Dubious Good News
It is Friday afternoon as I write and the Muslims are at prayer. The call to prayer starts at 5:15am each morning, including Sundays, but I have long ago learned to relegate the droning chant to ‘background noise’. It has become a bit more difficult lately as the mosque seems to have a much more powerful amplifier – or someone has found the control to turn up the volume! There is nothing very melodious about it – I guess Allah has learned to like the strident tone. I hope they are praying for peace, even if it sounds far from peaceful. I think we all continue to pray for peace in South Sudan but the rosary beads, prayer wheel, or whatever else, move slowly. Peace still seems to be coming. The first steps towards the setting up of the delayed transitional government are being taken but amid an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty.
Within our residential Colleges where we are training teachers, nurse and midwives, we have record numbers – 108 in nurse or midwifery training in Wau and 119 in teacher training in Yambio. In both Colleges, students come from all over the country from a diverse mix of tribes. Within each College, we are successfully creating unity in diversity, a future platform for peace. The students, from many regions of South Sudan, plus the Nuba Mountains (ethnically Southern but officially part of the north) enjoy being together and help one another in their common goal to become professionals in their chosen careers. Nothing dubious about this. It is good news. The Nuba Mountains conflict, however, gets little publicity but the Sudan government continues, as it has done for years, to bomb its own ‘citizens’ in that region. It is particularly serious at the present time with even hospital and schools being targeted. Totally bad news except for the heroic efforts of some dedicated workers who continue to provide services there.
With the aid of some very generous volunteers, we have conducted successful in-service teacher training programmes in ‘distant’ locations where our tutors travel out for eight weeks rather than the students travelling in. So it was that we concluded the four-year in-service programme of teacher training in Agok with 67 graduates and in Rumbek with 27 graduates; and we began first year training in remote Old Fangak in Jonglei State with 85 eager students. This is also indubitably good news.
A divisive action of the Government, and certainly economic madness, was the decision to create 28 States instead of 10. No-one in Government seems to have thought about what such a decision will cost with 28 Governors and State legislatures to support instead of ten. The attitude, seemingly born out of the extraordinary generosity of other supportive nations, seems to be, ‘Oh well, someone will give us the funding’. But the truth is many generous countries and donors are increasingly wary of giving directly to a Government when there is such chaotic decision-making.
This time last year, the exchange rate was about SSP 5 per USD 1. Early this year it was about 18. It then rose rapidly to 43 but has settled back around SSP37 = USD 1. The dubious good news is that for the past two weeks it has somewhat stabilized; but who knows why or for how long. Most of our income is in dollars but we are never sure we can get our own dollars from the bank when we want them. One of the most difficult issues of the present moment is the plight of the people. Many people are hungry. Some are now reduced to having one meal a day. I offered some biscuits to one young man whom we have known for more than six years. He told me he had not eaten for two days. He declined the biscuits as he said eating them would only awaken his hunger. He did accept water.
Even some of the people who were on relatively large salaries are feeling the lack of buying power. What was once considered a good salary of SSP 3,000 per month – equating to about $600 per month- is now worth less than $100 per month. SSP 3,000 used to buy 300 jars of jam; now SSP3,000 would buy only 30 – if you really like jam!. Even the ‘big men’ are finding the times difficult as the Government has no money to increase salaries. In fact, some Government employees have not been paid at all for several months. But there have been no violent protests – also dubious good news. The capacity of the people to survive in such difficult circumstances is quite remarkable. Some talk of ‘going back to the village’ to work in their gardens. We help a few of our needy neighbours but it is difficult not to create a pull factor: help given to some attracts others seeking help. It is a challenge. We pray the transitional government will be formed soon and better times for the people will follow.
- Br Bill