Easter with the Nuba
I have just come back from the Nuba Mountains, in the heart of Sudan. With the local Christian community, we celebrated Easter in Amdrafi, Kerker, Komo Umdurdu and Kauda, moving on foot with the local catechists from village to village, stopping at every well to ask for water to drink, receiving at every place the warm hospitality of a people who still think that a visitor is a gift from God.
The Nuba people are victimised more than others in the war that devastates Sudan, and the treatment they receive from the present Khartoum government has been described as "creeping genocide". Currently, the regular troops are conducting an offensive against the civilians, causing displacement and famine, and their attacks effectively disrupted our Easter celebration.
Cross and resurrection are part of these people's life, as death and life are present in everyday life. On Good Friday at Kerker, we stood in the light of sunset on top of a hill where we had just planted a cross and all people, one by one, knelt in front of it, some spontaneously embracing it in a gesture of love. Some bore the scars and mutilation of war. The elderly catechist and father of the community, Paul Shalu, whispered: "We should plant a cross on top of every Nuba mountain, it is our heritage and pride."
On Easter night in Amdrafi, our cathedral had the star-studded sky as its vault, the mountain passes as its doors and the hot wind from the west, loaded with tropical scents, as its incense. We gathered in a great circle around a fire started in the traditional way, we lit a torch which could effectively overcome darkness for 50 metres all around, and, as I held it high above our heads, we moved to the place where the water for baptism had been prepared.
The words of the ancient celebration, translated in Arabic by the catechists, were answered by ululation of joy. Young strong bodies and old white hairs received the water, abundantly poured from a traditional gourd, as the catechists were calling the names of those ready for baptism. At the end of the celebration, when finally the moon came up, I was standing in a pool of mud.
Fire and water were indeed present not only as signs of the Easter celebrations. The fire of the shells and bombs heard in the distance and occasionally lighting up the sky, the fire set by the peasants to clean up the fields in preparation for the next rainy season. The scarce water drawn from muddy wells, enough for drinking, too precious to be used for washing.
The joy of Easter could not mean to forget the victims of violence. Not far from us at Amdrafi, a cluster of burned down huts bore grim witness to the war. Too happy and excited to sleep, after the celebration people sat down in groups and told each other recent events in their villages, praying for the dead and forgiving the living. Amdrafi villagers recounted how on March 5, at 4 am a battalion (about 600 men) of the government forces attacked them, setting ablaze 35 huts, looting cows, goats, sheep and everything else of value. The reaction of the local Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) drove them out of the village after four hours, following them for about 15 km. In the confrontation, seven government soldiers and one SPLA were killed. All the villagers rounded up by the soldiers were freed, only a lady was left in the hands of the soldiers. According to the local SPLA commander, Ibrahim Ousmane Ibrahim, SPLA radio has intercepted messages from a group of 15 soldiers who are lost in the hills an
Some of those present were displaced from Umdulu village. They narrated how on March 7 another battalion attacked and seized Regifi, Umdulu and Karkarai, a string of villages at the foot of the Lomon Mountains. All the villagers run away to the mountains. There were no casualties, but the villagers, about 3 000, lost almost everything and, if the situation continues, will be unable to start cultivating their fields in the coming rainy season. The church of Regifi (one of the only two in bricks in the whole area) was destroyed after removing the iron sheets and window and door frames. The churches of Umdulu and Karkarai, in local material, were set on fire.
On April 1, we moved to Kauda, where we were supposed to have a meeting and an Easter celebration with Catholics coming from the surrounding area. The catechists of Karga and Kuchama, two heavily populated rural areas surrounding Heiban, a big government garrison, arrived without their people because the previous day, March 31, the villages had been attacked by a battalion. Zakaria Noh and Boutros Alamin reported that in the early morning their villages were attacked by government troops, the church and five houses burned and property looted, before the SPLA reaction drove the attackers away. Only a soldier was wounded, but the villagers were still hiding in the higher hills. Boutros, 28, married with three children, a face with the noble and strong features one can see in the ancient Egyptian drawings, at the end of his report told the gathering: "They can burn our houses and crops, they can steal our cows and goats, but they cannot steal our faith.
