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Orthodoxy in South Sudan?

A Brief Encounter…with Orthodox Christianity…in South Sudan. Perhaps.

John Tierney

My Air Dubai flight took a last turn and steadied for its final descent towards the runway of Juba International Airport, the main landing point for South Sudan, still the world’s newest country. From the window of the rather empty plane, I could see the African savannah, a lush green at this time of the year, stretch out to the horizon: sunlit plains and light bush, a seemingly endless green pasture as far as you can see.

I thought about the work ahead and what it would bring, work with an international development organisation.  The human development indicators for South Sudan are terrible and the country barely functions from a security and governmental point of view.  South Sudan has, for example, the lowest literacy rate for women in the world; most people are in poverty and in need of food aid and large areas of the country remain unsafe; while the various factions that make up the armed forces in the country have yet to finally come under a single command structure.  An outline peace accord is in place, which has given the country a degree of calm recently, but no-one knows if it will hold and whether free elections will be held.  Meanwhile, the economy staggers along: the country’s great potential, not least from its land and oil reserves are far from being fully realised.  And the incidence of family/gender based violence is reported as horribly high.  Oh, and Ebola threatens from nearby Congo. 

Most international development ‘NGOs’ in South Sudan struggle to hold staff to run their programmes, and find it particularly hard to secure South Sudanese with the right skills.  For decades, during the rumbling Sudan civil war, those who can have found their educations in neighbouring countries, not least Kenya and Uganda, while those who can’t have not really enjoyed an education at all in most cases.  So, the international NGOs tend to recruit many of their skilled staff from other African countries, again mostly from Kenya and Uganda. 

It’s all to easy to feel pessimistic.  But I was looking forward to my assignment this time, my third visit in recent months.  I had formed a good bond, I felt, with the senior staff of the organisation’s country office in Juba.  I liked them; I felt they had much to offer and worked well in very trying circumstances; and I think they enjoyed working with me.  I would be there a week.  For security reasons, I would hardly leave my hotel, and certainly not at night or unchaperoned, but I would have stimulating working days, figuring out with the team how they were to deliver their plans to combat some of the poverty in the country, the strategic and operational plans we had developed in previous visits. 

As the jet made its descent to the runway, I could just make out a large bird sitting on top of something, something pale.  Ah, yes, a downed fighter jet, tall grass almost covering it, an abandoned marker of past conflict, alone at the side of the runway.  And I could make out too, much more easily, the rows and rows of large white liveried Hercules transporter and other cargo- and people-carrying planes with UN, WFP (World Food Programme) and other UN-related logos, signs of the massive food relief effort in the country.

But I wasn’t only thinking about these things.  I was thinking about Fr Stephen’s cheerful request to write something for the Spring about South Sudan.  Readers will of course remember that he always prays for that country during the Great Entrance.  I have to admit I had been sceptical.  I would hardly see much of the country, let alone learn much about its religious affiliations from the relative safety of my hotel…and certainly nothing about Orthodox Christianity, if such a thing exists there.  But now, already, before landing, and without moving from my plane seat, I had the beginnings of a story.  A hint perhaps.

Everyone one knows who’s spent any time in Africa that Greeks can be found everywhere strung along the line, if in small numbers, from Alexandria, on the Mediterranean shores of Egypt, right down through East Africa, to Southern Africa as far as Cape Town in South Africa.  From the tip to the toe they are there.  Always have been as far as I know.  In many cases, the former Greek populations are much depleted from their peak, probably during colonial times.  Last year, I found a large Greek church for example in the rather charming Eastern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa, a mark of a once larger population of business families, but still, it seems, clinging on in some reduced form.  Many years ago I stayed in a well-known hotel in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, owned by a certain George. A few years ago, I met a Nick who runs an Italian restaurant and Irish pub in Lusaka, Zambia.  All Greek.

But in South Sudan?  I doubted it.

I was wrong. Slightly. But enough to mildly chastise myself and to thank Father for his request.

A Fly Dubai flight unsurprisingly emanates from Dubai.  Fly Dubai is the relatively low cost version of Emirates which flies into Birmingham and is one of the ways you can get from Brum to just about anywhere.  Frankly not many airlines fly to Juba.  The terminal for Fly Dubai, in Dubai, is not the swish affair that most passengers going through Dubai experience.  It’s a large hanger of a place.  I had exhausted its possibilities pretty quickly and eventually slumped myself on one of the seats in serried rows in the area from where my flight would eventually be called.  Ever a people watcher, I examined the folk around me, while fiddling with my laptop. 

Not far to my right a group of about six or seven very tall women, along with some kids, buzzed and hummed and laughed.  Dinka women, I suspected, the notably tall Nilotic people who form the largest of the ethnic groups of South Sudan.  The men seem to rarely come in under two metres and these ladies where about my height or a bit taller.  A little lad, just toddling, staggered over to do his own version of people watching by staring at each person, including me.  I said hello.  Off he went.  And then back he came.  One or other of the women scooped him back up from time to time.  I must have caught an eye.  Shortly after, on the bus to the plane, I exchanged pleasantries, with one of them, who described the little fellow as her brother.

Later on the plane, she was on the seat immediately behind mine and as the plane was quite empty we chatted a little during the flight.  The most extraordinary in-flight snack was provided: a bubble and squeak patty, but if you wanted a cup of coffee, you had to pay for it.  Ah, yes, the low-cost part, I said.  I learned that this person worked for one of the mobile phone companies in South Sudan and had been in Dubai for a shopping trip in advance of someone’s wedding.  Before the plane landed we swapped business cards.  I stared at the card and then sneaked a look back at the person I had been speaking with.  I think I did that about three times, before I said, hesitantly: ‘I see your name’s Vasilis?  Er, isn’t that Greek?’  ‘Oh, yes’, my new friend said.  ‘My grandfather was Greek.  I have white cousins in Athens.’

‘Isn’t Vasilis king?’, I said ‘That’s more or less what my name means too, but it’s Irish!’.  Rather a random link, but it worked. ‘Yes’, she affirmed, she knew what the family name meant.  Really pushing the boat out now, I ventured: ‘Greeks are usually Orthodox Christians.’ Oh, yes, was the cheerful reply, we’re all Orthodox.’  ‘Well’, I stammered, ‘so am I.  So, where do you go to church, when you’re in Juba?’  ‘It’s not easy’, she said, ‘but we’ve been to the Ethiopian church and one of my uncles is trying to build a Greek church in Juba.’

That was when the plane came down for its final approach.  I was left with that story.  A story of an Orthodox community of sorts, or perhaps even of some small scale, but not really knowing much more.  Who this lady’s uncle was and what he was attempting to do in Juba to support the Greek Orthodox community there, I wasn’t able to find out.  There were at that point children to herded, bags to be hauled out and immigration to be survived.  And an Ebola health check too: a thermometer ‘gun’ to the head.

It came home to me – yet again – how there is always more to things than we first assume, and it’s only when we ask, when you give an idea proper attention, that we begin to learn more.  I’m sure had Father not asked me to look out for this, I would not have learnt what I did learn.  But what I now do with what I have learned, I really don’t yet know. 

John Tierney: August 2019.

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