A day in the life of an army chaplain... in South Sudan
Cole Maynard has been a Baptist army chaplain for 20 years. This is the first of a series of regular blogs from South Sudan, where he is currently on deployment
Malakal, South Sudan
Today has been a good day so let me describe it to you. I was up at six after the best sleep I have had since arriving in South Sudan (SS). I got changed into my running kit as I had decided to undertake my first long run in Malakal, but changed my original 10K plans for something like seven-eight, given the fact that I had only just began to feel strong again after a bout of headaches and nausea.
It was totally dark and dusty as I left behind the lighting of our lines and faced a gusty head wind, which was surprisingly cool, the way I like it. It is weird running in the dark with only a small circle of light ahead caused by my head torch. The rough beaten earth track that encircles the camp undulates beneath my shoes, the dusty compacted earth speckled with small pebbles.
It is a long run at first, the entire length of the refugee camp, but there I was, slowly plodding along in my blue top and shorts. As I passed the Indian camp – around 06:40am, the dawn began to arrive and I switched off my torch and enjoyed the emerging light. More and more soldiers were out about running, mostly in a uniform PT kit, and I allowed no one to pass me without a smile, a loud English ‘Morning’ and a wave! Some looked surprised, but others replied, ‘morning Sahib’ or ‘Morning Sir’! The silver fox cut a strange figure amongst the young Indian and Ethiopian soldiers out running this early.
As the sun rose so the land – a wilderness of scrub and dirt – was bathed in a glorious warm light and for a while even this desperate camp became a place of beauty. Apart for being barked at by one of the many wild packs of dogs roaming the area, the run was otherwise uneventful.
The good news is that I felt good! No more headaches, my stomach now almost totally settled and regular again. In fact now I am not always using my air-con, as it is too cold. I believe I starting to properly acclimatise, praise God!
Then back to the block for a shower, but as the lever is depressed nothing but dust emerges from the nozzle. The water to our block has run out again. So clad in my military green towel it is over to the main shower block where, with no shower curtain and a dribble of H20, I cleanse my sweaty form. Bliss!
Finally, with hair washed and in uniform I go to breakfast and then visit one of the cabins – STRE (which is Greek for draftsman and camp planning office) in which I was offered a real coffee, wonderful. This is followed by a lot of general chat then an avid conversation a fellow bike lover. The day just gets better! The discussion about the merits of a Suzuki GS750K4 over, I return to my office space.
Time for some admin: mossie net adjustment, sweep mud off floor, etc, before saying my prayers and then moving around camp chatting with people. I then read a chapter of my devotional book by Philip Yancy – What’s so amazing about Grace – before finally writing my Weekly Thought, which I shall give tomorrow morning at the CO’s O Group.
Again I wander around the camp and engage in some interesting conversations, reinforcing the sense that I am really getting to know the members of this Engineering Task Force in Malakal. I then make two laminated posters for the front of my hut and my door letting people know where the Padre can be found, before I take my first real venture into the POC camp (Protection of Civilians site).
They have absolutely nothing, yet they smile and sing. Children as young as three play in a foul looking stream of green wastewater, with pieces of wood tied to string, floating behind them like boats. There’s a large group of these gangerly Sudanese teenagers with almost black skin tones, and long legs, making them tall and thin, with often slightly yellowish eyes, and pure white teeth gleaming between thick, full lips.
Many shout ‘How are you’ but don’t really understand what they are saying. They call to me ‘Indian’ thinking that I am part of the Indian army. No, ‘British’ I reply and try futilely to show them my small union Flag sown onto my left arm.
Then I hear singing, and find the place I have been looking for. It is a shabby tin constructed hut with a crudely erected metal cross leaning to one side on the roof. It is the church I had seen a couple of times during my early morning runs.
When I say a church, it is one like I have never entered before. A group of around 20 to 30 young people, teenagers I guess, but couldn’t be sure, were sitting on simple metal benches with green and white plastic straps – obviously made in the camp. A tall girl bobs at the front clapping and singing and the congregation follow her lead on cue. Most of it was in some dialect I could not detect.
I quickly became the focus of mass interest. A small toddler keeps on crouching near me staring at this white man with the amazing grey hair in a sea of dark bodies. I eventually tried to tell the group that I brought them greetings from my church in Scotland. One word we both understood was ‘hallelujah’!
Cole in South Sudan
They sang and I sat there and rocked to the music and clapped in rhythm, and as I did some words came through the verbal mist, ‘Jesu’ ‘hallelujah’ ‘Abba’ ‘Jesus, You are Great, you are wonderful, you are excellent!’ Although they pronounced these familiar words in a way like I might read a sentence in pigeon French, as least I could join in. They pitched their singing very high so the weird white man tried to sing tenor (hopefully in tune). After around 40 minutes it was starting to get dark and I needed to head back to camp, so I stood to leave.
‘What is your name?’ they asked. ‘Pastor Cole’ I replied and then blessed them for their worship. Such simple praises in such humble surroundings, from the Lord’s people is truly humbling. No doubt angels around the feet of Jesus danced and clapped in delight to hear this simple choir praise their master, from the dust and dereliction of a refugee camp.
Thus back to camp I go, across a stream of turgid water, from which many people draw to wash, drink and feed their crops. On my way I see another chance to communicate. A group of boys are playing with a ball on the track ahead. They stop to allow a group of two Ethiopian soldiers to pass. I stop and signal the one with the ball to kick it too me. (Quick prayer – Lord help me not embarrass myself!) then I perfectly hook the ball into the air and my keeper catches it. He smiles and kicks it back at me, so again I catch it on the toe and lift it to give him more work and he leaps up and in an exaggerated fashion catches the ball and lands in a cloud of dust.
I clap, the boys laugh and gather around me. I point at the cross around a boy’s neck – ‘Jesus’ I said and pointed to heaven. I then showed them my crosses on my uniform collar.
‘What is you name?’ One of them asks ‘Pastor Cole’ I say, and point to the light blue sky, ‘I worship Jesus too.’ Lots of hand shakes and smiles as I continue on my way.
So back to camp I go on the route I took on my second day in Malakal. Then feeling exhausted by the heat, but now walking purposefully, kicking up the dust, feeling that perhaps I am finally adjusting to this climate and that now, perhaps, the real work of ministry can begin…
The Malakal camp in South Sudan, during a visit from the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) for South Sudan and head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, Ellen Margrethe Loej, in 2016.
Flickr | UNMISS | Isaac Billy | Creative Commons
Cole Maynard | Ministry of Defence
Cole Maynard has been a Baptist army chaplain for 20 years, and is currently on deployment in South Sudan as part of UNMISS, the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan.
UK bolsters support to peacekeeping in South Sudan (Gov.uk)