Many Irish families have a missionary relative, a visitor who shivers by the fire once a year or less. Ruán Magan spoke to some of these extraordinary ‘Lifers’ for RTÉ last night. However, they are not alone in having sacrificied a family life and put their own lives at risk to bring hope to others.
Travelling in Uganda last year I met an elderly Sudanese missionary who dreams of sniffing the air in newly independent South Sudan. And wishes he could leave his memories of warlord Joseph Kony behind.
Now 83, Fr Peter Okello spends his days on his veranda at the missionary-run Lacor Hospital in Gulu. Still tall and broad-shouldered, he walks slowly but with so many visitors, he hardly needs to move. As we talk mechanics, nurses and other priests drop by to talk or just sit nearby.
In 2008 Fr Peter was one of three missionaries at Duru Mission in the Congo. The Lord’s Resistance Army under Kony was fading then*, but still strong in pockets along the borderlands.
‘The last mission I left, we were forced to leave. We escaped death, we were at their mercy. They took everything away, the rebels, the people of Kony,’ he says.
“The people around the mission did not run away, so according to our rules, if even one person does not run away, then we have to stay, to die. We remain there, we knew they are coming.”
One of the priests escaped, but Fr Peter and his companion were tied up and forced to stand for hours.
“It was a bad time, a difficult time. The whole time they were raping, up to night.
“They took everything, if my soul was in the room they (would) take that too. They burned the huts. It was as if it was day because of the light, hundreds of huts all around on fire. You see the sky all around, it was clear as if during the day,’ he says.
Fr Peter is the unnamed Sudanese missionary in this New Statesman story from 2009. He says the rebels spoke Acholi, the musical language spoken around us as darkness falls.
This was the first Ugandan language he learned having walked over 1,000 miles from his village in Sudan to Lacor as a boy of 16. His name then was Margelo, a local corruption of the Arabic word for ‘court of law’.
Remembering when the Comboni missionaries sent him to Italy, Fr Peter doubles over with laughter, slapping his thigh.
‘I went there in 1958. The boys came to receive us, the three Africans, to wonder at us. They say ‘oh, black like this, they are really black, black’. They were saying in Italian, they didn’t know I could understand. They wondered and received us like gods, small gods,’ he says.
As we speak of places he has worked, Fr Peter laughs a hoarse, creaky laugh that scares bats from the roof above us.
“The language I speak most in my life is Italian,’ he says. ‘There were so many priests teaching us, and as a gift of god my memory is so sensitive to languages. I know about 21 or 22 languages but many of them disappear now. I can speak 12 yet fairly good.”
We can hear trucks rattling outside the walls; along the newly-opened dusty road to Juba in South Sudan. The missionary waves a gnarled hand to the west, says he keeps in touch with nieces and nephews
‘It is our hope to have something like this (the hospital) out there. There are Sudanese studying here. Yes, yes, 40 years ago there was nothing here so we hope for Sudan.’
The elderly priest says he will not go home now - even in a jeep it’s a day and a half to his village. He sits up in the chair, and draws a deep, noisy breath through his nose.
‘There were six from my mother, I am the last now. Maybe I will go to Nimuli, near the border here with Sudan. I can go and stay in a mission there, to smell the new Sudan a bit. I don’t know what is taking place there,’ Fr Peter says, laughing that deep, chesty laugh again.
*Lacor Hospital had itself been both a refuge from and a target of Kony's army before it was driven of northern Uganda in 2006.
Niamh Griffin travelled to Uganda with the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.