Today was mandazi day.
For the uninitiated (which I was until this morning), mandazi are probably best described as doughnuts without the jam or sadly the sugar. They look like deeply, deeply fried angular blobs of bread but taste delicious. These plus hard boiled eggs – enhanced by the surprise addition of Pippa’s marmite – were our breakfast before leaving the guest house in Moyo. In anticipation of the very long day ahead Fi parcelled up the remaining mandazi and eggs and took them with us in our mini convey. We were travelling to Arua for the next stage of the programme, but via Gobor to see a community of South Sudanese from Kajo Keji led by the incredible Archdeacon Elly Mawa.
Despite the rain, the road wasn’t too bad (in the rainy season, roads can almost be washed away and there are potholes everywhere) and we made good progress to Gobor. We were greeted with great joy by a little advance party of teenagers singing and shaking gourds. Caroline got out of the car to join them so we had a rather stately procession as the two vehicles followed them into the village.
The community numbers over 6,000 people from Kajo Keji. Rev Elly explained that when the soldiers came in 2016, many people fled not over the border but into the bush. He pastored them and for the next two years, despite having hepatitis, led them from place to place as the soldiers threatened. After two years, the community made the decision to cross into Uganda. They didn’t want to go to the camps because, although there are some advantages the camps are difficult places to live in.
So in the last 18 months or so Rev Elly has built the most wonderful community in Gobor, just 8km from the border. The locals have rented them an area of land and they have built tukuls, and some bigger buildings. They’ve also started an amazing nursery school which has nearly 200 pupils. There’s also a thriving agricultural group with 16 women, and they have made £250 profit already this year, a good amount for them.
So we arrived to be greeted by hundreds of people gathered into the main square. It’s interesting how they group themselves. To the right were mainly older people. In the centre were mainly mums, some with young babies. Under the shelter of the open-sided round tukul were the nursery children, with the primary aged kids clustered together a little way further round. The teens stood to the side and back. We were ushered into a long thatched building, the opening so low that we had to crouch to avoid being scratched by the ends of the thatch. Inside a table had been laid with more mandazis and a big dish of rice for us. To drink we had ‘African tea’ which is tea or coffee mixed with powdered milk, lots of sugar and hot water. We were prayed for by the nursery pupils, led by 3 year old self-styled ‘Doctor One’, the headteacher’s son.
Then Bishop Joseph put on his impressive bishop’s regalia and the Sunday service began. We sat under a small, specially constructed shelter with Rev Elly and Bishop and other invited guests and the service opened with a song, accompanied by drummers and gourds. Then we had the most delightful welcome from the nursery children, dressed in their green gingham uniform, followed up by the teenagers in their uniform. At one point a dog wandered through and later on a goat. We were introduced; Caroline preached; there was more singing. But the nursery children provided the highlights for all of us. Towards the end, a long line of tiny children hopped to the front and stood perfectly still while their headteacher, Emmanuel Murye, explained that they wished to sing a song thanking CRESS for their support. The children sang beautifully saying thank you, because of CRESS we are progressing.
We learned later that the school had recently been visited and declared as good as the very best of the schools they had back in Kajo Keji. Emmanuel is passionate about the importance of early years education and is an extremely skilled teacher; this community is blessed to have him.
But the very best bit was also from the nursery children. Emmanuel explained that they were going to ask us some riddles. Each new riddle was announced by the questioner calling out ‘Quiz quiz!’ with the rest of the children replying ,’queeeeez’. A boy of about 6 stepped forward and showed us nine small sticks and asked us how nine could become ten. We failed miserably before being shown that the word ‘ten’ could be written using nine sticks. A small girl asked us what the letters B E L L stood for; it was ‘better education, less labour’. And then the humdinger. The smallest three year old stepped forward and haltingly, in a barely audible voice, presented us with his riddle: what feeds millions but never runs out? We struggled. My perfect Christian answer (the word of God) was rejected with the explanation that there were two of them. Further struggle ensued, so Emmanuel offered us a clue: like pawpaws. Still we didn’t have an answer, so all eyes turned to the tiny boy. In his shrill voice, he gave us the answer: ‘Breasts!’
During the service, the offering was collected. Two young teenagers held baskets as people came forward and dropped their offerings in. These people are really poor; being outside the refugee camps means that they don’t get any of the maize or bean rations, and jobs are almost impossible to find. Even the headteacher isn’t paid but relies on occasional donations from the parents. Yet most stepped forward and placed something in the basket. Later on there was another special collection towards the fund the community has set up to buy 400 plastic chairs for church and again many people donated. They have so little but still give.
As the service ended (after nearly three hours which actually felt much shorter) the children performed an African dance for us followed by the most moving song, saying ‘You pray for us and we’ll pray for you’. You bet we will.
We didn’t have long left if we were to get to Arua before nightfall, but spent the next 45 minutes productively. Caroline interviewed the agriculture group and was thrilled to hear of their progress. Startlingly, four men approached her and asked if the men could have a group too. This is unheard of in a country where men’s contribution to the family’s farming is just the heavy digging. Fi caught up with one of her CATT trainees, Jamie and Pippa captured Rev Elly’s story, and Jeremy looked around the village with a translator, chatting to all and sundry. Danda of course was filming.
As all good children, we availed ourselves of the facilities before we left. It would be possible to draw a veil over the experience, but as in this blog we are trying to give you a full flavour of life here, I feel it would be unfair not to say anything. Needless to say the toilet was a ‘long drop’, housed in an old tukul which leaned alarmingly to one side. As you approached, daylight revealed all was not well and hordes of iridescent green flies buzzed up and out of the uneven narrow drop. The rest I will leave to your imagination, or ’nuff said’ as the youngsters say. Although apparently my face when I emerged told a tale because the ladies sitting just yards away took one look at it and burst into peals of laughter!
So off to Arua. We travelled in Francis’s wonder van. The journey took three hours, nearly all of it on one red dirt road with just one stop to be given our picnic of mango juice and ‘glucose biscuits’ which were like little malted milks. In exchange we gave the other vehicle our slightly squashed mandazis! Francis is a marvellous driver, combining the ability to be looking directly at his passenger while ‘slalom driving’ as Fi described it – at top speed! It was a Riggi Riggi journey – perhaps the best translation would be ‘boneshaker’. At times there were huge muddy holes to be avoided or points where the road had been washed away, or tracts of fresh mud lying across the dirt. Add to this a gaudily painted lorry bearing down on us competing for the same few metres of space or a heavily loaded bicycle wobbling along the inside lane, and you can see why we were likening it to a ride at Alton Towers! Perhaps the most extraordinary thing was the utter nonchalance of the pedestrians ambling along the side is the road, never flinching as we passed them just inches away. About thirty miles from Arua the road became tarmacked so the last bit was done at some speed with interesting escapades involving goats, cows, chickens and the overnight bus to Entebbe imaginatively called the Entebbe Express.
We reached Arua at 7pm and are staying back in the lovely White Castle hotel. Tomorrow we are off to the clinic in Mijale. Another Riggi Riggi journey! Good for tired backs or so Fi claims.