A chance for a better life –  Oliver Maksan

The Catholic schooling system is one of the pillars of the Church – and ACN is supporting its work

Dust and mud brick houses everywhere – as far as the eye can see. The houses are indistinguishable in colour from the ground on which they stand. Trees are few and far between. The road leading northwards from the Sudanese capital Khartoum shimmers in the burning heat. The temperature is 45°C according to the thermometer. At a certain point the car turns off into an unmade road with deep potholes, into a residential suburb. “Welcome to the Saint Kizito School of Daressalaam“, says our host, Father Daniele, as we stand in the courtyard of the school, which is named after the youngest of the Ugandan martyrs. This Italian priest is a member of the clergy of the Catholic archdiocese of Khartoum. His fluent Arabic enables him to communicate with the people of his parish in their own language. “I belong to the Neo-Catechumenal Way and I studied at our seminary in Beirut. I‘ve been living in Sudan now for over 10 years.“ A move he has never regretted, he tells us. “But it is an extremely difficult pastoral field we work in here as priests“, he adds.

This has to do more than anything with the life circumstances of his parishioners. “They are totally uprooted people. The parishioners we are dealing with here are for the most part former country dwellers from the Nuba mountains in the south of Sudan. Their lives there were marked by the customs and traditions of their villages. But here, far from their homeland, they are completely lost.“ Many of them arrived many years ago already in the Khartoum area, in search of work or in order to escape the fighting in their homeland. But most of them can only survive as day labourers, and this eats away at the men‘s sense of self-worth. “Many of them simply drift around idly when they don‘t have any work“, says Father Daniele. And many have no work at all. In their traditional view of themselves, they are herders and warriors. But since there is no fighting no herding to be done here, all the work falls on the shoulders of the womenfolk.“

Unlike 90% of the Sudanese, who are Sunni Muslims, the people of the Nuba Mountains are Christians. Owing to the fact that the Christian faith did not arrive in Sudan until the 19th century and is not deeply rooted, there are often syncretist tendencies, with magic practices rubbing shoulders with the Christian faith. For this reason Father Daniele attaches great importance to helping people grow in their faith. „I want to show people, above all in spite of their poverty, that God loves them. And indeed each of them individually.“ This is not always easy to understand for people imbued with a tribal way of thinking, he explains. But at least he has no concerns regarding poor church attendance. “The people come in large numbers to church. On Sundays our church is full“, he tells us. ACN helped to pay for its construction. Father Daniele thanks all ACN‘s benefactors for their help. “It is extremely important that the church should be a beautiful and worthy place“, he explains. “It is undoubtedly the most beautiful place in the lives of these people, since they otherwise know only their own poverty stricken huts and homes.“

Father Daniele has a particular concern for the children. The parish school is his most important resource in this respect. “Many of the children would spend the whole day roaming around the streets if they didn‘t come to us in school. Their parents show little concern for them. Attention, and even tenderness, is something most of them have never experienced, and above all not from their fathers.“ Father Daniele therefore wants to convey to the children a sense of their own self-worth.    “We want to show them that they are respected, precious people, loved by God, by listening to each one of them and showing them respect.“ And precisely because the circumstances of the children are so difficult and their families so large and so poor – eight children and more is by no means unusual – he places great hope in the schools. “However modest our means are here, without education the children will have no chance of a better life.“

It is true, the school system is one of the pillars on which the numerically small Catholic Church rests. For one Church representative – who would prefer his name is not made public – the Church educational system is crucially important. “Our schools gain us acceptance among the majority Muslim community, and above all with the state. It is strongly Islamic, and yet because of the rapid population growth, the number of people moving into the towns and the limited public resources, it is overstretched and unable to provide enough schools. Hence it is happy to see the Church involved. As a Church we maintain almost 20 public schools in Khartoum city alone, and permission to build schools – unlike for churches – is something that is always granted to us.“ The schools are attended both by Christians and by Muslims. Our interlocutor is fully aware that the quality of the schools is not the highest. “After all, we scarcely have money for teachers and books, and nor do our pupils either.“ But no pupil is refused admittance, even if he or she cannot afford the school fees. “For the children of the poorest families the school is the only possibility of bringing a little order into their lives“, he tells us.

Consequently, ACN is helping for the Catholic schools in Sudan out of profound conviction. “The Church in Sudan has asked us for help“, says Christine du Coudray-Wiehe, head of ACN‘s project section with responsibility for Sudan. “And we see it as an urgent necessity to respond. For the majority of the pupils are from Catholic families from southern Sudan. It is vital for these families to be able to attend a Christian school, for this is the only way we can prevent the children from being Catholics at home and Muslims at school.“

Oliver Maksan