expanded upon when I could manage a break in the cooler climates of Kampala, hundreds of miles south. This book emerged from those journal writings. I wanted to take a reader into the life of the refugees, to show how I came to know and serve them and how they changed me. I wrote this book, too, because I feel that my Jesuit life includes the invitation to express what makes my heart tick. Finally, I wrote this to share my story with all who want to attend to and understand the broad and benevolent movements of the heart that I believe are born of the heart of God.
After learning that JRS would be sending me to Africa, I sat at my desk and pondered the enormity of it all. Hosea 11:1 rose in my thoughts:
When Israel was a child I loved him,
and I called my son out of Egypt.
In the spirit of Hosea, the story that follows is about a child loved and called. It is a story about the people who helped me make sense of that call and who taught me the meaning of that love.
Uganda is an East African country that straddles the equator and is about the size of the state of Oregon. It is a landlocked nation, surrounded by the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the west, Sudan on the north, Kenya on the east, and Rwanda and Tanzania on the south. With a population of twenty-eight million, Uganda, at this writing, hosts nearly one hundred thousand Sudanese refugees in its northern tiers, those areas bordering Sudan.
Sudan, in northeastern Africa, is a huge country, roughly one-fourth the size of the United States, with a population estimated at thirty-six million. It has a twisted and painful history involving several internal wars, often between the Arabs of the North and the sub-Saharan tribes of the South. Part of the conflict is religious—the Muslim North versus the Christian-animist South—and part of it is political, over who controls the oil fields of Sudan. The brutal civil war in Sudan between the government in Khartoum in the North and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the South began in the 1980s. It is estimated that as many as two million died in the war, and another four million were displaced. Hundreds of thousands of escaping refugees came south into Uganda. Most had little choice. They could either remain in Sudan and face possible death or flee into the uncertain world of exile.
As a result, over the years, several refugee settlements were established in Ugandan administrative districts. Within these settlements are many villages, set up by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most Sudanese refugees in Uganda live in the three northern districts—Adjumani, Moyo, and Arua—and within a hundred miles of the Sudan border. In the Adjumani district, on the east side of the Nile River, is the Adjumani Refugee Settlement, in which there are thirty villages. In the Moyo district, on the west side of the Nile, is the Palorinya Refugee Settlement, in which there are twenty-one villages. The Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement, in the Arua district, contains nineteen villages. It lies to the west of the Nile and south of the Adjumani and Palorinya settlements.
Within the refugee villages live Sudanese people of numerous tribes, most with their own distinct language. A number of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, work with the UNHCR to implement various refugee programs, in education or in health and medicine or in the construction of water facilities. These NGOs are called implementing partners and receive part of their program funding from their mother organizations outside of the country and part from the UNHCR. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is one such implementing partner, focusing on pastoral and educational matters.
My education in Sudanese culture often came during the events surrounding Sunday morning Mass, or “Prayers,” in a particular village. (Sudan is 75 percent Muslim. Most of the refugees in Uganda are Christians.) There was always a striking sense of welcome, from the time I drove into a village and throughout Prayers and the meal that followed. The expression “You are most welcome,” in the tribal language, in Arabic, or in English, was freely and frequently uttered, a reflection of the cultural value of hospitality toward visitors and travelers, known or unknown. The Sudanese cultural landscape includes a multitude of languages, and I would often hear three or four different tongues in a village, though each village in a refugee settlement is usually created along tribal and linguistic lines. Here the Bari, there the Dinka, down the road the Madi, and so forth. The singing at Mass sometimes went beyond that, incorporating even music in Lingala, a Congolese language acquired by some refugees who escaped into Congo before moving on to Uganda. The Sudanese love to sing and dance. It was always amazing to me to see the instant unified movement of bodies and hear the polyphonic singing of the entire congregation at Prayers, as if they had practiced all night. Music and dance are part of the Sudanese soul, and I was often brought to tears by the beauty and spontaneity of it all.
