An update from the CMSI team from Lisburn Cathedral who are visiting their partners from Yei Diocese, as they serve refugee communities in northwest Uganda.
We travelled on an early morning Eagle Air flight from Entebe to Arua, on a small 19 seater plane. For most of us, this was the first time we have landed on a soil runway. The baggage handlers were two men who loaded the bags into the back seat and boot of a car, and then drove it to the car park to be the ‘carousel’.
In the afternoon we met Bishop Hilary and others involved with the course to be run this week. Bishop Hilary could not overemphasise that the Church of Yei in South Sudan, and in exile in Uganda, would not be where it is without the commitment of CMS Ireland.
Today we visited the OCEA Zone of the Rhino Refugee Camp, where we were welcomed by children waving small, leafy branches which they then laid on the road up to the church as they sang: “We welcome you Bishop / visitors with a clean heart”. We were reminded of the palms waved and laid as Jesus as he entered entered Jerusalem.
Dean Sam, Paula and Jill took part in the service at Unity Church with Bishop Hilary, whilst Denis, Margaret and Martin took part at Peace Church (about half a mile away). As was the case in Kampala, the structure of the service is based upon the Anglican liturgy, albeit with a very definite African twist.
Bishop Hilary has made it clear that our visit here is hugely significant for his people here. In a letter he sent before we came, he wrote: “While they have endured great tragedy, your visit will remind them that are not forgotten.”
One other thing we noticed is the pivotal role that the Mothers’ Union plays in the Church life in Africa, and that their standing in the Church is comparable to that of honoured visitors.
On our travel to Rhino Camp we got a sense of real, rural Uganda with mud huts (Tukuls) and thatched roofs. However, our expectation that the camp would be a tightly packed seething mass of humanity, was completely wrong. There is a well ordered community with well spaced Tukul throughout the different districts that make up each zone in the camp. The camp as a whole is so large that we were driven for some 1½ hours, and were yet still only just beyond the centre. The camp has a current population of some 87,800 people – mainly women and children, as lots of the men have been killed or have stayed behind in South Sudan to fight.
The big issues for the South Sudanese in exile, are that Rhino Camp is not their true home, there is uncertainty how long they will be there, and that they do not know what they will return to when they do go back to South Sudan. While they do have a community, it is only one that can survive on a temporary basis; long term there would need to be a better structure of schooling, farming and business. But this is not what they want. They want to go home. However, while things in Yei Town seem to have settled down, the surrounding areas are still not safe enough for them to return.
Linda from CMSI joined in during the morning.
Today was the first day of the Clergy Retreat For Refugee Church Leaders. This is a week-long residential conference for pastors from the South Sudan Zones of the Rhino Camp, which is being attended by some 24 pastors.
This is the first opportunity that these pastors have had to be able to all meet together like this since they left South Sudan some two years ago. This week will be a time for them to meet together, and to have fellowship to support and strengthen each other.
We heard many heart rendering stories of people losing their homes, family members, their churches being burned, and having to hide in the bush for up to two years before eventually arriving at the refugee camp in Arua.
Please pray for Sam and Denis as they teach at the retreat and for the other team members as they support them and join in with the Days For Girls programme.