Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Nuba Mountains

Wakanda is home to the superhero Black Panther. It’s a fictional country, conveniently tucked out of sight between larger African nations.

The Nuba Mountains are a lot like Wakanda, largely unseen by the rest of the world. And yet, just like the fictional Wakanda, it’s a fascinating region with a lot to teach others.

A boy cares for cattle in Gidel, a village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The area is controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, and frequently attacked by the military of Sudan. (Paul Jeffrey)

The Nuba is a region of Sudan that for decades has fought for survival and respect against the central government in Khartoum. When neighbors in what became South Sudan signed a 2005 agreement that led to eventual independence in 2011, the Nuba got left out. Since then they’ve been on their own. United Nations agencies, ultimately responsible to national governments, stay away, fearing the wrath of the indicted war criminal who heads the Islamist government in Khartoum. Most aid groups won’t enter, at least not publicly, afraid that if they upset Khartoum they’ll get kicked out of Darfur, where their presence keeps people alive who’ve been displaced for well over a decade. So the Nuba are on their own.

Except for the church. During the last three decades of war, the church has maintained its presence in the Nuba Mountains, providing pastoral accompaniment, education, and health care, encouraging hope while the rest of the world looked away.

A woman carries the Bible into a Catholic Mass in Gidel, a village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The area is controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, and frequently attacked by the military of Sudan. (Paul Jeffrey)

Angelina Nyakuru is a Catholic sister from Uganda who has served for a decade as head nurse at a church hospital in the Nuba Mountains. She refused to leave during several periods of intense bombing, when she quickly learned to trust the instincts of children.

“The children have better hearing, so they hear the planes first. I see them running and my body starts running as well. If they hear the bombs falling before I get to the foxhole, they yell at me, ‘Sister, lay down,’ and I hit the ground,” she told me. The children also convinced her to wear her gray habit rather than her white one during periods of bombing, as it makes her less of a target.

Angelina refused to leave even when ordered out by her superior. “If we run away, what kind of shepherds are we?” she asked.

A girl holds a sign for the letter "G" during a class in the Catholic Church-sponsored St. Daniel Comboni Primary School in Lugi, a village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The area is controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, and frequently attacked by the military of Sudan. The church has sponsored schools and health care facilities throughout the war-torn region. (Paul Jeffrey)

I often look for stories that are unreported, that other media ignore. The church’s work in the Nuba Mountains is one such story. So after two years of negotiations, in April I flew on a United Nations plane from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to the refugee camp at Yida, a horrifically hot and dusty settlement on the border between South Sudan and Sudan. From there it’s a buttocks-numbing eight-hour ride through the bush along a corridor that rebels patrol to prevent attacks by the Sudanese military. In lieu of a visa, I had a travel permit from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North. Although technically I was inside Sudan, I had no permission from the central government in Khartoum, which has refused to issue me another visa since I covered their war in Darfur.

Women proudly display school uniforms they have sewn at the church-run women's center in Gidel, a village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The area is controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, and frequently attacked by the military of Sudan. The Catholic center helps women earn incomes that increase their status in the family and community. (Paul Jeffrey)

I spent nine days in the Nuba, listening to people talk about how faith has kept them going. It’s a fascinating place where the tribalism that has plagued nearby countries has been largely kept at bay, and where relations between Muslims and Christians have been overwhelmingly positive. People celebrate each other’s religious holidays, and have learned the hard way that falling bombs have no religious preference. The Nuba Mountains may be cut off in many ways from the rest of the world, but the Nuba people have forged a culture that has a lot to teach the rest of us.

Gender roles have been painfully slow to change in the Nuba Mountains, but I wrote about how the church is working to transform harmful attitudes and practices. I interviewed people about a law that took effect while I was there that triples the bride price in cows for men who get a girl student pregnant. It’s designed to help keep girls in school and guarantee more balanced leadership in the Nuba’s future.

Children walking in Kauda, a village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The area is controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, and frequently attacked by the military of Sudan. The Catholic Church sponsors schools and health care facilities throughout the war-torn region. (Paul Jeffrey)

Because of its isolation, there has been almost no international coverage of these issues. The few journalists who’ve ventured to the Nuba Mountains in recent years have focused inordinate attention on Tom Catena, a US physician who for a decade has practiced medicine there in the middle of the war. Dr. Tom, as he’s widely known, is a great guy and a true hero, but much of the writing about him has cast him as the heroic white savior, ignoring the scores of Africans, many of them church workers, who have acted just as heroically. I’ve initially written seven articles which seek to profile those other people and the challenges they face, while also covering Catena but keeping his story in the larger context of the church’s mission.

Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic lay missionary from the United States, listens to a nurse during rounds in the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel, a village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The area is controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, and frequently attacked by the military of Sudan. The Catholic hospital, at which Catena is often the only physician, is the only referral hospital in the war-torn area. Catena is popularly referred to as "Doctor Tom". (Paul Jeffrey)

Here’s a list of the initial articles, published in a variety of media:

Abdelaziz Hilu, head of the SPLA-North, praises the work of the church

Healthy relationship between Muslims and Christians

Working to overcome the region’s addiction to tribalism

The Nuba Mountains faces an uncertain political future

The church has been a sign of hope in the Nuba Mountains

The challenges of women in the Nuba Mountains

U.S. physician is a reluctant hero in Nuba Mountains

You can also check out this gallery of images from the Nuba Mountains.

Boys play with a rehabilitated bicycle in Lugi, a village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The area is controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, and frequently attacked by the military of Sudan. (Paul Jeffrey)

A word of appreciation to Barb Fraze at Catholic News Service, whose support helped make the trip possible, and whose editing helped turn my rambling prose into the articles above. And an enthusiastic round of applause for the humble but courageous people of the Nuba Mountains, who welcomed me with open arms. In the midst of their struggles to survive, they took time to answer my endless questions, shared their food and tea, and always found a spare cot where I could sleep. I can’t adequately repay their hospitality, but I hope my writing and images will help make them less invisible to the world. The Nuba Mountains may not be home to the Black Panther, but its people are everyday heroes. The world needs to pay them more attention.

Nurse Isaac Langurry interacts with a young girl wrestling with blindness in the pediatric ward of the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel, a village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The area is controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, and frequently attacked by the military of Sudan. The Catholic hospital is the only referral hospital in the war-torn area. Langurry is a 2017 graduate of the Catholic Health Training Institute, a school in Wau, South Sudan, sponsored by Solidarity with South Sudan. (Paul Jeffrey)

 


On the same trip that took me to the Nuba Mountains, I spent four weeks in South Sudan, documenting a variety of projects, including capturing images of a girls’ school in Rumbek, shooting video of the work of Jesuit Relief Service in the refugee camps in Maban, and writing about the work of South Sudan’s churches to meet the needs of millions of people displaced by years of conflict.

Rene Abdallah (left) and Anjima Fahal struggle to keep water out of their shelter during a heavy rainstorm in a displaced persons camp at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Wau, South Sudan. The church has provided food, shelter material, and health care, and the presence of clergy and religious has fostered a sense of relative safety for the families who first occupied the church grounds when fighting enveloped the city in 2016. (Paul Jeffrey)

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