After Mass, there was usually a meal. The food was always simple: tea, a few small fish, perhaps some beans, and a bread called posho, made of maize and sorghum. You were to eat the posho with your right hand after washing your hands in a basin of water poured by the host. Before we ate, whether the meal was a cup of water or a plate of fish or a piece of bread, we had a prayer of thanksgiving, reflecting the deep faith that permeates the Sudanese culture. This prayer was one of gratitude in spite of heartbreaking personal and material deprivations; it was one of gratitude for the simplest of gifts, for being alive and for having escaped the war in Sudan.
The pecking order of the culture is also revealed at meals: the men and elders (women or men) are served by the young people of the chapel. The Sudanese culture is patriarchal but is gradually being transformed by a growing number of educated women, including some strong women catechists who lead their chapels in Prayers and Christian education.
The people are personable, and there was much laughter (you can hear Sudanese laughing at great distances) when we ate, especially if someone was poking fun at him- or herself. One day I joked about regularly hitting my head on the low entrances of chapels and thatched huts called tukuls, seemingly incapable of learning the simple act of ducking. You’d have thought I was the funniest guy in the world. The conversation at meals would attend to a variety of topics: the war, the village, education for the children, babies born, deaths (especially from malaria), drought or rain and planting and harvesting (most of the culture is agricultural), struggles around poverty (especially lack of food), church issues (catechist training, seminars on the faith, care for the suffering and vulnerable in the village), meetings with local Ugandan civil officials, and my own family and the American culture. The Sudanese have an oral culture; hence, much information is passed on in this way.
Early in 2005, a peace treaty was signed between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of Southern Sudan. It provided the South with autonomy for six years, after which a referendum on independence will take place. It is an uneasy peace, exacerbated by the mysterious helicopter crash, just months after the treaty was signed, that killed John Garang, the longtime leader of the SPLA and the newly appointed president of Southern Sudan. At this writing, groups of Sudanese refugees are returning to their homeland through formal repatriation sponsored by the UNHCR. Some, whose old homes were very near the border, cross over temporarily to assess opportunities and security as well as to begin constructing living quarters and preparing the ground for planting. But the majority remains in Uganda, taking a wait-and-see approach.
In addition to the hardships of life in the refugee camps, the Sudanese refugees in Uganda face another horror, that of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Since 1987, the LRA’s armed rebellion against the Ugandan government has afflicted Ugandans in the North and, to a lesser degree, the Sudanese refugees who live there. The LRA has evolved out of the tortured history of Uganda since the country received its independence from Great Britain in 1962. From 1962 until 1986, Uganda was ruled politically and militarily by northerners, including the dictator Idi Amin, from 1971 to 1979. When the current president, Yoweri Museveni, took power through a successful rebellion, he and his comrades favored the southern and the western regions of Uganda, from where they originated. The northern leaders fled to the bush or to Sudan, where they organized to fight Museveni. Various rebellions were mounted, only to fail and precipitate the wrath of the South and Museveni’s fledgling government. One organization that emerged was a fanatical religious group claiming special inspiration from the Holy Spirit. The group called itself the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, proclaims himself a spirit medium whose goal is to rule Uganda under the Ten Commandments. He is opposed to Museveni and the Ugandan army, and he has attacked his own people, the Acholi, because he believes they have cooperated with the government of Uganda. The LRA has carried out its activities in the North, attacking civilians, burning and stealing property, torturing and raping village people, and abducting children. The abducted boy children are used as soldiers, and the girls are used as sex slaves. Indeed, Kony’s army is essentially composed of abducted children, an estimated twenty to thirty thousand. At the height of the LRA’s brutal activity, more than a million and a half northern Ugandans—Acholi people—were put into displacement camps so the government could protect them from the LRA and, as many accused, control them.
The LRA has attacked Sudanese refugee villages on the east side of the Nile, so JRS work there is compromised. The Sudanese refugees know the LRA, because for many years it had training camps in Sudan. From these camps, the LRA launched raids into northern Uganda. The governments of Sudan and Uganda have accused each other of violating their common frontier and supporting the other’s insurgents. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 1995, allegedly because of Sudan’s support of the LRA in retaliation for Uganda’s participation in the Sudanese government’s war against the SPLA. Normal relations were restored in 1999–2000. In the summer of 2006, representatives from the LRA and the Ugandan government began peace talks in Juba, Sudan, brokered by the government of Southern Sudan. Their negotiations have been contentious and continue at this writing.
