Plain clothes nun.

To give my faithful reader a break from admiring Norwegian scenery, I thought I interrupt the Northern Lights narrative to share some breaking news.

Last week an Irish nun received an International Humanitarian award in Killarney, Ireland.

Nothing earth-shattering about that. Hardly worth commenting on, you might think.

Except that this nun is no ordinary nun. Her name is Sr. Orla Treacy and when we were in South Sudan, some four years ago, she ran a small school just outside the town of Rumbek, where we were based. Nothing remarkable there either. Nuns run schools all over Africa, but not all nuns are Sr Orla.


The Loreto School was unusual in as much as it was a Secondary school – for girls!
To understand just how remarkable that was, it might be worth sketching in a bit of background about South Sudan and, in particular, about the position of women in South Sudanese society.

South Sudan, as an independent country, has only existed since 2011. Before that it was a neglected and ignored province of the Sudan and for most of the past 50 years had been in a state of civil war against the central authorities in Khartoum. After many years of inconclusive bush warfare and the expenditure of much blood and treasure, the Khartoum government realised that it didn’t have the might or the will to defeat the South Sudanese rebels and agreed to the formation of a new state. It was not a happy divorce and the first five years of South Sudan’s independence has not been a positive experience for anyone.

South Sudan is a deeply tribal society and long-standing tribal rivalries were only suppressed as long as there was the external threat from the Arab rulers in Khartoum. As soon as peace came, the old enmities were revived – with renewed vigour.

South Sudan is a cattle-based society and wealth is still measured in terms of the ownership of cows. Marriage is a contract between families that involves the payment of cows. As a result of this, a woman’s value is measured in terms of the number of cows that her family could expect to receive on her marriage. Two things have to be borne in mind here.

Firstly, South Sudan is a desperately poor country and most families live well below any recognised poverty level. Secondly, a cow can be worth anything from $300 to $1000.

As a result of this, most girls are married by the time they are 16 years old and many of them considerably younger. Often they are married off to much older men, who are the ones more likely to own large numbers of cows. Decisions about when a girl should marry, and at what price, are made not by the girl’s parents, who might be considered too close to the girl to make a dispassionate decision, but by the girl’s uncle, who is more likely to operate in the interests of the tribe as a whole. A visit from the uncle is something most teenage girls dread.

When we were posted to Rumbek with VSO, my immediate boss was the local director of education. He had a problem. His herd of cows was growing too big, which was giving him some management and veterinary headaches. (After all, if you have ten cows this year and you look after them properly, you’ll have twenty next year and so on. If you have 100 this year…. No bank can match an interest rate like that, so who wants money in a bank?)

My boss’s solution to his herd management conundrum was to get himself another wife, his third.

His first wife was a teacher in one of the schools in his area. His second wife was a pupil in one of the schools in his area. His intended third wife was a university student, the daughter of a former Government minister. Her bride price was 300 cows!

Now it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that if a woman’s value is measured by the number of cows that her husband has paid for her, the question of women’s rights and women’s role in society is not exactly a hot topic. Indeed, why would a father agree to educate a girl if he knows that she will, sooner or later, go off to another family in exchange for cows? Consequently if money is short, sons get educated.

And yet, many development experts say that if you really want to have a positive impact on eliminating poverty in a developing country, the best thing you can do is to educate girls. There is an old African proverb that says that if you educate a girl, you educate an entire village. And clearly, if girls are educated they are likely to delay childbirth and can start to make a contribution to the development of their communities above and beyond the bearing of children.

Which brings us back to Sr Orla.

When we were in Rumbek we attended the graduation of one year group of girls from Sr Orla’s school. They were impressive young women but they were only about twelve in number. Nevertheless, that was twelve young women whose families had been convinced that it was worthwhile educating their daughters beyond primary level, rather than passing them off to unsuitable husbands in exchange for cows. It is difficult to over-estimate the enormity of this change of thinking on the part of those parents.

A few of Sr Orla’s alumni have even now completed university.

We were evacuated from South Sudan in December 2013 with a day’s notice. Civil war was breaking out in the capital and VSO could no longer guarantee our safety. Ironically, we were running a seminar for teachers about gender issues in education when the phone call came through that VSO was pulling us out.

A small plane was sent to pick us up and, along with the other remotely-based volunteers dotted around the country, we were flown out to Uganda. We were told that we could bring one small bag with us to the airstrip. Everything else had to be abandoned. We phoned Sr Orla and got her to agree to distribute the majority of our belongings as she saw fit.

The civil war has raged ever since. Of a population of about 12 million, two million are living as refugees over the border in Uganda and a further 2 million are internally displaced within South Sudan. That’s one third of the population.  Uncounted thousands have died. And yet, somehow, amid all of this chaos, Sr Orla has kept the Loreto School open and functioning.

The Sisters of Loreto are a teaching order dedicated to working directly with poor communities and helping them to develop through education. They do not wear any form of religious habit, which is what led me to describe Sr Orla as a ‘plain clothes nun.’

Speaking at her award ceremony last week, Sr Orla sketched out the history of the Loreto School. “We began with a girls’ secondary boarding school but over the years we realised the needs of the local community were greater than just a secondary school. We have since added a primary school for boys and girls – this operates 2 shifts – morning and afternoon and more recently we added a clinic to serve the needs of our 1,200 students and the workers – in particular malnourished babies in the community.”

Struggling to educate over 1000 children in a country where inflation is rampant, poverty is rife and teachers’ salaries often remain unpaid by a government that has bankrupted itself in pursuit of an unwinnable civil war, St Orla has to face the reality that the demand for places far outstrips the number of places available.

So if anyone is looking for a different kind of Christmas present this year and if you fancy making a direct contribution to someone’s life, you could do a lot worse than get behind Sr Orla and her colleagues and sponsor the education of a girl in Rumbek. The full cost of educating a secondary girl for a year is €1600, costs for a primary-aged child amount to about €400. However, any donation would be welcome, and if you would like details of the Loreto School’s bank account, just post a comment to this blog entry and I’ll get back to you.

Hey, it’s got to be better than a pair of Marks and Spencer’s slippers.


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2 thoughts on “Plain clothes nun.

  1. Hi Robert, yes, please send me the bank details. Judith

  2. Joe Griffin on said:

    I trust that both of you gave a tuneful rendition of the Anthem today to mark HRH Wales’ birthday.

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