ON many Monday mornings over the past four years, Letterkenny nun Sr Kathleen MacLennan used to watch on sadly as students came to school nearly too hungry to learn.
A Loreto sister, Sr Kathleen is principal teacher at a school in Rumbek, South Sudan, the world’s youngest country.
“They were coming in, and they were literally sick to their stomachs because they were hungry from the weekend,” she said.
That has changed, for the better, in more recent times, thanks to the support of organisations like Mary’s Meals.
This week, St Kathleen was back in her home town to give talks to members of the Mary’s Meals support group in Letterkenny, the local Rotary Club and students from Loreto, Letterkenny.
“Nothing prepares you for life in South Sudan. It’s like nowhere else on earth,” she explained.
A native of Leckview Terrace, Speer’s Lane, Letterkenny Sr Kathleen worked in both Peru and South Africa before moving to South Sudan four years ago.
This time last year though she contracted cerebral malaria, or African tick-bite fever, and had to be air-lifted to the capital, Juba, and from there on to Nairobi.
She was back on her travels with ten days, this time to Madrid, but she didn’t quite make it to her planned meeting in the Spanish capital.
“I ended up in hospital undergoing blood tests. It was around the time of the Ebola scare and the medical staff were superb. Some sort of infection showed up during a brain scan leading to cephalitis and I spent the next three months in hospital in Spain,” she said.
Sr Kathleen finally got home last Christmas and while she continues to receive treatment she can’t wait to get back to South Sudan and link up with fellow Letterkenny native and Loreto nun, Sr Brigid Tunney.
Sr Anne Farren, also from the Cathedral Town, previously taught at the same school in Rumbek.
South Sudan – the land-locked country, with a population of 8 million – declared independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011 after being an autonomous region since 2005.
The world’s newest nation is rich in oil, but following decades of civil war it is also one of the least developed regions on earth – only 15 per cent of its citizens own a mobile phone and there are very few tarmac roads in an area bigger than Spain and Portugal combined.
So why does Sr Kathleen want to go back when most NGOs from across the globe have already been pulled out by their respective governments?
“There’s terrible uncertainty there and, yes, it’s mad and crazy to want to go back but they’re my people and I want to go back and serve them. Running away would be the worst thing we could ever do,” Sr Kathleen explained.
“Our house has ended up becoming a refuge for everyone else. We have a group of six missionaries stay with us last Christmas (2013) after they had been forced to spend more than 24-hours in a toilet cubicle. They had nowhere else to go. I had two Daniel O’Donnell CDs on the go all the time and within a few days they all knew the words of My Donegal Shore,” she laughed.
Despite the ongoing civil war, the school in Rumbek continues to open its doors every day. With no nurses, doctors or clinics in the locality the nuns are more than just teachers.
“We have boxes of bandages and germolene and we’ve developed cures for scorpion bites and snake bites. I even had to deliver a baby one night for our watchman and his wife who named their son Patrick,” she said.
“Irish missionaries continue to do great work overseas. The people in South Sudan have great respect for us all.
“The people of Rumbek need stability and it means so much to them that we’re there. For that reason alone I can’t wait to get back to my people,” Sr Kathleen said.
“It’s both heartening and reassuring to know that people back home in Donegal continue to be so generous with their time and money and I hope this reassures them that every penny is being wisely spent,” she added.
“We feed 617 children every day, thanks to organisations like Mary’s Meals, while the children are routinely vaccinated and they’re de-wormed. The UN soldiers are also great – giving the kids footballs and jerseys.
“Most of all the children are happy and they’re getting a very good education. Over the past three to four years more than ninety per cent of the girls go on to third-level education.
Before the new Loreto School opened in Rumbek, most of the girls were married when there were 12 to 14 years,” she said.
Posted: 7:30 am October 12, 2015
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