The Jesuit Refugee Service has been in northern Uganda since 1993. JRS was born in November 1980 when the superior general of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, distressed by the tragic conditions of refugees around the world and specifically the Vietnamese “boat people,” determined that the Jesuits should be involved as an organization in relief, planning, and resolution efforts. To do so, the Jesuits would utilize their worldwide talents and resources. Decades later, JRS works in more than fifty countries, functioning in administrative regions that can include several countries. Its mandate is to accompany, serve, and advocate for refugees, for those displaced within their own countries, and for asylum seekers. It is composed of about seventy-five members of the Society of Jesus from various countries and seventy-five religious of other congregations, working with approximately one thousand indigenous people. JRS works in the areas of education, advocacy, emergency assistance, pastoral services, health and nutrition, income-generating activities, and social services. The organization strives to be a nourishing and encouraging heart at the bends in the refugee trail, to walk with refugees along their journey, to offer a hand for the next part of the climb to freedom, and to say to refugees—by word and action—that they are not forgotten.
I was a staff person in the Ugandan JRS project for six years. The Ugandan and Sudanese projects are directed from a country office in Kampala, which in turn is directed by the regional JRS office in Nairobi, Kenya. The JRS Eastern Africa office oversees projects in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia. During my time in Uganda, I worked first in the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement for two and a half years, and then in the Adjumani and Palorinya settlements for three and a half years. My job was in the pastoral area, and I was charged with accompanying, serving, and advocating for the people in the villages of these settlements.
Journal: August 2000
Touching Down in Africa
I arrived in Kenya at 10:00 p.m., after a hopscotch flight from Portland to Seattle to Amsterdam to Nairobi. The airport was unwelcoming in the night. I expect lots of lights and hustle and bustle at airports, but there was little activity at that hour in the dim and gloomy Nairobi airport terminal.
Welcome to Africa.
I was nervous. I barely acknowledged the JRS contact person when he called my name as I left customs.
The air outside the airport was cold, biting, and drizzly, but things warmed up when I walked into the welcoming Jesuit community. Still, I felt a slight depression—or was it anxiety? Maybe I am scared. I must continually revisit my intentions in coming here: to place myself into God’s hands, to offer my skills to refugees, and to deepen my desire to serve the poor. I cannot allow myself to be seduced by the army of potential catastrophes marching through my head, including death. If God brought me to Africa for that, so be it.
Lead me, O God. In all this, craft a steady heart.
Shopping in Kampala
After a brief meeting with the JRS Eastern Africa director in Nairobi, I flew to Kampala, about an hour-long trip. My assignment: to serve as the assistant to the JRS project director in the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement, in northern Uganda. But I will have a few days in Kampala to acclimate to the scene. Given all the nutty and impossible situations that have dotted my life, I am always amazed at how unsure I am in new surroundings. It’s like an outlaw gene has been unleashed inside me and sends a message of self-doubt to my heart. Here I am, starting over again. And doubting myself. I am about to walk onto one of the great stages of the suffering world, presuming that I can use my few talents in service of the refugees.
After Mass with the Jesuit community, I was in tears. Why? I was overwhelmed with fear, hope, gratitude. I snapped out of it when I went shopping in Kampala with Paco, the Mexican Jesuit with whom I will be working. He came down from Rhino Camp to shop for a few necessities and to accompany me back. He is a good guy and a wheel of energy. He will be leaving JRS soon, and I will probably be taking over as project director.
Impressions of Kampala: streets seething with young men, cars, taxis packed with people, prostitutes giving me the come-and-get-it nod, motorbikes and traffic police, beggars crawling on deformed legs, and mothers carrying their babies on their backs. Walking from the Jesuit residence to the center of town, I passed a traffic jam and hundreds of sidewalk merchants selling old Sunday magazine sections of the Monitor and the New Vision (the English-language Ugandan newspapers), worn-out and frayed books, peanuts, bananas, pineapple slices, handkerchiefs, watchbands, Bibles, pens, and cheap socks. Giant garbage-eating storks were flying around, pterodactyl-like, coming to rest on the top of buildings and trees, where they casually took in the scene below, like they were meditating. I walked by security people standing and sitting vigil in front of banks, money-exchange places, markets, jewelry stores—in a word, any place that has money. They cradled automatic rifles and sawed-off shotguns and exhibited cold and unimpressed faces. Huge waves of noise and people and activity constantly broke over me as I cautiously made my gawking way down the street.
