The Ugandan mission among refugees in Adjumani, Arua Diocese.
Serge Zihalirwa Boroto, M.Afr. - Vatican City.
The institutes of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa (MSOLA), known as White Sisters, and the Missionaries of Africa (M.Afr.), also known as White Fathers, opened the new mission two years ago as the result of a commitment made by the two institutes during their jubilee celebration which marked 150 years of their foundation.
Pope Francis’ exhortation
The two congregations were founded by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie in 1868 for the male branch and in 1869 for the female component.
Pope Francis, in his address to the members of the two institutes during their jubilee year, reiterated the vision of their founder. He said, “When Bishop Lavigerie, then Archbishop of Algiers, was led by the Spirit to found the Society of Missionaries of Africa, then the Congregation of Missionary Sisters, he had in his heart the passion for the Gospel and the desire that it be proclaimed to all, making himself ‘everything to all.’”
The Holy Father continued telling them, “For this reason, your roots are marked by Mission ad extra; it is in your DNA. Thus, following in the footsteps of your founder, your primary concern, your holy concern, ‘is that so many of our brothers and sisters live without the strength, light and consolation of the friendship of Jesus Christ, without a community of faith that welcomes them, without a horizon of meaning and life,’” said Pope Francis.
A response to the call of the founder
As a direct result of that jubilee celebration, six missionaries from the two institutes accepted the call to continue the mission to witness the love of God among those living in the refugee settlements of Adjumani, which is under the Catholic Diocese of Arua, in the northern region of Uganda.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), in its July 2023 statistics, declared that Uganda is hosting over 1 500 000 refugees in 12 districts of the East African nation. The District of Adjumani ranks second in the number of refugees it is hosting, which currently stands at more than 212 000 persons. This represents 13.5% of the total refugee population. 99.7% of the refugees in Adjumani are mainly from South Sudan.
Monsignor Felix Drani, M.Afr., the Episcopal Vicar for Refugees and Migrants in Arua Diocese, Uganda, is one of the missionaries serving in Adjumani. The Church marked World Day of Migrants and Refugees last Sunday. Pope Francis has entitled his message for this year ‘Free to choose whether to migrate or to stay.’ Monsignor Drani shared his mission experience in Uganda’s refugee settlements with Vatican News. Here below is the interview.
Tell us in brief about life in the Adjumani District, and in particular, life in the refugee settlements.
You know, Adjumani is a developing district with the population of refugees outnumbering the host communities. We are here in 19 settlements of Adjumani. We have around 2 000 nationals in Adjumani. The refugees and the host communities coexist. They share available resources like land, water, and firewood; all these are shared by the locals with the refugees. A lot of intermarriages also happen between them. In a way, this promotes peaceful coexistence among the refugees and the host communities.
As you know, there are many ethnic and religious groups, which also necessitate promoting unity in diversity. Among the people, many business interactions also occur between refugees and the host communities. So, people live together. Nevertheless, from time to time, the communities also experience some conflicts over resources, land, firewood, grass for construction, and so on. But in most cases, they share all these natural resources and share social services such as schools and health facilities. Even our church services are a mixture of host communities and refugees.
How would you describe your mission in Adjumani?
We are complimenting one another for the same goal of witnessing the love of Christ to the people of God. We also understand that our female counterparts, the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, have something unique to offer to the mission among the refugees here. As Missionaries of Africa, we bring something unique according to our charism, energies, and efforts. We harness all these towards the same goal as one entity.
Are other pastoral workers present in Adjumani, and how do you collaborate with them and with the local Church?
We have 37 pastoral agents in the settlements and 13 religious congregations working there. Adjumani has received several pastoral agents, missionaries, and diocesan clergy. We collaborate in many ways, starting with the administration of Sacraments and in areas of providing social support as well as other livelihood initiatives. Our collaboration is strong, and we receive support from the Ordinary of the Diocese, the Bishop, Right Reverend Sabino Ocan Odoki, who supports these initiatives very well. By the way, in 2015 and 2016, he created this Vicariate for Refugees, designed especially to take care of the needs of the refugees, pastorally and spiritually. So, among the congregations which are working here, I can mention the Missionaries of Africa, the Comboni Missionaries, the Society of Jesus - the Jesuits, Apostles of Jesus, and recently, we have Saint Charles Lwanga, the Scalabrine Fathers, the SVD - Missionaries of the Divine Word. And then we also have female congregations: the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Sisters of Jesus and the Missionary Sisters of Saint Charles Borromeo -Scalabrinian Sisters. Others include the Medical Mission Sisters, the Little Daughters of Saint Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Of course, there are also several diocesan clergy with us.
