‘But God is not defeated’
Nic Ramsden reflects on three years in post-conflict Southern Sudan
There is a book, well renowned in Sudan Church circles, called But God Is Not Defeated. It is a history of the past 100 years or so of the Anglican Church in the Sudan, known since its becoming an independent province in 1976 as the Episcopal Church of the Sudan (ECS). The book’s title quotes a former Sudanese bishop who was commenting on the ECS’s steadfastness through the forty or so years of civil war that have dogged Sudan since its independence in 1956, and of course is in many places a story of struggle – struggle against the environment and local cultural practices for the early missionaries, struggle within the ECS for its role in Sudanese society and struggle between the Church and the Sudanese government, which has always been dominated by Islamists.
Having grown up in Papua New Guinea where my father, Peter Ramsden, is now a bishop, I naturally felt the pull of overseas work on completing university in 2007, and found myself, through a random college link, headed for Juba – capital of the emerging self-governing region of Southern Sudan – as an ECS volunteer. With my developing world upbringing I thought I had seen it all until stepping off the small propeller plane into the 35° heat and dusty shanty town of the South’s capital. Juba in 2007 had no tarmac roads, no electricity supply, and intermittent water supply. The town mostly consisted of bombed-out ruins dating from the colonial period. The ECS was similarly stuck in a Seventies time warp – no email, paper bureaucracy held sway and most bishops and parishes looked to the traditional British mission agencies for salaries and support.
I spent a year working for the ECS Education and Training office, where I managed school construction projects in various dioceses. Travelling around the country seeing the damage inflicted by the war on both the institutions and people was quite eye-opening, and brought back thoughts of the struggles encountered by the first missionaries.
The lack of desire for education among certain peoples is still a problem encountered by many working in Southern Sudan today – only two in ten Southern Sudanese can read and write and a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to finish primary school. Having been abandoned by all but the Church for over a century, the people of Southern Sudan are only just becoming aware of the benefits of education through increased contact with the outside world following the peace agreement that ended the last civil war in 2005.
Support and funding
From late 2008 until early 2010 I worked in the office of the Archbishop of the Sudan, the Most Revd Daniel Deng Bul Yak, as co-ordinator of international assistance to the ECS, and often de-facto lay chaplain, speech writer and spin doctor. The most rewarding part of the work was being able to put a much more strategic spin on the international partnerships that developing country Anglican provinces such as the ECS have.
In this world of multi-milliondollar government aid funding to civil society groups, and email and mobile phones even in the remotest villages, it is unnecessary for Church groups in Britain to support churches like the ECS with a few hundred pounds for school construction. They can get that from the British government. Instead, what churches like the ECS need today are parish links, prayer support and mission partners with specific skills to give to communities in Sudan. We should not give the ECS what we want, but what they want – co-ordinated, specific and sustainable support to grow as the Province of Sudan and not the Church of England. Communicating this to both sides was often another struggle.
In recent years I have moved myself to the donor side, working on a British Department for International Development (DFID) contract to manage education aid funding, and of course we have a lot of Church partners as implementing agencies. New school buildings, trained teachers, quality health care and clean drinking water are being brought to the Southern Sudanese people by the ECS through professionalization of the Church’s development arms.
In January 2011 Southern Sudan voted in a referendum on whether to split from the Khartoum government that had oppressed them for so many decades. Little wonder that 98.83% of the population voted for independence. The struggle therefore continues. As Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa, said in a speech in Juba on 7 January: ‘true freedom is not independence, but the building of a peaceful, fair and stable country thereafter’. The ECS will of course play its role in building the new independent Southern Sudan – the government must be held accountable, the international aid industry players must be held accountable, and committed work of development must now begin apace.
Southern Sudan has and I am sure will continue to face many a struggle in its road to true freedom. With our help and prayers it will be strengthened and it will continue to be appropriate to say, ‘But God is not defeated’. ND