I was nearly clobbered by two cars. In Uganda, cars drive on the left side, and rarely do you have the luxury of pedestrian crosswalks. Or stoplights. I looked the wrong way, stepped out into the street, bounced backward to avoid a honking truck, and then was almost run down by a taxi coming fast from the other direction.
I struggle emotionally off and on, and I spend too much of my time concerned about the future and living in the glory of the past. I wind up praying in the night, asking God to assist me in seizing these new moments in my life and to help me see that here, in this new land, God will give me new gifts; here I will learn deeper trust and new ways to use my talents.
Arriving at Rhino Camp
Paco and I flew from Kampala to Arua in a two-engine, twelve-seat grasshopper of a plane. The distance is 350 miles, almost directly north, and the flight takes ninety minutes. We made a brief stop in Pakuba, a town on the shores of Lake Albert, which Uganda shares with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We buzzed the runway once to chase off the giraffes that use it as a shortcut.
The landing in Arua, the largest northwestern Ugandan town, fifteen miles from the eastern border of Congo, was smooth, but I was antsy as we made the approach to the dirt runway. We were greeted there by the JRS staff of Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement and a few refugee leaders. From Arua, we drove for an hour and a half to the settlement and the JRS compound. I rested, ate, and was introduced to my new home. The fifty-by-fifty-yard compound consists of four thatch-covered houses called tukuls, a latrine, a place for bathing, a small building for storage called “the store,” an open charcoal-fueled kitchen, a small eating facility, a well for water (called a borehole), an anemic thatched carport for the pickup, lots of willowy neem trees, and three ducks. We had a good evening meal and I retired early, obsessively checking to make sure the mosquito net was hanging properly.
In the morning, Paco and I toured the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement, roughly two hundred square miles in size. The settlement is so named because it is adjacent to the Ugandan town of Rhino Camp, which sits on the west bank of the Nile River. The rhinos were hunted to extinction in the last century, so the name is misleading. The town of Rhino Camp is small, located fifty miles east of Arua. A few thousand Ugandans live there, subsisting off the land. Rhino Camp is also home to a small fish industry; each day fish from the Nile are trucked or biked to the Arua market.
In the early nineties, the UNHCR, in concert with the Ugandan government, established the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement for Sudanese fleeing their civil war. Eventually, forty-one villages were established in the settlement, and the thirty-five thousand refugees who live there are placed among the villages primarily by tribal and language lines. Most of the refugees are Christian, and constructing a small chapel was one of the first things each village did. In a few villages, the people pray under a huge tree rather than in a chapel, either because they could not afford to build one or because their wood-and-thatch chapel collapsed from termite attacks. All the people of the villages in the refugee settlement are subject to the Ugandan government and are directed by a government-appointed settlement commander. His is the last word on virtually everything, from crime to new construction to traveling permits out of the settlement.
Paco and I moved quickly through each village, where we were briefly received, sometimes by only the chapel elders, sometimes by the elders and enthusiastic crowds of curious people, sometimes by all the above plus a small army of smiling children, singing and dancing songs of welcome. The villages are tattoos on my heart: Agulupi, Aligoi, Ariwa, Eden, Kaligo, Katiku, Kiriadaku, Mariaba, Matangacia, Ngurua, Ocea, Odobu, Olujobo, Ossa, Simbili, Siripi, Tika, Walope, Wanyange, and Yelulu—each a memory of faces and events.
Despite the big welcomes and the warmth of my colleagues here, I have been nervous ever since I left Portland. Everything is new, and I am working hard to absorb all the places and faces and greetings. I am conscious of the language differences, and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to lead people in Prayers in their own language. Once again, I am second-guessing myself: Am I strong enough to deal with a new culture and its physical challenges? Will I be able to help out with the programs Paco has efficiently established, especially those, like catechist training, income-generating activities, and adult education, about which I know very little? I am Mr. Street Guy from the USA—my expertise is in other areas. And will I be able to communicate with the people? Even my English, laced as it is with a million street idioms, is often unintelligible even to Paco, who is Mexican but totally fluent in English.
