When I left Darfur for Northern Uganda, I hoped to find two things there: I wanted to be able to cook bacon once in a while for breakfast and to enjoy a glass of wine with my dinner. Neither item was important, but both were forbidden in Darfur because of the implementation of Sharia.
On arriving in Adjumani, I went to the JRS project site there. It is a new complex of small buildings (tukuls). Constructed by Australian sisters working for JRS, the accommodation compound is only three years old. Located on land owned by a local congregation of sisters, the compound is neat and orderly, although it is showing signs of wear and a lack of maintenance which is quite common in this environment. But this is to be expected, as it is easier to raise funds for construction, which takes a long lead time, than to access funds for maintenance. From the compound you can hear the continual ringing of laughter form the children attending the sisters’ school next door. In my ignorance I thought that Filipino children were the most joyful in the world, but they cannot compete with laughing spirit of Ugandan children.
Located on the outskirt of Adjumani town, the compound is on a high ridge line above the south bank of the White Nile. The Nile actually borders us on three sides as we are in a major loop of the river before it enters Sudan. To drive to the river from our compound is a thirty minute journey on an unsealed road that is well maintained. Originally the town and hinterland was lightly populated by African standards. But when the war in South Sudan became more serious in the late '80s, thousands fled the fighting and crossed into Uganda. Overnight the small town of Adjumani saw a population explosion. In the Moyo/Adjumani area there are still over eighty-five thousand refugees, there are more refugees than Ugandans in these districts. Many of them have fled from the Lord’s Revolutionary Army, a rebel group funded by the Sudanese Government.
LRA raids and massacres in northern Uganda displaced many out laying villages and small hamlets. In 2005, the LRA raided the school next door to the JRS compound. Five young girls were abducted from the sisters’ school. Three later managed to escape, but two have not been heard from since. The sisters still regularly pray for these children at our morning Mass; for news of whether they are still alive and the repose of the children’s souls if they have been killed.
The JRS response to the situation here was on a large scale. It started with the UNHCR inviting JRS to come into the region and support primary education. This involved, at its height, over fifty primary schools between Adjumani and Moyo. This number has now decreased to 27 schools, which are only in the Adjumani district. Last year the schools in Moyo were absorbed into the national education system. As the JRS education program grew so did its scope. We now have 42 nursery schools and five high schools. These three levels of education catered for over thirty thousand students in 2006. There is also a tertiary component of close to four hundred students. On top of formal education there is a pastoral program, peace education and women’s support groups.
The entire program was built on a strong foundation laid by Australian Jesuit Celso Romanin. He arrived here in 1992 and by the beginning of the following year the program was well under way. After fourteen years there are still very few cracks in the programs. Students have gone through pre-school to graduate studies with JRS support and now are sending their children through this education system. The passion and nurturing of the community schools which JRS support have led to a high academic reputation and a long waiting list for prospective students.
After such a long mission JRS is now part of the fabric in northern Ugandan society. The recently elected representative for the district was once Celso’s finance officer. We meet ex-JRS staff and graduates of the community schools everywhere we go in northern Uganda. The name of JRS is synonymous with compassion, passion and a strong dedication to each person whom we serve.
Now there are serious negotiations underway in Juba (capital of southern Sudan) between the LRA and Government of Uganda. Mediation by the south Sudanese government support has led to a cease fire being negotiated. A cease fire which has held for nearly four months now, bringing a peace not experienced in the last twenty years. This peace has encouraged the people of this region: both in south Sudan and northern Uganda. Many are now talking about returning to their traditional lands and resuming a normal life.
These changes mean that the JRS program will not continue unchanged into the future. JRS work in Sudan is now growing like mushrooms throughout south Sudan to accompany and settle the returnees. More and more resources are being diverted into that work by JRS, the UN and international donor community. Funds for Adjumani are still being generously given, but proportionally more support will be needed in South Sudan.
Now will be the natural time for us to look to the end of our mission. JRS came here to support community schools established for and by the refugee communities. We helped these schools to provide a decent level of education and educational opportunities for the refugee children. That generation of school communities has grown and become strong. The schools and their PTAs are no longer dependent on us. In the next few years we will work to strengthen and develop the community’s responsibility for the schools, so that when our mission is complete the children will continue to enjoy uninterrupted the education opportunities to which every child is entitled.
In Adjumani, there has been swine fever. No bacon. But yesterday, in Moyo, I saw a small sow rutting in the bushes. This may mean that the production of pork is in full swing and that I may soon see rashes of bacon on the table. After ten years, an Australian Jesuit has returned to work in Adjumani. Maybe the pigs will also return.
By Bryan Pipins SJ