, 16 April, 2020 / 7:00 AM
Gabriel Gum Machiek recalls a day at St. Daniel Comboni Primary School in South Sudan’s Rumbek diocese where he was a lower-class pupil when he engaged in a fight with one of his teachers after the teacher, a Missionary Priest, punished him for a mistake that he says was not his.
Machiek remembers being an unruly child when he joined the school that Fr. Michael Barton, a Comboni missionary Priest, had started in 1993 to keep children from participating in the civil war that broke out in southern Sudan in 1983, protracting into the longest-running civil war in Africa, having ended with the independence of South Sudan in July 2011.
“There was a time that I rubbed shoulders with Fr. Michael when I was a very small boy in primary school. Some other boy was talking in the class and when Fr. Michael came, someone pointed me out as the noisemaker and I couldn’t take it … So, Fr. Michael hit me and I hit him back and it turned out into a fight,” recalls Machiek.
He adds, “I was really a nuisance in my early studies. I was actually a child, probably between seven and fifteen years old and Fr. Michael really helped me. He shaped me.”
The 34-year old says that the terrible encounter with the Priest was the first and last time he engaged in a fight with his teachers at the school where students were taught to be peaceful, away from the havoc that wrecked the East African country. Then, little boys were engaged in the civil war and those who tried to go to school were “plucked out” from class and trained to become child soldiers.
Machiek says he proceeded to sit his primary school examinations that were shipped into the country from neighboring Kenya, attended high school and proceeded to university where he graduated with First Class Honors degree in Economics.
“He (Fr. Michael) had strict school rules and regulations and there was punishment for every kind of wrongdoing. You had to keep time and follow all rules and regulations. And so, as a child I would also avoid doing wrong because there would be punishment for it,” he says.
Today, 72-year-old Fr. Michael who still teaches at a school in South Sudan maintains that punishing children who err, in and outside school premises, helps to keep the children in school.
“I punish, I make rules, if they don’t keep rules I punish; if they keep, I don’t punish. So, they know there will be consequences,” Fr. Michael says in an interview with ACI Africa.
He adds, “I try to punish them if they get in fights, if they give teachers a hard time, if they don’t obey the rules, if I see someone smoking even outside class time of business, I punish them. And I am determined that if they are in our school, they will attend church.”
In a country where education was put on the back burner when parents derived pride in marrying off their daughters at a tender age and signing up their sons in war, Fr. Michael’s efforts to keep children in school beat all odds to yield an educated breed that is working tirelessly to put the world’s youngest nation at par with other countries.
Some of his success stories, he says, are young men who chose religious life while others graduated in different professions from various institutions in and outside South Sudan.
“There is Martin Laku who chose Priesthood and is now a Comboni Missionary; Fr. Zacharia Lado who is with the Apostles of Jesus and the Auxiliary bishop Santo Laku. These are the people who I helped to go to the Seminary and those seminaries were attacked by the SPLA (South Sudan Liberation Army). They were closed and they had to run away. I admire that they made it. They have done well, they have become priests,” he says.
The Comboni Missionary cleric adds, “Others have become doctors like Dr. Justice Togun in Sabah Hospital and Gabriel Thoth in the Air Force. So many in the army, so many in different ministries. Others from Mapuordit who have become doctors, I know of Abraham Akol. That is wonderful.”
Earlier this year, some 500 alumni of Comboni High School in Mapuordit established a foundation which, according to Agook Mayek Riak, a member of the Steering Committee of Mapuordit Comboni School Students’ Alumni, will serve as a reminder of the many years the Comboni Missionary priest, Fr. Michael Barton devoted to education in South Sudan.
“First, we thought of having a thanksgiving celebration for Fr. Michael, an American Comboni Missionary who sacrificed much of his time serving the people of South Sudan for 40 years. We said we have to appreciate him true to the Dinka philosophy that “raan aye leec a piir,” meaning that you have to appreciate someone why they are still alive,” says Agook.
“But we said that a day is not enough to celebrate a hero’s achievements. So, we said okay, let us register a foundation in the name of Fr. Michael D. Barton that will be focusing more on education where we feel the spirit of Fr. Michael most.”