Back at the JRS compound, I went to my internal mountaintop to pray to God to help me overcome my temptations to self-doubt. But it is not all darkness and gloom. I am consoled to be surrounded by the refugees, who are clearly happy that I am here. My God, I am here. I am in Uganda. I am among the refugees.
It was a November storm and my first in Rhino. At one point, a bolt of lightning and a clap of thunder arrived at once, an explosion that left me hunched over, heart pounding. The lightning had been close. It struck about fifty yards away from my tukul.
And it killed a human being.
The man was walking just west of the JRS compound, on a worn trail that snaked through the countryside and linked up with a road in front of our property. He was pushing his bike as he walked. Ten yards ahead of him, pushing her own bike, was his wife, a baby strapped to her back and three other children following her.
Shortly after the blast, a Sudanese man who was in the area ran to the compound and notified the three of us who were home—Paco, George Atibuni, and me—that a man had been struck by lightning. Could we come right away?
We arrived at the place where the rigid figure lay on the muddy ground. His black skin was burned off from shoulders to waist, giving the appearance of a half albino. Dead. His wife stood a few yards away, staring at the body of the man who, until twenty minutes before, had been her mate of many years. She was stunned, shivering in the rain, her baby crying—an eerie sound in the numb silence of those who had come to the scene. Nothing could have snapped the woman out of her trance. Incredibly, a chicken, tied at the legs, which had been brought for food later in the day, was hanging upside down on the handlebars of the man’s bike, alive and twitching, with half of its feathers burned off. How strange: the man dead, his body blasted into rigor mortis by a lightning bolt, and the chicken, inches away from the man at the moment of impact, still alive, thrashing around on the front of the bike.
Surrounded by the Ugandan nationals who live near the JRS compound, Paco and I had a brief conversation and then sent Atibuni, a Ugandan himself, to notify the appropriate official. The speed and tragedy of this death invaded me. It turned out that this couple was Sudanese and had seven children. They and their four youngest children were headed to Yelulu, a nearby village in the settlement, to work in the fields with the couple’s adult children, who had families of their own.
A Ugandan policeman came, one who works with the local refugees, and said, after a short examination, that it was all right to take the body and bury it. There would be no official postmortem, as there are no coroners in this part of the world. Even if the man had survived, there are no doctors or hospitals around here where he could have been taken. So, in the heavy rain, the people placed the body, enshrouded in a blanket I had taken from my room, into the bed of our pickup with three of the children. The wife and the baby, along with Atibuni and a man who had been traveling with the family, rode in the cabin—along with the chicken. The woman had asked for the chicken as we were loading up because it could still be eaten. The fact of hunger is always present, even in consuming sadness. They set off on a two-hour drive to the couple’s home village on slippery, rain-soaked roads.
Like most deaths in this part of the universe, this man’s was sudden, leaving much up in the air in terms of what the family will do in the long term. But the community will gather and will care for and comfort the widow and her children in the immediate future.
This mess captures what it means to be a refugee in this part of the world that is invisible to developed nations. These two poor people, a father and a mother, a husband and a wife, traveled by bike on a rainy day to fields miles and miles from their home, bearing their youngest child, with three more children on foot, and a chicken to be killed and cooked for the day’s only meal. They traveled through the bush, with no paved roads and no toilets or water along the way, in the hot sun, subject to sudden storms, dodging opportunistic mosquitoes. And then he was killed, dead in his tracks. There were no phones around to call the next of kin, no government officials to sign a cause-of-death certificate, and no emergency vehicles to pick up the body. He was simply wrapped in a blanket and taken home, to be buried next to his small family tukul, his wife and children and friends mourning for three days.
