Our Missionary Activities Among the Toposa and Nyangatom People of Southern Sudan

By Fr Daniel Ihunnia, MSP

An Irish priest, Fr Tim Galvin, of the St Patrick Missionaries finished celebrating Mass for the villagers who gathered on one of the mountains. The village elders who were present said to the priest at the end of the Mass, "Fada Tim, now that we have finished helping you to adore your God, give us tea to drink. We are waiting for you under that three over there."

In 1977, a Catholic Mission was started in Eastern Equatorial, among the Toposa and the Nyangatom people, under the Diocese of Torit, in Southern Sudan by the Irish St Patrick Missionaries. The Toposa and Nyangatom people inhabited the rocky mountainous regions bordering Ethiopia. As a result of the long and devastating war between the Southern Sudan and Khartoum government these tribes were almost forgotten. Although the Comboni Missionaries had been in this region since early twentieth century, the Church here is still at its cradle. The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Torit is Most Rev. Johnson Akio Mutek.

It is a harsh terrain and lacks essential facilities for a minimum standard of human living. As a result, missionaries face untold difficulties. This area is very remote and virtually neglected. The weather is usually windy and the temperature is very hot, sometimes reaching 46 degrees celsius. When it rains movement become impossible due to the heavy mud. Roads do not really exist as we usually drive through tracks made by grazing herds. It is in this area that the Irish St Patrick Fathers are working in cordial collaboration with the Nigerian St Paul Missionary Fathers. The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria established the Missionary Society of St Paul in 1977 in order that Africans would become missionaries to themselves.

Toposa and Nyangatom people are nomadic. They are engaged in a constant back and forth migration depending on the seasons. They have a simple life style that is much tied up to their livestock. Crop cultivation is not a priority, but they could plant sorghum if it rains. Hence their food is mainly milk, meat and sorghum.

The women wear animal skin round their waist leaving the upper part bare. The men go virtually naked, occasionally wrapping some clothing across the shoulder touching down to the side of one leg. Each village is made up of a number of people living in their grass huts.

Toposa and Nyangatom people are very friendly people. They love to have the priest visit and teach them. I celebrated with great joy the first ever Mass in a village on a mountain called Namolokinyit, not far from Ethiopia. Each village has a gathering point where a volunteer 'catechist' conducts prayers and teaches 'catechism' at nighttime. The 'catechists' are mostly illiterate but are able to learn some prayers by heart and able to teach others. 'Catechism classes', prayers and Mass are usually done between 9 and 11 pm. The people are busy with their flock in the daytime. At the end of the celebration, the priest sleeps in his tent or his car because it would be too late to commence further journey.

The sacraments are yet to make good meaning to the people. However, it is note worthy that they all desire Baptism and Holy Eucharist. They believe that these two are enough for salvation. Indeed, parents want baptism and Holy Communion for their children especially the girls. In their understanding the girl child should receive Holy Communion as many times as possible before she is taken away into traditionally polygamous marriage since from then on she will no longer receive the Holy Communion.

The war left behind a lot of difficulties. Often, men carry guns. There are no health facilities. The St Patrick Fathers have been able to arrange for a nurse who attends to the sick in makeshift buildings used for the celebration of Mass. Prenatal cases are numerous and many women and children die at childbirth. Often, the people cause a lot of harm when they resort to crude traditional methods. Sometimes the people themselves inject animal drugs on children. This act is rampant. Recently, the nurse found a young child on whom the mother grafted the skin of a bush rabbit on the child's stomach to patch it. The nurse also reported two other cases, a child was injected with animal antibiotics and another child was injected with chloroquine that expired in 2005. All these overwhelm our capacity and resources.

Another problem is the issue of education. Many children desire to go to school but there is no one to fend for them as their parents do not understand the reason for going to school. Parents do not want their daughters to go to school because the girls are given out in early marriage. The girl child is valued so greatly because of the riches they bring. Cows are given to their parents as bride price. Recently a girl of 13 years old was given in marriage to a man of 62 years old. When one of our priests intervened, the girl was later handed over to a 40 year old man. However, we have started adult education. The people are becoming interested, but lack of resources and personnel are the main obstacles at the moment.

Water is another highly needed commodity for the people. Drilling of boreholes would be a great solution to the numerous waterborne diseases that the people suffer from. Thanks, however, to the Irish Government that has so far sponsored the drilling of some boreholes in the area.

We are also involved in other developmental programmes that are in line with the Catholic Church's vision of integral and human development. These include gender equality programmes, HIV/AIDS awareness programmes, manual opening of pathways to enhance access to more remote villages, etc. Our target is to empower the people because we believe that the people need to take responsibility for their own development.

The only 'government' the Toposa and the Nyangtom people have come to know is the Church. We cannot disappoint them. The United Nations' World Food Programme once described this area as "hyper arid" and "inaccessible". Our presence stands as a counter witness to this assessment. The Irish St Patrick Fathers and the Nigerian St Paul Fathers are facing the challenges on the rocky mountainous region of Toposa and Nyangatom. Needless to say that they cannot do it alone!

* Frs Daniel Ihunnia, MSP and Idara Otu, MSP have been working in Sudan since 2005. Fr Anselm Umoren, MSP joined them in 2006.