South Sudan has some pretty bad metrics. Soaring rates of food insecurity, child malnutrition, and communicable diseases like malaria and diarrhoea — combined with one of the weakest healthcare systems in the world. The country has recently emerged from civil war, which left its infrastructure in tatters and millions of people huddled in refugee camps and Protection of Civilians camps.
I’m in South Sudan in a communications role for the Mission Aviation Fellowship. MAF’s ministry is flying planes over vast areas criss-crossed by rutted dirt roads where travellers are routinely ambushed by armed groups. Our passengers are missionaries and humanitarian workers.
A week after I arrived in Juba, six months ago, the Peace Agreement finally ended the six-year civil war. Anniversaries and deadlines are often flashpoints; so I’m pretty thankful my first MAF flight wasn’t an emergency evacuation to Kenya.
For the first few weeks, the new government was all anyone could talk about. History was being written. It turned out that I got in just under the wire. If I hadn’t landed when I did, I’d still be in my two-bed end-of-terrace in Kent. Little did I know that coronavirus was just around the corner.
The downside was that people disappeared into lockdown and on to Zoom just as I was putting faces to names. Now, we’re all floating around in cyberspace.
The peace and reconciliation safaris, led by my MAF colleague Corina de Waal, were due to expand this year with more flights and a larger team of facilitators. Three of our MAF teammates were in Rwanda completing their training to become workshop leaders when Covid-19 hit. Thankfully, we managed to get them back before international flights stopped. At that point, there were no confirmed cases in South Sudan, but reports were coming in from neighbouring countries.
The safaris have been put on hold until it’s safe again, but the team had completed two safaris already. Early in March, a four-day workshop brought pastors and other participants from the Episcopal Church of South Sudan (ECSS) together, who went back to their churches to share what they’ve learned.
Bishop Elijah, who helped lead the workshop, went from the conference to visit all his parishes before the wet weather kicked in: six weeks of bumping over dirt roads on the back of a boda boda [motorbike taxi].
In March, we offered our services to the South Sudanese government and the World Health Organization [WHO] to help in the fight against Covid-19.
The week before the first Covid-19 cases were announced here, in April, I joined a flight to the north with a box of test kits. There were no cases, and only a couple of hundred test kits in the country. We landed on an almost empty airstrip. It was eerily quiet. A WHO Land Rover pulled up to collect the box, and we flew two hours back to Juba again. This was such a contrast to the throng of locals who usually flock to meet an MAF plane.
A few days later, we flew the WHO rapid-response team to carry out contact-tracing for the country’s second confirmed case, with seven doctors on board from WHO and the Ministry of Health. It was interesting hearing their plans to tackle the spread of the virus.
The same flight that brought them back also medevaced a missionary’s 17-year-old daughter with appendicitis. The next day, all flights were suspended; so this medevac was the last passenger flight we were able to do for several weeks, and we all sensed the hand of God in the timing.
I know that my times are in God’s hands, and there’s no safer place than that. I worry for those who don’t have the same access to the services I do. Lockdown measures have recently been relaxed, and cases, including the country’s Vice-President, have skyrocketed.
We’re practising “physical distancing”, not “social distancing”. We still find ways to show people we care. Recently, we’ve had a steady stream of medical workers who can’t leave Juba staying in our compound.
There are reasons for hope. Only six per cent of the population are over 60, and there’s less diabetes and heart disease, but we don’t know how Covid-19 will interact with malaria. There are different strains of the disease in Africa, although we are only just beginning to understand the risks as they play out in areas of malnutrition and tuberculosis.
I don’t believe God’s purpose is always to shield us from pain. South Sudanese people know this better than most. I’m thankful that God’s grace is available — and our limitations are his opportunity.
I haven’t begun to understand the reality of God’s grace as it operates here, but I do know that, while the statistics look barren, facts are not the same as truths. I continue to pray that God will raise up and protect those who work for peace and shape the future in South Sudan.
People don’t necessarily trust official channels of communication, particularly when the information isn’t something they want to hear. Years of upheaval meant people had to seek their own solutions. South Sudan is a melting pot of tribes and traditions, faiths and folk-beliefs, which people come back to in times of trouble, for comfort and answers. Social distancing robs people of the community they rely on.
My childhood was filled with books, pets, holidays and music lessons. My mum and dad were teachers, and also taught us three girls the three Rs — re-purpose, re-use, recycle — before they became fashionable.
Home, today, is a shared four-bed single-story prefab house on a guarded compound in Juba. The walls are made of metal; so I have magnetic Scrabble on the walls, and a big map of the world.
My first experience of God was when a Canadian team ran a week of kids’ work in our Baptist church, near Wigtown, and I felt the joy of God’s presence. I burst into tears the day they left. It was like someone drew back a curtain and then closed it again.
I searched for a distant God who seemed to enjoy watching me do colouring-in sheets in church. I start the clock on my faith journey at 18, on a gap year in Chile, when God challenged me to make a choice for him through a Scottish missionary.
“Mission” is such a loaded term; but, for me, it just means cross-cultural relationships that lead people to God.
The first scripture I was given was: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith may not rest on man’s wisdom but on God’s power.” It’s grown with me like a favourite jumper. It first felt like a rebuke of our meritocracy. It took me decades to relearn a lot about grace and kindness. Now, I hear it as a passionate declaration of love.
We lost my younger sister to mental-health problems at the age of 23. Fifteen months later, my grandmother passed away in a house fire. I dropped out of my Master’s degree soon afterward, even though I was close to the end, because I just couldn’t see the future clearly any more. Grief calls out the courage in us all, but, for me, it was a long, painful road involving counselling.
Heartbreaking statistics make me angry. In 2020, one in ten children in South Sudan will die before their fifth birthday. The bright sparky young people here don’t need help to build a future for South Sudan: they need the barriers to come down so they can do it themselves.
I love the sound of the Cessna engine as it taxis for take-off. Who doesn’t love the sound of a beautifully maintained engine in the hands of a skilled pilot?
Prayer here has become both pressure valve and filter; so I don’t get overwhelmed by things I don’t understand.
I’d love to be locked in a church with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to ask what he would make of the times we’re in. The combination of courage, humanity, and a razor-sharp mind would help cut through all the noise.
Jenny Davies was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.