Dust and mud brick houses everywhere — as far as the eye can see. The houses are indistinguishable in color from the ground on which they stand. Trees are few and far between. The road leading northwards from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum shimmers in the burning heat. The temperature tops 110 degrees. At a certain point the car turns off into an unpaved road with deep potholes, entering a residential suburb.

“Welcome to the St. Kizito School of Dar es Salaam,” says our host, Father Daniele, as we stand in the courtyard of the school, which is named after the youngest of the Ugandan martyrs. This Italian priest is a member of the clergy of the Archdiocese of Khartoum. His fluent Arabic enables him to communicate with the people of his parish in their own language.

“I belong to the Neo-Catechumenal Way and I studied at our seminary in Beirut. I've been living in Sudan now for more than 10 years” — a move he has never regretted, he tells his visitor from international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “But it is an extremely difficult pastoral challenge for priests here,” he adds. This has to do more than anything with the life circumstances of his parishioners.

Fr. Daniele explains: “They are totally uprooted people. The parishioners here are for the most part come from the Nuba mountains in the south of Sudan. Their lives there were marked by the customs and traditions of their villages. But here, far from their homeland, they are completely lost.”

Many of the people many years ago came to the Khartoum area, in search of work or in order to escape the fighting in their homeland. But most of them can only survive as day laborers, and this eats away at the men‘s sense of self-worth. “Many of them simply drift around idly when they don‘t have any work,” says Fr. Daniele, and many have no work at all. “In their traditional view of themselves, they are herders and warriors. But since there is no fighting no herding to be done here, all the work falls on the shoulders of the women.”

Unlike 90 percent of the Sudanese people, who are Sunni Muslims, the people of the Nuba mountains are Christians. There are often syncretic tendencies, with belief in magic rubbing shoulders with the Christian faith. For this reason Fr. Daniele attaches great importance to helping people grow in their faith. He says: “I want to show people above all that, despite their poverty, God loves them — and each of them individually.”

This is not always easy to understand for people imbued with a tribal way of thinking, he explains. But at least he has no concerns about church attendance. “The people come in large numbers to church. On Sundays our church is full,” he tells us. “It is extremely important that the church be a beautiful and worthy place,” Fr. Daniele stresses, “as it is undoubtedly the most beautiful place in the lives of these people, who otherwise know only their own poverty-stricken huts and homes.“

Fr. Daniele has a particular concern for the children, and the parish school is his most important resource in this respect. “Many of the children would spend the whole day roaming around the streets if they didn‘t come to us in school,” he explained. “Their parents show little concern for them. Attention, and even tenderness, is something most of them have never experienced, and above all not from their fathers.”  

Fr. Daniele works hard to convey to the children a sense of their own self-worth. He says: “We want to show them that they are respected, precious people, loved by God. We do so by listening to each one of them and showing them respect.” Precisely because the circumstances of the children are so difficult and their families so large and so poor — eight children or more is by no means unusual — the priest places great hope in the schools, saying that “however modest our means are here, without education the children will have no chance of a better life.”

Indeed, the Catholic school system is one of the pillars of the small Church in Sudan. For one Church official, who requested that his name not be used, the Church educational system is crucially important. The official explains: “Our schools gain us acceptance among the majority Muslim community, and above all with the state. The state is strongly Islamic, but — because of the rapid population growth, the number of people moving into cities and limited public resources — its budget is overstretched and insufficient to provide enough schools.

Hence, the government is happy to see the Church involved. As a Church we maintain almost 20 public schools in the city of Khartoum alone, and permission to build schools, unlike permission to construct churches, is something that is always granted to us.” The schools are attended both by Christians and by Muslims.

The Church official acknowledges that the quality of the schools is not the best. He says: “after all, we hardly have money for teachers and books, and nor do our students.” But no pupil is refused admittance, even if he or she cannot afford the school fees. “For the children of the poorest families the school is the only possibility of bringing a little order into their lives,” the official stresses.

ACN is committed to support the Catholic schools in Sudan. “The Church in Sudan has asked us for help,” says Christine du Coudray-Wiehe, who oversees ACN-funded projects in Sudan. “It is an urgent necessity to respond, as the majority of the pupils are from Catholic families from southern Sudan,” she added. “It is vital for these families that are children be able to attend a Christian school — for this is the only way we can prevent them from being Catholics at home and Muslims at school.”  

Oliver Maksan writes for Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA);www.acnuk.org (UK);www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL);www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)