African Gem

African Gem

by Gary Smith, SJ
Liturgical Year: Lent

"I can get down and circle depression at times. I suppose that is because of a diet that includes unresolved wars, government corruption, the death of children, niggling tropical illnesses, and periodic snafus in programs and personnel conflicts. But there are good things as well, and the morning star trumps the dark star.

One example is Pamela. When I met her, she was fourteen. I spotted her as I came in from one of the villages; she was sitting in front of the JRS offices, among the waiting crowd of people, most of them students. She looked vaguely familiar. I came out of the office a few hours later, and she was still there, sitting under a huge mango tree that shadows the office. One of the staff had noticed her too and observed that she seemed abnormally passive, approaching no one. I went over to her.

"Do I know you?" I asked.

"Yes," she responded. "I am called Pamela, and we met a few years ago when you worked in the Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement. I was very small then, one of the dancers at Mass."

"You are a long way from Rhino," I said. "Why are you here, why the long wait?"
“I was told that JRS sponsors girls in the secondary schools of Adjumani. I have waited because I was fearing to talk to anyone."
"And how did you get her?"
"I walked."

Did she ever. Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement is sixty miles by road and probably fifty by shortcuts. It is a tough three-day trip by foot through the bush. Family pressure and prospect of an empty future in her village had brought her to Adjumani. Her one clear desire was an education. She had finished primary school and wanted to attend secondary school. She dreamed that she would have a chance in the North, in a JRS secondary school in Adjumani. The alternative was to stay in her village and be married off by her grandmother (her parents are dead) to an interested uncle.

Pamela left Rhino with one thousand Ugandan shillings (about fifty cents).

JRS in Adjumani assists in the education of thousands of Sudanese children in nursery, primary, and secondary schools. Secondary school students leave their villages to attend one of the central schools in the Adjumani and Palorinya settlements. The schools are administered by JRS but are under the authority of the Ugandan education system. Students board at the refugee secondary schools, as secondary school students do throughout Uganda. If they are high achievers in primary school, refugee students can receive financial assistance from UHHCR to attend secondary schools in larger Ugandan towns where facilities are better and the teaching staff is more experienced and better paid.

This is an excerpt from Gary Smith's, They Come Back Singing.

Gary Smith, SJ 

Gary Smith, SJ, a Jesuit priest of the Oregon Province, has lived among and ministered to the poor since 1969.

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Books by Gary Smith, SJ

Radical Compassion

Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor

Through touching stories, Fr. Smith chronicles his life and work among the homeless.

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They Come Back Singing

Finding God with the Refugees

A moving account of a missionary in Africa. They Come Back Singing explores the question “what is most important in life” in an inspiring story of the connections Smith forged as a missionary to the refugees in Africa.

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