Yesterday was the CRESS family day and what a lovely day! And, because we were driving to Moyo first, another very long day.
During breakfast and morning prayer, Fi met with some pastors for one to one counselling – we met one afterwards, whose face was shining with happiness and hope, full of strength for the future. The pastors had already met in their regional groups for prayer and planning and Scopas brought us the lovely news that they were planning to open a school in the bush in Pure, which is over the border in South Sudan – a very dangerous place to be. He and several other pastors have placed their families in safety over the border but have chosen to go back into the bush to serve their community who have remained. We were able to give him some money to pay for essentials. The teachers in the refugees’ schools are all volunteers – they don’t receive any salary for their remarkable work. We were also pleased to see that his foot was healing – he had arrived at the conference with an open wound on his foot caused by a burn from the exhaust on his motorbike. He was treating it with honey, which seemed to work well. Fi also introduced him to aloe vera and showed him how it could be used for burns and cuts.
After breakfast, to the CRESS office to meet up with the rest of the team! A large number of staff and families came to Moyo, so we left in three vehicles with Fred’s family following in their car. Five or six of the young men seemed to love the opportunity to travel loose in the back of the truck, perching on the sides – knowing the state of the roads that lay ahead, we could only marvel! Caroline and I both had solar chargers but because of power cuts at the hotel the night before hadn’t been able to charge them, so decided to put them on the dashboard of the Landrover to charge en route. But Daniel Dube, Joseph’s son who was balancing in the back of the truck, rescued them with a massive grin and manfully held them to the sun all the way to Moyo – and they arrived fully charged!
The initial part of the journey was very smooth, but after about 30 minutes, we pulled up behind Fred’s car. Despite changing the battery it soon became apparent that the car needed major repairs and so sadly the family wouldn’t be able to get to Moyo. Caroline took the opportunity to take the children’s photos and hand over their sponsors gifts on the roadside!
So on for the rest of the journey. The tarmacked road ran out and we moved quite smoothly onto one of the dusty orange roads that snake across Africa. For a while it was quite flat, but soon Eric started his trademark manoeuvres, zigzagging from side to side to avoid the holes and bumps. It’s dry here – the roads will be almost unpassable once the rains start. Eric is a most marvellous driver, and even with garishly painted lorries bearing down on us, we felt completely safe. It wasn’t long before the road qualified for the Bari phrase ‘riggi riggi’ – basically translated as shaking you to pieces! It turned out that ‘riggi riggi’ is a wonderful treatment for stiff backs!
There aren’t many roads – I think we only went on three different ones in the whole four hours – so little communities are peppered along the way. A typical setting – which makes up part of a larger village – is five or six tukuls. This will be one family. There were people moving constantly down the road, on bikes, walking, or children chasing each other. All manner of things were being transported, mostly food and the reeds that are used for thatching the tukuls. The ubiquitous brick kilns were everywhere, and at one point, a line of women trekked from the bore hole to pour water into the clay pit, for the men to mix and form into bricks. Children sat at the edge of the road next to great sacks of charcoal, presumably for sale. The countryside is also subject to controlled burning and much of the land by the side of the road was blackened and sooty.
A couple of times we went through larger towns. We stopped in Yumbe to get sodas and sweet biscuits and we were able to get out of the car to stretch our legs. The first impression is of a Wild West frontier town – the long, straight street, full of commerce and people, and dust. Being so close to the camps, Yumbe is full of NGOs – Catholic relief organisations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, UNHCR, World Vision – signs to their offices were all across town. Fortified by our supplies we scrambled back into the Landrover and carried on.
We soon passed Bidi Bidi camp. This houses 450,000 South Sudanese refugees and is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. You could see many many dwellings spread out over exposed, bare terrain, a mixture of tukuls and tents. I later spent some time with a lady who lives in the camp with her five children. She has made a tukul from the ‘carpet’ – the tarpaulin – given to her and coated it with mud. For now it is sound, but she is fearful for the rainy season and doesn’t think it will stay waterproof. Because the camp is very exposed, with few trees, it can also be very windy, which can damage the dwellings. I asked her about life there – they are given food, but only beans and maize, not really enough. Sometimes they trade a little of their rations for vegetables in the local market to vary their diets. Her husband is with her in the camp, but as he is not Ugandan, cannot get work, so they have very few choices. They cannot afford to pay extra to get some land to cultivate – their allocated plot is only big enough for them to erect their tukul – or afford to leave the camp and rent somewhere to live.
Her children go to school in the camp; her son has just finished primary school with really good grades, but was in a class of 160 children. I asked if it was safe – she said no, not really. She explained that the family had had a motorbike, and her 16 year old was driving it to the fields to collect something when he was ambushed by two men who jumped from the bush, one with a rifle. They pointed the rifle at him and demanded his phone and his money – he had neither. So they asked for the keys of the motorbike, which he handed over, and then they told him to run because they were going to shoot him. The boy ran, and looking back saw the rifle trained on him – then, mercifully, he heard the motorbike engine start up and he was able to run back to his family alive.
So we continued, riggi riggi, all the way to Moyo, a large town close to the border of South Sudan and Kajo Keji. Many of the refugees from Kajo Keji have settled here, and the Kajo Keji Diocesan Office, as well as the college have relocated to premises in the town. We had a quick stop at the college, where classes were in progress (with notices around – phones must be off during classes – just like home!) and a look around the comfortable offices. Then off to the Catholic guest house, where the family day was to be held.
But first, another joyful presentation of bikes to ten leaders of the Mothers Union in this area, again to be used as they love and serve their communities here. And then, the family day can begin! Children peeped around the corner of the central hall in excitement as we arrived; not knowing exactly how long our journey might take, many of them had been here for several hours. We began with another delicious meal – posho, rice, chicken, goat, watermelon and beans – better than Mr Heinz, as Fi commented! And then to the photos of each family and each child, with the sponsors’ gifts handed over. £10 or £20 is an enormous amount for a child here and the envelopes were received with great joy. Then the children (and Becky, mercifully assisted by Bosco, one of Francis’ graduates) went to play and the parents to a celebration in the hall. There is a children’s playground here, with swings, seesaw, a roundabout and a slide; we also had a football and some ropes out, and of course the parachute, which we wafted up and down for about 90 minutes! Extremely tiring for us, but the children never tired of it! As the light faded, the families departed, and we were left to a refreshing drink on the verandah of this lovely place, followed by a good night’s sleep under the mosquito nets. And joy of joy, warm water to shower in!
Written by Becky Sedgwick