Death in the Rhino Camp Settlement: it is everywhere. People do not live long enough to die gracefully in their old age. Children die all the time. Talk to any refugee parent, and he or she will tell you. Lucy Kaigi has had twelve kids; six of them have died. Steven Asega lost his first three children. Theopista, on our staff, is one of thirteen children; only she and her brother survived. Every family has lost at least one. Cause of death? Disease mainly, those diseases that invade malnourished bodies. All live intimately with death, like this widow, her husband struck dead ten yards behind her. I saw her about two weeks later, and she was frighteningly stoic about it all. Stunned, yes, and bewildered, but there was resignation on her prematurely aged face; even the death of her man was just one more grinding instance of suffering that has accompanied her life, like stunted trees along the road.
Africa can be an alternate world sometimes. This is not the safe and protected world I left. I am constantly reminded of this.
So, my God, death again. I pray for this man, for his family. Bless him as he now comes to you, as we all will come to you, naked and bewildered. Comfort his family and send helpful people into their lives. Show me how to be present in this death, and what I am to learn.
New Life, New Hope
On Christmas Eve, as darkness came, I celebrated Mass in the village of Agulupi. It was a hot night, and there were maybe seventy people in the little thatch-covered chapel. Dust covered everything, and I could smell the sweat of the people who were crowded cheerfully into the room. A kerosene lamp hung on a wooden pillar to the right of the altar. Huge moths periodically crashed into the lamp, and once in a while one could hear the slap of a hand as another mosquito made a hungry landing.
Students sang the liturgy’s rich music, and twenty grade-school girls danced around the altar. Agulupi is home to many Sudanese who fled to Uganda via Congo, and after communion the singers began a Christmas song in Lingala, the language of eastern Congo, that featured an imitation of the wailing of the baby Jesus. The dancers sighed while folding their forearms over their foreheads in an expression of weeping. It cut straight to my heart: a cry heard down through the centuries from God-become-human; and, too, an echo of the wailing of refugees who have endured a long road of flight and suffering. As with that birth in a barn, there is a sense in all this stinking poverty of hope reborn.
I said the Mass in Bari, which most present could understand, and gave the homily in English, which was translated into Arabic, which all could understand. After Mass, the people, flashing smiles and tired eyes, presented me with my Christmas gift: a live duck. Food for life. Is there a better gift? Earlier in the day, seven miles away by a dirt road, in a village called Wanyange, after another Eucharist, the people gave me seven eggs.
The night was full of contrasts for me: the absence of loved ones and the presence of welcoming refugees; the deprivation of the settlement and the wealth of faith; the longing for home and the comfort of the Eucharist. I thought often of Christ’s words: “This is my body, given to you; this is my blood, poured out for you.” Those words have always contained for me the tenderness found also in the moment of his birth: here was a child, born as a mission of care and love from the heart of God. On that Christmas Eve in obscure Agulupi, Jesus was born again, his tender presence hidden in the bread, nourishing me and the little congregation.
Even as I clung to the familiarity of the Eucharist, I celebrated this Mass as if it were my first. And it was, in a sense: everything feels new in these new surroundings and this new culture. It is startling, the newness of it all. It takes time to adjust to a night like this, but there is no time, because I have been thrust into an utterly foreign world, and I have to respond. There are so many moments like this here: adjustments to food, lack of clean water, creatures of the night, customs, relationships, expectations, suffering children, unrelenting heat, absence of loved ones, unforgiving terrain, unexpected disease, death, and requests for help that are heartbreaking in their simplicity and impossibility. And yet I take refuge in the consolation of Christ once again pouring out his love and hope in the Christmas mystery as I face what is new and frightening and unclear.
The promise of Christmas was brought home for me powerfully on Christmas Day. I spent it with two young men, Kingara and Otumbara, students I had met shortly after arriving at Rhino and who were home from school for the holiday. After Christmas Eve Mass, they had approached me, in a crowd of secondary school kids home for the break, all of whom speak English and were eager to talk, and invited me to join them for Christmas tea. Kingara and Otumbara are good kids, honest and guileless, orphaned by the civil war. We sat on the dirt floor of their tukul sipping tea and eating chocolate chip cookies I had received from a friend in the States (they were hard as rocks but dunkable). Many other teenagers had crowded into the tukul. They all knew and admired Kingara and Otumbara, both bright and determined to find a way to continue their education. They never knew their fathers and barely knew their mothers, escaping from Sudan as young teenagers, their families slaughtered. We talked at length; they asked lots of questions about my country, my family, and education in the States. They had a difficult time grasping that my mother tongue was English, since they understood it to be an international language to be learned, as they had learned it, after the acquisition of one’s native language. I was curious about their escape from Sudan and their hopes for the future. After the other teenagers left, I gave Kingara and Otumbara each a calculator, decent ones I had purchased in Arua. They were flabbergasted and grateful. As I left, we planned to meet again during their next school break, in April.
