'It's only when you get to the camp you stop being such a selfish asshole' - Donncha O'Callaghan tackles the big issues
Rugby's gentle giant travelled to South Sudan to lend his support to a polio vaccination campaign... and it suddenly emerged he was leaving Munster. Writer Jason O'Brien and photographer Mark Condren joined him for an eventful week
Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30
IT'S not long after breakfast, it's already 34°C, and a distressed Donncha O'Callaghan is being walked through a cramped primary healthcare ward made of corrugated iron.
His head is swimming.
Unknown to the rugby world at large, he has been finalising the details of a surprise move from Munster, agonising over the decision to cut ties with the province which has made him a household name.
Meanwhile, he knows it is a milestone day for his eldest daughter Sophie (5) who is starting school, but he also knows he is 6,000km from home. And his wife Jenny - who has been 'early' before - is due to give birth to the couple's fourth child in a couple of weeks.
But O'Callaghan has a more pressing reason to feel uncomfortable. In the corner of the small, airless room, a teenage girl is crying out in severe pain as she's held down by some of her family while a medic tries to give her an injection to help with a seizure brought on by malaria.
"I can't get that 14-year-old girl out of my head," he will say repeatedly over the next few days.
"That really rocked me. I guess I've seen the lack of water and poor sanitation and so on in camps before but that was hard to take because - excuse my language - it's a f***ing mosquito net, it's only pennies needed to prevent that.
"It is only when you get to the camp that you stop being such a selfish asshole," he adds.
"I was whinging about it being such a long trip, but when you're in the camp the first thing you think is, 'How lucky am I?'"
He's right, of course, but it has also been a long trip from Cork to South Sudan, not helped by a delay in Addis Ababa airport which eventually saw O'Callaghan's giant frame precariously balanced across two chairs and a table as he tried to grab some sleep.
It's hardly ideal preparation for Munster's opening league game of the season against Treviso back at Irish Independent Park four days later - but the 36-year-old takes his role as a UNICEF Ireland ambassador as seriously as he takes his rugby career.
Ensuring the needs of both are met on weeks like this is difficult but, despite still being in the capital Juba on Tuesday, the veteran lock nonetheless hopes to start against Treviso on Friday.
However, things don't go to plan.
Just over four years ago, South Sudan had big plans, big hopes, big ambitions. It became the youngest country in the world when it seceded from Sudan in July 2011.
That was the ultimate result of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa's longest-running civil war and, with the new nation set to benefit from inheriting the bulk of Sudan's significant oil wealth, there was widespread jubilation at the secession, which was backed by celebrities such as George Clooney, Mia Farrow and Don Cheadle.
Those were heady days indeed.
But they didn't last, being quickly swallowed up by a conflict which erupted in December 2013 after a power struggle between President Salva Kiir - from the dominant Dinka ethnic group - and his former deputy Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer.
The fighting has increasingly followed ethnic lines, unsettling an already volatile region.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed, an estimated 2.2million have fled their homes, horrific human rights violations have been recorded, many of the 11million population are on the brink of starvation, and much of South Sudan's infrastructure - including its health system - is in disarray.
In the days before O'Callaghan arrived, a tentative internationally-mediated peace agreement was signed by both sides, following months of on-off negotiations and several broken ceasefire agreements.
Without wishing to sound glib or facetious, his impending move to Worcester Warriors won't trouble the headline writers here.
But perhaps the health initiative he is here to promote will be a small but significant aid as this part of East Africa begins once again to walk the long and difficult road to a lasting peace.
As a rugby forward tipping the scales at almost 18st and measuring 6'6", you might imagine Donncha O'Callaghan struggles to be delicate. Yet, here we are.
He is in a makeshift ante-natal unit in the biggest camp in Juba for those South Sudanese forced to flee their homes in fear for their lives.
The newborn girl he is cradling in those big hands is less than 35 minutes old, and she is, at that moment, perhaps the newest citizen of the youngest country in the world.
However, he needs to help administer this polio vaccine quickly - given by way of two drops onto the tongue - and return her to her mother as she is threatening to cry the place down, despite his best, gentle efforts.
"It's the best sound in the world, the first cry - that's one you don't mind," he insists, handing the as-yet-unnamed girl back to Nyathor Thuk, who is now a mother-of-four living among 28,500 under United Nations security at this Protection of Civilians (PoC) site.
Her family was forced to flee Bentiu, more than 1,000km away in Unity State, earlier this year and arrived at the camp in May. "I had close relatives killed," Nyathor says simply, not wishing to expand further, the raw emotion of remembering clear on her face.