These military actions against the civilian population of the Nuba Mountains have the purpose of forcing people to take refuge in the government garrison and in the "peace camps" where they are treated as cheap labour and mistresses by the soldiers, in conditions bordering slavery, and of isolating the SPLA.
It is worthy to record that in Kauda we were received by a delegation of Muslims who had prepared a great reception. Their joy in our acceptance to share the meal they had prepared using the best food available - meat, milk and honey, simsim and mangoes - was genuine and moving. They not only gave a lesson in what true religion is, they gave further proof that religious differences is not surely an issue for the Nuba. Hatred against the Christian, methodical destruction of churches, hunting down of Catholic catechists, is a policy fostered by the government but not shared by the majority of people.
It might seem futile to celebrate Easter, the feast of the resurrection, of joy, of victory over death, in an environment of war. Joseph Aloga, one of the catechists who accompanied me during all the time of my peregrination with the Nuba, thinks differently. "Easter - he told me one early morning while we were walking towards the distant airstrip where a plane would come to take me back to Nairobi - means that we are greater than ourselves, that we have the possibility of overcoming all the evil inside us and around us".
Fr. Renato Kizito Sesana
NEW MISSION AT ADIOR
Rumbek Diocese has established a mission centre at Adior as a follow up to one of the resolutions passed during the Rumbek Diocesan Assembly held at Mapourdit from February 4-8.
The Adior centre, located in Bahr al Ghazal region, brings to four the number of missions in Rumbek Diocese, currently headed by Monsignor Caesar Mazzolari. The other missions in the diocese are Mapourdit, Agangrial and Marial Lou.
Monsignor Mazzolari said that the Assembly felt that the Diocese of Rumbek was financially capable of running another mission in an attempt to bring the gospel and development within the easiest reach of as many people in Sudan as possible.
But the Combonis are not strangers at the new centre. Way back in 1858, the founder of the Christian faith in Sudan, who later became the first bishop of Khartoum, Daniel Comboni, had set foot there with the objective of evangelisation. Together with fellow Italian missionaries, Comboni spent nine months at Holy Cross, a location on the bank of the river Nile, during which time they set up a mission centre and won a number of converts. However, the mission failed the severe test of time as hostile climatic conditions and tropical diseases took their toll on the Europeans. Holy Cross is only forty kilometers away from Adior.
This time round, said Monsignor Mazzolari, we have done our groundwork thoroughly well and we remain optimistic about the survival of the centre.
"We have held talks with the local people and the civil authority in the area and we have been assured of security in the course of our pastoral work in Adior," Monsignor Mazzolari said with confidence.
Adior is a densely populated area with a people who have demonstrated encouraging enthusiasm in embracing Christianity. Further, the mission centre, unlike some areas in the Bahr al-Ghazal region, is at a safe distance from the floods of the mighty river Nile during the heaviest rainy seasons. The area is also credited with having a good airstrip that is useable throughout the year. With such a facility, the missionaries and the Christians at Adior do not stand a risk of being isolated.
To set the ball rolling, two priest, Father Benjamin Madol, 48, Sudanese and Father Mario Riva, 69, Italian, have been posted to the area. Both the priests have considerable experience in pastoral work in the Sudan.
Fr. Riva, a veteran in pastoral work in hardship areas, first came to Sudan in 1954. He is today a fluent speaker of the local Dinka language, an attribute that makes him really suited for his new responsibility.
Fr. Madol, a priest since 1981, said he was quite prepared for the new challenge. "I am quite prepared for my new responsibility as Sudan is my home and I am ready to serve anywhere and in any capacity as may be the wish of the Almighty God."
As to whether the posting of the two clergymen would cause a shortfall in other areas within the Diocese, Monsignor Mazzolari said: "Not quite. We have experienced a tremendous growth in terms of personnel. Rumbek Diocese today boasts a total of 31 priests, sisters and brothers.
Besides spreading the gospel, the Comboni missionaries hope to assist in running a local dispensary which was established by emergency doctors from Europe.
by Charles Omondi
For further information, please contact:
Fr. Kizito, SCIO, tel +254.2.562247 - fax +254.2.566668 - e-mail: SCIO@MAF.Org