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Kenyan Catholic Diocese Builds South Sudanese Community to Improve Refugees Pastoral Care

A poster of St. Bakhita Catholic Community, a platform for South Sudanese Catholics in Kenya's Catholic Diocese of Nakuru/ Credit: St. Bakhita Catholic Community

A number of South Sudanese Catholics who are seeking refuge around Nakuru town in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province have been gathering in groups for prayers in the absence of a Priest.

The South Sudanese nationals, including those that can only express themselves in Arabic and the country’s local language have, for a long time, been unable to attend Holy Mass, which is celebrated in English, Kiswahili and other local languages in the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru.

In a Thursday, July 8 interview with ACI Africa, Fr. Casmir Odundo, Parochial Vicar at Christ the King Cathedral of Nakuru Diocese said that because of the language barrier in the celebration of Holy Mass, South Sudanese Catholics residing in the Diocese have also been attending liturgical services in other denominations.

“We were notified that a group of South Sudanese Catholics were gathering for prayers alone because they couldn’t understand anything during Mass that was celebrated either in English or Kiswahili. Not every South Sudanese refugee can speak these languages,” Fr. Casmir said.

To improve the pastoral care of the Catholics from the East-Central African country, the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru has created St. Bakhita Catholic Community that will allow South Sudanese in Nakuru to participate in Church celebrations fully, Fr. Casmir tells ACI Africa.

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“We plan to invite a South Sudanese Priest from Nairobi to come over to celebrate Mass with the community as often as possible,” the Kenyan Priest says, and adds, “At the moment, we do not have any South Sudanese Priests in the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru. But there are many in Nairobi who have come to pursue their studies in the city. We shall make plans to have them come here to celebrate Mass with the refugees.”

Named after the native of Darfur in Sudan, St. Josephine Bakhita, the two-week-old Catholic Community will be an integration platform for South Sudanese living in Kenya’s fourth largest urban center, making them feel at home away from their home country.

The Diocesan Priest of Nakuru spoke to ACI Africa on the eve of the celebration of South Sudan’s 10 years of independence.

He said that the Friday, July 9 celebration in the Diocese will also mark the launch of St. Bakhita Catholic Community.

In an interview with ACI Africa, 28-year-old Dut Majak said that with the new community, South Sudanese in Nakuru would have an opportunity to gather and pray for peace in their own country.

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“We will have an opportunity to interact with each other away from home but I believe that this is a great opportunity for us to gather together and pray for stability back at home. I hope to go back to a peaceful South Sudan some day and reconnect with my family,” Mr. Majak told ACI Africa July 8.

Majak’s father was killed in war before the country enjoyed a short-lived moment of peace with its independence on 9 July 2011. He fled with his mother in 2007 and the two found a home in Nakuru where the mother died in 2018.

A graduate in Nutrition and Dietetics from a college in Kenya, Mr. Majak who has not been able to secure a job yet said that he has a brother “somewhere” in South Sudan and that he wishes to find him.

South Sudan's 10 years as an independent country have been said to be marked by insecurity, corruption and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

Barely two years after independence, in December 2013, South Sudan was plunged into a brutal civil war that reportedly resulted in more than 400,000 deaths and the displacement of more than 1.6 million people who have sought refuge in neighboring countries including Sudan, Uganda and Kenya.

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Today, South Sudan is reported to be one of the world's poorest countries with 8 million people, or two thirds of the population, dependent on humanitarian aid.

Earlier this week, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) warned that South Sudan is suffering its worst humanitarian crisis yet. Some 300,000 children under the age of five alone are at risk of starvation, the agency said in a report published ahead of South Sudan's tenth independence anniversary.

Various faith groups have, on the occasion of the July 9 anniversary, lamented the many years of civil strife in South Sudan, saying that there is little to celebrate in the country.

In a statement dated July 9 but circulated Thursday, July 8, members of the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC), however, express hope into the future saying the optimism at independence on 9 July 2011 “can still be rekindled.”

James Malek, the chairperson of the newly established St. Bakhita Catholic Community in Nakuru, said that the July 9 anniversary celebration will be marked by entertainment and Holy Mass. He clarified that not only South Sudanese are invited to the event that will be attended by a sizable number of people in adherence to COVID-19 regulations.

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“We are not just inviting South Sudanese people but anyone who wishes to know about our culture,” Mr. Malek, a university student and community leader in Nakuru said, and added, “We invite everyone because this is a platform of integration and a way to make the refugees feel welcome in Kenya.”

He said that St. Bakhita Catholic Community will fill the pastoral gaps among many South Sudanese Catholics in Nakuru Diocese.

“We have many social groups and we usually organize parties, inviting fellow refugees where we can build unity away from our home country. The only thing that has been missing is the faith aspect,” Mr. Malek said.

He added, “With this new pastoral community, many South Sudanese people will be able to attend Holy Mass. We will even have South Sudanese Priests come over to celebrate Mass with us. I think there are more than a thousand South Sudanese people here but not many of them come for prayers because of the language barrier.”

In her message for the South Sudanese community on their independence celebrations, Sr. Margaret Mumbua who is in charge of migrants in Nakuru Diocese encouraged the refugees to continue building their “dreams” even as they long to be at home in their own country.

“In everything you go through, with every pain you have undergone, always know that God wants you to be here at this moment. Therefore, work very hard to build your dreams and participate in the growth of your host country,” Sr. Margaret said in an interview with ACI Africa.

The member of the Sisters of Joseph, Mombasa added, “I know how difficult it can be to be away from home. I have listened to many of your heartbreaking stories. But nothing cheers me up more than seeing a young person from South Sudan who is excelling in school.”