Like Mary and Joseph, Kingara and Otumbara are simultaneously being born and giving birth in a foreign land. In their quest for an education, and for truth, they are claiming their lives and their hearts, bringing new life and new hope to their continent and to their Sudanese culture. It is a similar situation for me. Far from home and from my loved ones, I am being born anew, through the grace of the One who created and sustains me.
Letter from Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement
Hi, dear friend. Where to begin? It has been a slow and fast, serious and hilarious adjustment. The trip from Portland to East Africa, which you have experienced, was uneventful. The free wine on the flight helped take the edge off the emotional pain of farewells and the weariness of being stuffed into an airplane seat for sixteen hours. Our brothers, the African Jesuits in Nairobi and Kampala, were warm in their reception, though no amount of welcome can ease the anxiety of entering a completely foreign culture. I was like Paul finally arriving in Macedonia, saying to myself, Well, I am here because you have called me here. Now what? There have been some tough moments, partly a result of the cultural adaptation. But there is also the constant struggle to trust in God in my anxiety, and the drain of having to be an extrovert when I am by nature an introvert, and the absence of friends and spoken love.
After delays in Kampala because of an Ebola scare in northern Uganda and rebel ambushes to the east of my assigned location, I flew north to Arua, a town fifteen miles east of Congo and perhaps fifty miles south of Sudan. I came up with a Mexican Jesuit, Paco, who is the director of the JRS project in Rhino Camp Settlement. He is a veteran: five years in Africa and decades in the jungles of Chiapas and the slums of Mexico City. He is a talented man, wiry of body and mind, used to working alone. He tends to have a short fuse, although he learned quickly that anger doesn’t work on me, so he has had to adjust. In the end, I don’t think my strength will threaten him; indeed, it can be the basis of a companionship that he has not had for some time. He will be leaving the project soon, I am told.
Meeting us at the Arua airstrip were the three other JRS staffers, Atibuni, Lodu, and Lokuri, all young laymen, one Ugandan and two Sudanese. They are excellent people who have been helpful in my adjustment and education. From Arua, we bumped our way along a fifty-mile dirt road to the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement, my home for the next few years.
The land is bush country, with lots of grass and low-rising trees. I arrived at the outset of the dry season, and the heat is like a lamprey that sucks the life out of you. In the dry season, not much in the way of subsistence crops can grow. Malaria is prevalent here; knowing this is like living in a house with a smoldering fire in the basement; one is always waiting for the flames to make their move. Everyone here has had and will have malaria. It is the very young who suffer the most from it. Almost one million children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa die each year from the disease.
I have all the conveniences of home: no electricity, no plumbing, no phone, no running water, and no TV (but I do have my handy-dandy shortwave radio). I have a blessedly long bed with a mosquito net. I live in a little one-room thatch-covered house called a tukul, which I share with lizards, fleas, dive-bomber moths, grasshoppers, spiders, mosquitoes, plump cockroaches, and a million what-the-hell-is-that creepy crawlers. Your kind of place. There are snakes, too, including cobras and black mambas. Even a “shower” is an adventure and an act of will, since one has to maneuver with buckets, cups, and a twenty-liter “Jeri can” (named after the British nickname for the Germans, who produced it during World War II). The food is very difficult for me, and already my mind wanders off into frequent food fantasies. What I would give for a green salad and a piece of cheddar cheese.