Concretely, please share some of the actions, initiatives, and projects you carry out or implement as a team.
Primarily, we intervene in the pastoral and spiritual care of the refugees as religious agents, as priests and sisters, celebrating sacraments, preparing them for the different Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the few Marriages that occur here. We have Sunday celebrations: Eucharistic celebrations in the settlements where we work. We, the Missionaries of Africa and Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, are based primarily in two settlements: Agojo and Maaji. Maaji has three other sections, while Agojo has one. And in these settlements, we have nine outstations or chapels. Since arriving here, we have also offered scholarships to some students for tertiary education, such as vocational skills training. We do this with the help of those who provide us with sponsorships. They offer the little money they have to help us give a future to the young people in our care. We also have engaged in women’s empowerment by training them in gardening to help improve food security. You know, UNHCR has reduced the food rations. Refugees are getting 19 000 Ugandan Shillings per month, around US$5 per month. This amount cannot sustain anybody throughout the month. So, we encourage the refugees to supplement by doing some home gardening so that they can maintain and grow enough food to feed their families. We have also supported some health centres, two health centres with microscopes and beds. We also continue to offer mental health services and provide psychosocial support. We have Sr. Linah, who is trained for that. She has been of great help to boys, girls and women who have traumatic experiences ranging from sexual abuse, gender-based violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and other war-related traumatic experiences.
Further still, in our own small way, we also do sensitisation, peace and coexistence outreach programmes. That is very important for the settlements and host communities because sometimes conflicts arise. It is inevitable when humans coexist. As pastoral agents, we must promote this sense of community, living together, sharing resources, and helping each other. We always strive towards a win-win situation for everyone.
Do you find fulfilment in this apostolate?
We feel we are closer to the people by our presence. Being here brings a lot of relief to the people we encounter. You know, we sit and listen to them, we celebrate the Sacraments with them, and sometimes they even prepare food for us from the little they have. As Missionaries of Africa, you know our way of working; our style of living is that we aim for a simple lifestyle, a life of simplicity. This brings us closer to the people we serve, and we share in their sufferings and joys. We feel fulfilled when we realise that through the activities we carry out in their homes, camps, and settlements, the people appreciate our presence. However, other humanitarian actors (not necessarily religious) also make an outstanding contribution, and we have learnt a lot from them. We continue to learn. Each time we are in these settlements, we feel that our presence makes a difference. The Refugees come; they open themselves to talk to us and share the difficult experiences they have been through. For us, it is encouraging that we can be there for them. So, we get some fulfilment and joy in sharing in their lives. But also, there is that sorrow that comes sometimes when you listen to them, when you stay with them.
There have been conflicting reports of refugees going back to their countries. Are you seeing an exodus of people leaving the refugee camps to return to South Sudan?
Here in Adjumani, there has been to and from movement. They are waiting for a sense of certainty that things are really calm and the sporadic violence has stopped. A good number of the refugees would like to go back. And that is, in fact, the goal of all these humanitarian agencies and pastoral workers. We hope things will go well and the refugees can return to rebuild their lives and country. However, there are many factors that necessitate the continued influx of these refugees in the settlements other than the conflicts in their countries. Real issues of climate change, environmental problems, economic hardships, and many other factors keep creating movement between countries. Others would like to remain in an environment that seems to favour them., even when that place is a refugee settlement. Another element is that many intermarriages have occurred between Sudanese and Ugandans. You know, on this side of Uganda, you find the same people on the other side in Sudan. The Madi and the Kakwa -are on both sides of the border. Again, once they are established here and have family, it is difficult for them to just go back. But most often, some go to check on their land and properties, and then they come back to wait for a more secure peace to come.