According to the alumni official, Michael D. Barton’s Foundation will focus on vocational training, first in Yirol, one of the parishes of South Sudan’s Rumbek diocese, where the Priest started a primary school before he ventured into other regions of the country, starting schools from scratch.
Born in Indianapolis just after his parents divorced, Fr. Michael took his first vows and became a Comboni Missionary in 1968 and proceeded to Egypt in North Africa for a study stint. He then embarked on a decade-long missionary life in Sudan, long before South Sudan became independent.
He first came to Khartoum in 1978 and proceeded to Juba where he was assigned Parish Priest of Kworijik, a role he coupled with teaching at St. Joseph’s intermediate school within the parish.
“Fr. Michael only taught for one year at St. Joseph and those students are now grandparents,” reads a section of the biography of the American Cleric, which also mentions his other roles before war broke out in Juba, 11 years later, and the priest was moved back to the U.S. and assigned to visit schools and parishes in Michigan.
His second assignment to Mapuordit came in 1993 when the Missionary Cleric joined other Priests to start a school with classes one and two.
“Those first years, the school did two classes in one year. This was done for two to three years that after three years there was class seven, and then the school started a full year at a time, where they had class eight in 1996,” reads Fr. Michael’s biography.
It adds, “Fr. Michael had love for the school and saw God at work and that life was blessing him… Fr. Michael worked hard on the weekends, going out to say Mass and during the week, he taught and ran the school, where he had morning and afternoon classes.”
In 1997, Fr. Michael and his team started the Comboni High School in Mapuordit with 15 students in Form One and despite many challenges, the school had its first Form Four by the end year 2001.
Following instructions of his Superiors, Fr. Michael handed over the Comboni schools and went to Nyamlel, a populated region in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal state in South Sudan, to a mission that had been started in 1934 and abandoned in 1964. He waded through open rejection of the residents and proceeded to build numerous schools and chapels across the region.
He shares with ACI Africa the challenges that children who chose to go to school faced every day of schooling in a society that despised education.
“They faced lack of understanding on the side of their parents,” says Fr. Michael, adding that the children also walked long distances to school and braced harsh weather and diseases to be in class.
“I noticed the pain that the children went through when they got the Guinea worms. They screamed a lot but they still came to school. Their body temperatures dropped and they fell sick but they still came to school,” he says.
Fr. Michael also narrates the experience of a resilient boy who waded through difficulties of schooling to eventually become a military man.
“I saw Gabriel Thoth. He is now in the Air Force; I could see him coming to school with a Guinea Worm hanging out and showing no sign of pain but I knew he was in pain… He was attending his class, doing his homework and he was going home. That deeply impressed me. What a strong hearted, determined young man Gabriel was! And also many people were like that, sick and coming to school,” he recalls.
Hinting on his own effort to keep the children motivated, Fr. Michael says he always strived to be in school every time the children needed him.
“I never missed a day of school in Mapuordit, until I went to Nyamlel and became very sick. I was in my 60's and I missed half a day of school. I missed the afternoon classes. I had to go home and lay down.”
He adds, “Now in Magok (Northern Bahr al Ghazal), I miss days, because of other diseases, because of being old now. It has affected me more; I have to take care of my own health because young people are resilient, old people are not so resilient.”
Fr. Michel’s 40-year stay in a country that has experienced protracted civil strife was characterized by a lot of hiding in the bushes alongside other Christians, arrests and brutalities from armed groups and government forces.
Divulging his worst experiences while ministering in South Sudan to ACI Africa, the Comboni Missionary Priest recalls being arrested, looted, threatened and imprisoned, reiterating information that he shared on the Comboni Missionaries website.
“I have been arrested, looted and even put in prison and threatened. I was one time arrested and they didn’t beat me but they were angry with me and they beat Fr. Raphael Riel Chol, they beat him badly and it was because they couldn’t get to me and so they beat him, so painful,” he says.
Despite the challenges, Fr. Michael foresees a future where he will be able to build more schools and chapels. But mostly, he looks forward to a peaceful rest back home in the U.S. after spending close to half a century away from home.
“If my health breaks down, God forbid! I shall return to the USA and live in a Comboni House there,” Fr. Michael Barton says.