Bentiu, one of the country's most important oil hubs, was the scene of an infamous massacre last year when rebels brutally slaughtered hundreds from enemy tribes, including women and children, who had sought refuge in a hospital, a mosque and a Catholic Church.
Toby Lanzer, who previously headed the UN's humanitarian mission here, described "a never-ending stream of spots where people have been executed, very deliberately targeted".
A PoC site refers to a situation where civilians seek protection and refuge at existing UN bases after being caught up in fighting. This camp is actually comprised of three separate but adjacent PoC sites - 1, 2 and 3 - with only PoC3 having some semblance of layout planning, and with it, some semblance of order.
Nonetheless, tents and temporary dwellings of wood and sheets of corrugated iron stretch as far as the eye can see here in PoC3, piles of rubbish are being burned and there are people - especially young men - everywhere, doing little or nothing.
This camp is almost entirely Nuer, and there are some high-profile political people here who were specifically targeted by the government in the past and feared being killed. Nyathor, the 25-year-old mother of the newborn girl, is, in fact, Dinka. However, her husband is Nuer, which means she took on Nuer ethnicity when they married. It also gives a little insight into one of the many complexities of the conflict.
Life for Nyathor and her family inside the PoC site is obviously better than it was outside, but it's far from easy as they arrived long after capacity was reached and have been unable to get a plot to secure a tent - and therefore are as yet ineligible for the monthly food ration including sorghum, lentils and cooking oil.
"We are waiting," she says, "and for now we don't have access to food except for the kindness of relatives and neighbours in the camp."
What would she need to return home? "Peace". For how long will it need to hold before she's confident? She shrugs. Longer than a few days anyway. Maybe into next year.
Here she has, at least, access to health facilities, and her baby girl has already been vaccinated against polio - the health initiative that O'Callaghan is hoping to rally public support for at home.
Largely due to the conflict, South Sudan now has hundreds of thousands of children unimmunised against polio - giving it the unwanted number one ranking in the world for countries at risk of developing an outbreak.
There is no cure for polio, and in a small proportion of cases it causes paralyses. But it's also an imminently-preventable disease. The last epidemic in Ireland was more than 50 years ago, and the last recorded case was in 1984.
"Our hope is that this latest project in South Sudan will mirror the outstanding success we had last year in halting the spread of polio in Nigeria," Gerry Cunningham of Irish banana importers Fyffes said. With Fyffes' support - through a campaign in Ireland later this year - an estimated 250,000 children in South Sudan will be immunised against the disease.
The work forms part of a UNICEF goal to eradicate the disease worldwide by 2018.
O'Callaghan's role as a UNICEF ambassador visiting countries such as South Sudan, Syria, Lebanon and Haiti in recent years is, on one level, a little incongruous.
Granted, there is a "World Cup" in rugby starting later this month but it would be quite a stretch to describe the sport as truly global, and it certainly hasn't caught the imagination in East Africa just yet.
At the PoC3 site in Juba he initially provides little more than curiosity value - as a tall white man - for the locals while being shown around, as opposed to a visit early this year by American actor Forrest Whittaker, a UNESCO envoy, who was widely-recognised, and caused quite a stir.
On most other levels, O'Callaghan's partnership with UNICEF is a perfect fit.
As it happens, this affable and engaged 'tall white man' doesn't need celebrity or his sport or, indeed, a common language to make a connection.
Seeing a large group of women waiting at a water collection point, he's soon in the middle of them, getting lessons on how to carry the barrels on his head.
The barrels can weigh up to 30kg when full. Unsurprisingly, he's not able to keep even an empty one balanced for more than a few seconds but having successfully broken the ice, so to speak, he is soon learning about the reality of their daily lives, and reporting back.
"It's traditionally seen as a woman's job to look after the home and even though the men haven't got work now in the camps there is no chance of them helping out," he explains, after dragging a translator into the mix.
"They might have to wait for a few hours for the truck to come to the camp but it's vital they have clean water or, as we heard earlier, there is the very real risk of cholera which broke out here last month but now there's only a handful of cases after vaccinations. I've been to camps where they've been forced to drink dirty water from puddles on the ground. It's a truly desperate situation."
UNICEF is focused on helping children and mothers in difficult situations, and O'Callaghan is open about the sudden death of his father Hughie when Donncha was only a young boy.
"Sophie is five now, and I was just near on six when it happened so, yeah, I often think of it," he says. "On my next birthday I'm 37. My dad died at 40... He had a heart attack. He was a smoker, a father-of-five in the 80s, a plasterer by trade, so it must have been stressful.
