‘Immediately after I was made a bishop in 2019 I decided to return to Malakal. What I found there was total devastation, not even a chair to sit on’. Greying prematurely at the age of fifty bishop Stephen Nyodho Ador Majwok no doubt belongs to the new breed of church leaders from the Church’s ultimate peripheries who do not shy away from living and proclaiming the gospel in circumstances of almost unimaginable turmoil and adversity.
We meet at the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Denekamp, my hometown, on one of my regular visits to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist. He has come to visit Fr Ben Stopel MHM, a veteran missionary of the diocese of Malakal now living in semi-retirement in his native Tubbergen. Bishop Stephen is genuinely keen to reconnect with Fr Ben, a close associate, forced to leave the diocese when a tsunami of unimaginable violence engulfed Africa’s youngest nation about ten years ago. An invitation to come to Rome to attend a meeting of the ‘Solidarity with South Sudan’ grouping of General Superiors of various missionary congregations provided the perfect opportunity.
The visit will be brief because bishop Stephen aims to be back in Malakal in time for Holy Week and Easter. Combining business with pleasure he is planning to pay a personal visit to possible donor organisations in The Netherlands accompanied by Fr Ben. The needs in the diocese of Malakal are beyond all proportion. Ten years of civil war have created a huge wasteland leaving the vast majority of the population internally displaced and living in camps. The diocese itself covers a vast area the size of the combined Low Countries with an estimated population of 4 million, a quarter of whom are Catholics according to bishop Stephen.
The diocese of Malakal has a long and somewhat turbulent association with the Mill Hill Missionaries dating back to 1938. In the 1960’s the Sudanese government expelled all missionaries. When the situation eased a small number of Mill Hill missionaries were able to return often working in conditions of considerable hardship. The situation took a turn for the worse when in the 1980’s an armed rebellion initiated the struggle for independence of South Sudan. This eventually resulted in the proclamation of South Sudan as an independent country in July 2011. Just over two years later, in December 2013, South Sudan erupted in an orgy of violence pitting power hungry political leaders against each other. As often happens in Africa such political rivalry inevitably translated into tribal conflict made worse by the ready availability of modern weaponry and fuelled by often blind tribal allegiance. Numerous massacres occurred, most notorious among them the Bentiu massacre in 2014 costing the lives of countless people. Most of the survivors ended up in camps.
Missionaries, local priests and religious, all were forced to leave. Rumour has it that the then bishop Vincent Mojwok had to swim to safety across the Nile River at the height of the atrocities hitting the city of Malakal. Since these tragic events the Mill Hill Missionaries have not returned to Malakal, establishing a base in the capital Juba instead. But a return to the diocese of Malakal still remains within the realm of possibilities. Other congregations such as the Comboni Missionaries, the Missionaries of Africa as well as a small contingent of Polish Capuchin friars have started or resumed their activities in the diocese. Members of several congregations of religious sisters, most notable among them Sr Helen Balatti, also play a significant role in the slow process of rehabilitation of the educational and health sectors.
Bishop Stephen is most emphatic in the expression of his desire for the return of the Mill Hill missionaries to the diocese of Malakal. ‘The Mill Hill Missionaries have laid the foundation of the local Church which is in Malakal. I pray that they come back to help their badly wounded child back on its feet’, he tells me. Several of the early mission stations will soon be celebrating their centenary: Detwok in May 2023; Yongyang in 2025. ‘I myself owe everything to Mill Hill’, he confides. Born in Malakal, but originating from Doleib Hill, bishop Stephen was educated by the Mill Hill Missionaries. He speaks with great affection of Fr Denis Hartnett MHM as his first formator. After ordination he was sent to Rome where he obtained a degree in moral theology.
Referring to the current situation in the country bishop Stephen tells me that a relative calm has returned to the diocese. Would this be the result of the recent joint visit of Pope Francis, Anglican archbishop Justin Welby and the moderator of the Church of Scotland to the country? The Pope’s passionate appeal couldn’t have been clearer: ‘No more bloodshed, no more conflicts, no more violence and mutual recriminations about who is responsible for it, no more leaving your people athirst for peace’. (Significant talks brokered by the Sant’Egidio Community are currently underway in Rome).
Meanwhile the sad reality is that the vast majority of the population are still living in camps.
The oil boom town of Bentiu has the largest with an estimated 130.000 internally displaced persons. The town a Malakal, once a thriving hub on the Nile River and capital of the Upper Nile state, now lies totally devastated. What is left of its inhabitants lives in a UN run camp on the outskirts of the town. Some camp residents return to the town during the day, but few venture to stay the night.
Painfully aware that the overwhelming needs of the population are beyond human grasp bishop Stephen has set his modest sights on two principal areas of concern: education and healthcare. In the total absence of any form of State funding the rehabilitation of the educational framework is left in the hands of the diocese. Finding funding to pay the teachers is no small headache. ‘Education and peace building go hand in hand. The youth are being manipulated by armed groups’.
So far a small number of schools have reopened their doors in the diocese. A vocational institute is being set up in Malakal. The St Charles Lwanga primary and secondary school in Malakal is set to celebrate its first graduation next year.
When I take leave of bishop Stephen Nyodho later that Sunday afternoon I realise that I have been in de presence of someone who incarnates a Resurrection faith in the face of well-nigh impossible odds.
Fons Eppink MHM