The JRS work in the Rhino Camp Settlement is primarily pastoral, while other projects in northern Uganda and Southern Sudan emphasize education. There is an educational component here as well, although it is directed toward adult literacy. The Rhino Camp project also is committed to the development of cooperatives, as refugees endeavor to establish small businesses to compensate for the consistently infertile land. A big investment on the part of JRS is in the training of Catholic leadership: elders, catechists, youth, and women. And we celebrate the Eucharist and other sacramental activities in nineteen different chapels. I have baptized more children in two months than I have in my entire thirty years as a priest. I go to the villages for Mass either on a motorcycle (Gary Smith, born to be wild!) or in a pickup. The catechists who work with me in the chapels usually translate my English homily into Arabic or Bari, a Sudanese language. I am beginning to learn the Mass in Bari. Some days, there may be four different languages we have to work with. The liturgies are full of nonstop dancing and singing and rich in faith and a sense of trust in God. It always touches me.
Incidentally, I have seen more exposed breasts in my few weeks here than I have in my entire life. Mothers breast-feed during baptisms, and in anointing so many little nursing heads I sometimes wind up anointing heads and breasts in one, uh, graceful movement. Life and cultures are so relative. I realized one day that I was baptizing three babies of separate mothers but all having the same daddy. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Polygamy is a cultural nut that the African church has not yet figured out how to crack.
The people are good and welcoming; they possess a deep faith and are resilient in the face of crushing obstacles. Never have I heard the
Twenty-third Psalm—The Lord Is My Shepherd—prayed with such devotion in the midst of absolutely oppressive surroundings. But faith never softens the reality of deprivation. The deepest lash to my soul is the suffering of the children. Disease makes its move early; the life expectancy here is just over forty. There are all kinds of hideous things: malaria, worms, TB, typhoid, dysentery, cholera, tropical ulcers, and leprosy. Not to mention the payback to the body for years of backbreaking work, never having a permanent home, and grief over family separations. Like street people in the States used to tell me, “It’s not the years that age you, Father; it’s the miles.” The Sudanese have traveled lots of miles.
To preach to this sea of suffering is like learning how to talk again. Herein lies a sobering truth: I am free when I am out of control, when I get out of the way and let those walls come down. I cannot depend on clever idioms and flashy rhetoric when breaking open the Gospel. Often, if I slip into Americanisms, the translators have no idea what I’m talking about, even if they have figured out the difficult American accent. The stripping that occurs is not of conveniences; it is of old ways of operating. So humility comes thundering into my life in spite of myself. Or maybe God is in the hunt for my humility. I was deeply immersed in that truth on Christmas Eve at the small village of Agulupi. In their chapel lit by a kerosene lamp, there was a moment when I looked at the bread and said to myself, This is me: offered, broken, and shared. The truth is that I am dependent on a power bigger than any talents I bring to the situation. In fact, my talents here sometimes don’t mean shit. I was, P., at that moment, looking at my life, and I knew, like Jeremiah, that I was seized by “a fire burning in my heart, / imprisoned in my bones” (20:9).
I did not start the fire, and I am not sure I can control how much heart fuel will be burned.
Greet the community. I send my prayers and love to all of you.
Table of Contents
Author’s Note xiii
Part 1: Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement
Journal: August 2000 3
Killer Lightning 8
New Life, New Hope 11
Letter from Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement 14
Letter from Kampala 18
And in God There Is No Darkness at All 21
Journal: June 2001 26
A Mother’s Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness 35
A Paratrooper in a Diaper 39
Letter from Arua 43
Cause of Death: Life 47
Letter from Mwanza, Tanzania 50
Journal: September 2002 54
Letter from Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement 59
Part 2: Adjumani Refugee Settlement
Letter from Adjumani Refugee Settlement 67
Standing Naked before an Angel 70
Journal: December 2003 76
A Noise in the Night 85
The Beautiful Mouth of Jacelin Ojok 94
Journal: June 2004 104
Confirmation and Kalashnikovs 115
Letter from Nimule, Sudan 123
Holding Job in My Arms 126
Kogwon Narju 132
African Gem 138
Letter from Kampala 144
God Does Not Forget His People 147
A Love Story 154
A Bridge to the Eternal 164
Holy Week and a Cloud of Witnesses 171
A Long Night’s Journey into Day 177
Say Yes Again and Forgive Forever 181
Journal: June 2005 189
The Tears of Rose Adoo 195
Journal: August 2006 202
God’s Sweet Gift 210
Those Damn Jesuits 216