"I suppose it was a galvanising thing for my family in it really brought us all together - and I had a wonderful childhood, I really did. And I strongly believe every child is entitled to be healthy and happy. It sounds so simple, but it is everything."
Obviously, the main aim of O'Callaghan's "fact-finding missions" is to raise awareness back home of UNICEF's work abroad. But what's equally obvious is he gets a lot from it personally.
He first became involved during the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2009. He'd done charity work, but felt he was "only showing my face". Seeing up close the work being done was, he says, a game-changer and he's become increasingly engaged, joining the board in 2012.
"Probably the biggest thing I've noticed is how people warm to you just as a result of you being Irish," he says.
"In Syria a couple of years ago I remember getting out of cars and there were men running towards us and I thought it was going to kick off - they were so aggressive. But the tension disappeared immediately when they heard we were Irish.
"I only learned afterwards it was because we were close to Lebanon and they'd heard of our unbelievable peacekeepers. A translator said, 'When they hear you're Irish they know you'll help'.
"I thought that was unbelievable.
"We hear about Irish lads getting into drunken scraps or trouble in Australia or wherever and you'd be ashamed but this was the complete opposite.
"Honestly, there are things I'd be proud of - playing for Ireland and stuff - but that was the moment that I was proud to be Irish, to hear that regard in which we're held as a nationality."
And, of course, while his rugby skills were never likely to be called for in South Sudan, his sporting ability will always break down barriers. Or is it just his competitive streak?
"It's funny, when you meet the kids they don't know anything about rugby obviously but I suppose sport is kind of common with everyone, people just want to play and have a bit of fun," he insists after wrangling his way into an impromptu two-on-two basketball game in PoC3 that soon becomes both compelling and physical.
O'Callaghan is a big man, but the South Sudanese are some of the tallest people in the world so he has no major advantage in this one. "That was a full-contact game," he says with a grin. "I got checked, blocked and shouldered there more than if I was in a non-contact rugby training session with Munster or Ireland."
You wonder what Munster coach Anthony Foley would make of the 20-minute game on a concrete court.
News of O'Callaghan's two-year deal with Worcester breaks the day after he leaves Juba.
He'd been in negotiations for five weeks but was still hoping for a farewell competitive appearance against Treviso - something of a farewell after 17 incredible years, which included two Heineken Cup triumphs.
It won't happen like that.
"The chance to say goodbye is something you'd like but you understand that the team need to do what's right for them," he says from Cork as the dust settles.
He apologises for not being able to mention the deal previously - it was the only thing he wasn't open about on the trip.
His contract with Munster was due to end next summer - and he confirms the extra 12 months was a significant factor as "with a small family under the roof you have to do what's best for you".
The money will also be good as the newly-promoted side are ambitious, determined to stay in the top flight of the English Premiership, and know that you get what you pay for.
But, mostly, he just wants to prove himself again.
He became Munster's most-capped player in February of last year, making his 241st appearance, but has played just 22 times since.
"For me it's all about playing. I loved it at Munster but it's really hard when you're not togging out," he says.
"You're there but you don't feel a part of it. I hate that. For me it's all about playing."
Jenny and the girls will likely move over after the new addition arrives later this month. O'Callaghan will juggle that with his new routine, and will try take in some of the World Cup. He hasn't played for Ireland for two years, and was never in serious contention for this squad.
"I know it would be unbelievably difficult and I know people will say I'm totally delusional but I want to compete," he says about adding to his 94 caps.
"All you think of is the next one. Believe me, a lot of people have said I must be desperate to get to 100 caps but I'd kill to get to 95. That'd do me fine. It's addictive, playing for Ireland."
He'll continue playing as long as he's wanted. But he dismisses talk of going into coaching or management afterwards, indicating that his digital marketing firm 4Impacts, based in Cork, will be his career focus when he stops wearing short pants to go to work.
Speaking of short pants, do Worcester fans have any hope of seeing the bright red briefs he first revealed to millions of armchair viewers during a Heineken Cup game in 2006 when he lost his Munster shorts in a ruck?
"Ah here, will you leave me alone?" he grimaces. "I was looking for something the other day and I found them. I wanted to throw them out but Jenny stopped me, unfortunately."
News of that wardrobe malfunction probably had reached South Sudan - if only we'd thought to ask.
For more information or to donate to the polio eradication campaign involving UNICEF and Fyffes visit unicef.ie