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Solidarity with South Sudan

 

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Brother Christian Mbam shares his experience in an intercongregacional initiative

08/11/2018: South Sudan

The project Solidarity with the South Sudan (SSS), born of a request from the Conference of Bishops of South Sudan, is currently supported by many congregations of women and men religious, members of the International Union of (women) Superiors General (UISG) and the Union of (men) Superiors General (USG).

The initiative, centred on the fields of health, agriculture and teacher training, expresses a new paradigm of collaboration between the congregations to respond in a more effective way to the immense and urgent needs of this country.

Down, Brother Christian Mbam, from Nigeria, shares his experience.

Photos in FaceBook


Before the congregation sent members to South Sudan, Br. Benito Arbués, some twelve years before or more, had directed the Marist African Region to study the prospects of opening a joint mission in South Sudan. When I became the Provincial of Nigeria, this issue which had been suspended, featured on the agenda of the regular meetings of the Provincials and District Superior of West Africa. There was very serious lack of clarity in the proposed mission that it was again suspended. These discussions prepared me to respond to an invitation of Br. Emili Turú extended me to join the Solidarity initiative. I have not regretted saying yes to the invitation. Thanks be to God.

Southern Sudan had intermittently engaged in armed struggle against the rest of Sudan, accusing it of marginalisation and calculated suppression of their culture and religion in order enthrone Arabic culture and language, which went with it, subtly, Islamising the predominantly Christian South. These conflicts went on for decades leading to granting of independence to the south. South Sudan by race is African while the Northern Sudan was of Arabic.

The long period of war left Southern Sudan (now South Sudan) in a very sorry state. Road networks are virtually non-existent. What you have as roads are better described as death traps than otherwise. You cannot talk of electricity, running water, or worthwhile schools. Apart from Juba, the capital city, most of the others are masses of huts that stand like mushrooms, with grass roofs. In the rural areas, relatively few children that go to school study under trees with no seats. The few universities that operate in this most impoverished country are Universities only by name. They have no infrastructure or facilities. Internet facilities in the country are for the privileged few. In the area where I am stationed, we do not have even telephone network. All these leave a country grossly impoverished, backward, predominantly illiterate; unprecedented ignorance rife etc. To worsen the already sorry state of South Sudan, the fratricidal wars among its ethnic groups, fueled by tussle for power and tribal animosities have driven a third of the population into refugee or internally displaced peoples’ camps, who consequently depend on meager foods and materials handouts from different relief bodies. But happy to note that few changes are beginning to be noticed. Recently the city power was turned on in Juba after years out of action. More homes in the few major towns are beginning to wear better looks few even painted.

Choice of this Mission

Is this mission to be chosen for any reason, other than being propelled by faith? St. Pope John Paul II had urged the Church, particularly the religious to go to the peripheries, to the marginalized people. The two unions of Superiors General of men and women responded to this timely call by considering going into South Sudan as one. It will entail a totally new initiative, and a shift of paradigm. They decided to work together not only in projects but also in communities. As may be expected, this will bring people of different congregations, women and men and from different cultural backgrounds together. But the mission is urgent that excessive fear and consideration for debilitating prudence had to be put aside. And it has not failed.

I am in my seventh year in South Sudan being part of Solidarity with South Sudan initiative. I have lived in two different communities, spend time in a third. In all these the mix ranges from international, intercontinental, intercongregational and male and female. In many cases, especially with the dearth of vocations and the aging of many members in the West, and, with religious congregation closing houses even at home, talk less of opening new ones overseas. Sometime a congregation can only spare one or two members for a new mission but as this does not guarantee continuity they prefer not to venture into such mission. Solidarity with South Sudan initiative has resolved this drawback. It gives an opportunity for a congregation to participate in a mission they feel strongly about without having to open a house. Hence in solidarity, some congregations have only one or two members some who have no members to spare, participate in other forms. Today over two hundred congregations an Orders are participating in this initiative.

One can rightly ask: What type of religious community could that be that has mixed membership from different congregations and even with lay, married people? The manual of Solidarity clearly specifies that the communities are religious communities but with a wide range of flexibility. Rather than a Superior, we have community co-ordinators who do not have the authority of Superiors but simply harmonises the living together of members. He organizes regular community meetings according to the life-plan of the community. He/she is the link between the community and outside and with the Executive Director. Members are required to develop strong maturity in living their religious commitments. The community chooses when to come together for prayer, meals and meetings. Religious spirit rather than the letters of religious obedience and poverty is required of members, who should be transparent in all their dealings.

The greatest joy I find in belonging to the Solidarity initiative is that we touch the lives of the people. We see how transformation is perceptibly taking place, even though very slowly. Seeing that now South Sudanese nurses and teachers who are trained in Solidarity institutions staff the labour force of the country gives irresistible joy. In our parish school, we now have four Solidarity Teachers Training College graduates as teachers. Until this time the teaching staff have been half illiterate teachers who gave only lip service to teaching. We equally enjoy community life, each member brings the best of herself or himself for community building.

 

Challenges

These and the wide mix of the communities present their challenges as well as their advantages. Members will have to let go some personal, cultural and congregational peculiarities. Food can be of very wide range, though members are usually sensitive to this. The watchwords or key to the successful Solidarity community is adaptation, flexibility and sensitivity, impelled by the charity of Christ and the need of the mission. Members try new ways and new things. Members of a community are allowed wide range of personal initiatives within the limits imposed by the life-manual of the organization or plan of life of the community. Members tolerate the mistakes of other members particularly when responsible initiatives or risks fail. But members are totally responsible for risks and mistakes of decisions taken contrary to the Solidarity Manual. Each one takes care of one’s personal health expenses, although each member is required to obtain health insurance cover.

I have engaged in the mission of teaching and agriculture at different times. The whole thrust of Solidarity is to help build capacity for the country and the Church. So it chose to train teachers and nurses who will then provide services for the country. Even the agricultural project has as one of its aims to educate the people in better methods of farming. Solidarity pastoral team train the local clergy and catechists in better pastoral approaches and initiatives. The Initial contract with the Bishops’ Conference of South Sudan was for ten year by which time the local Church would have sufficiently trained pastoral agents and Solidarity would handover to the local Church all its institutions and any assets held by Solidarity. This is the tenth year but this handover did not happen. The Archbishop of Juba asked:  “Handover to whom”. Another ten year contract has again been drawn with clear lines and time table of transition.

It is a joy to mention that the Marist Congregation has been a backbone to the Solidarity initiative from its conception and in its ongoing. We have two Brothers presently, while we have had three. The congregation has committed so much in finance in keeping the mission of Solidarity going. The last donation about a year ago was sixty, thousand USA dollars. But I think we can send more members. I have urged the African Region to take the bull by the horn in initiating a joint mission in South Sudan. Presently Solidarity is advertising for memberships in the Pastoral team as some members of the team are returning to their different congregations. We could recommend such Brothers who are qualified and can serve in this capacity. Also Solidarity is looking for an Associate Executive Director who will reside in Solidarity Central office in Rome.  Specialised volunteers are preferable, teachers, nurses or agronomists.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this type of Solidarity initiative as the sign of the times. More new missions can be undertaken and discharged more professionally working in the model of Solidarity. The inter-congregational and gender mix could be scary. It is, no doubt, fraught with risks but the risk could be minimized by making sure that people sent to participate in Solidarity will have certain level of maturity and experience. Presently most members are largely retired men and women.  The risk might be more when younger religious join Solidarity communities. It may become necessary that when such becomes the case, new form of living together could be initiated.

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