Thursday 21 March 2019

Sister Orla is in front line of girls' education

Reporter David Medcalf spoke to teacher sister Orla Treacy, who hails from Bray but works as principal of the Loreto Rumbek school in South Sudan, where most girls never have the chance of secondary education

Sister Orla Treacy
Sister Orla Treacy

Orla Treacy is very aware of her educational heritage, though the circumstances in which she applies that heritage are very different from those of her childhood. The green suburbs of County Wicklow have been exchanged for the sub-Saharan brown of the third most dangerous country in the world.

Sister Orla is a Bray girl, who attended the local Loreto school around the corner in the Vevay Road before professing her vocation as a nun. She was raised with the story of how a woman called Mary Ward established a Jesuit style order which educated young ladies in England. Mary Ward's Institute of the Virgin Mary, established in the 17th century, was later adapted and adopted in Ireland by Teresa Ball in the 19th century.

Sister Teresa inspired a global force for the education of women which has planted deep roots in many parts of the world over the decades. Her nuns took the name Loreto as they brought their brand of schooling and practical feminism to every inhabited continent.

However, Southern Sudan in the upper reaches of the Nile valley was a blank spot on the Loreto map up to quite recently. Only in 2006 was it decided to break new ground and send in the woman from Bray to bring a measure of enlightenment to an area blighted by poverty and conflict.

During the dozen years since then, she has become a pillar of stability and progress in a land which has a reputation for being perilously insecure. The principal of the Loreto Rumbek, she works fearlessly in defence of the right of her pupils to an education which has been denied to most of their compatriots.

Tall in stature and fair of skin, unmissably Irish, she retains the accent of her native land after her long stint in Africa. When Orla speaks nowadays of 'we', however, she is likely to be talking about her adopted country rather than Ireland.

She first experienced Third World conditions during her final year as a student studying to be a teacher of religion. The Mater Dei Institute dispatched her to Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) in India on a brief placement, an experience which unsettled her.

Rather than returning home to take up a job in Cork, she joined the Loreto sisterhood and prepared herself for the missions. Shortly after she made her final profession as a nun, she left for South Sudan - then part of the Republic of Sudan - in 2006.

'It is the third most dangerous country in the world,' she confirms in a matter-of-fact tone of the land she has come to think of as home. Only the citizens of Syria and Afghanistan face a greater chance of meeting a violent end than those of South Sudan, the statistics suggest.

When she first arrived in this majority Muslim land, the south was engaged in a bloody rebellion. The conflict was finally resolved in 2011 by the establishment of an independent state amidst a wave of pride and optimism.

However, a civil war which began three years later took the shine off the achievement and the killing resumed. Back home in Bray for a six month break, Sister Orla has fingers crossed that a peace agreement reached in September will hold long term but there is no guarantee.

Over a mug of tea in the homely comfort of the convent kitchen in Vevay Road, she speaks of the very different circumstances she found on arrival in Rumbek. She and a Kenyan colleague had been dispatched to a place which had no infrastructure to speak of. Though the city had been a candidate to serve as capital of the new nation, it was lacking electricity and running water, while there was no tarmac on the roads.

'And we have Ebola knocking on the door,' she reports pointing out that landlocked South Sudan includes Congo, currently suffering an outbreak of the dreaded virus, amongst its neighbours.

Like everyone else in Rumbek, the two nuns found themselves living in huts, first of straw and then of corrugated iron. It has been a major achievement since to build a proper house for themselves, which serves as a signal of hope in sometimes desperate circumstances and a symbol of permanence.

The country is briefly green each year from July to September, once the rains arrive on schedule, but is 'almost desert' for the other nine months. Orla recalls that she left Ireland in February to take up her Rumbek assignment and arrived to experience sweltering temperatures of around 40 degrees centigrade.

She was generally welcome in a region from which missionaries were expelled in the 1960s. One result of the expulsion was that schooling became a very scarce resource and whole generations largely missed out.

'There is a huge appetite for education,' she says, though providing education for girls is a task with its own particular set of challenges. A teen female may come under pressure, or worse, to marry rather than continue attending classes.

The language of Loreto Rumbek is English, the formal national language, a legacy of the days when the British Empire held sway in these parts. Most of the people of the town come from the Dinka tribe and Orla has picked up enough of the Dinka tongue to get by.

South Sudan, as the principal explains, has 64 tribes, which means that 64 local languages are spoken, with Arabic and English providing common ground. The latter is favoured as the language of trade with the world beyond the national borders but the reality is that many citizens have little or no English.

Some students at the school are offered lessons in English to assist them in their studies so that they have a shared language with their classmates across the various tribes from which they come.

It took two years after the nuns first landed to have the new venture up and running, opening its doors as a secondary boarding school in 2008 - the only institution of its kind in the province of Western Lakes. One major difficulty was posed by the fact that construction skills were next to non-existent in the local labour force, so workers had to be brought in from elsewhere.

The building materials also had to be imported, paid for by fundraising back in Europe so that now there is accommodation for close to 300 boarders. They not only pursue academic curricula but also enjoy playing sports such as basketball, football, table tennis and badminton.

The school web-site continues to offer opportunities for supporters in richer countries to make donations (see The site boasts proudly that all of the students from Rumbek who sat the National Secondary School Certificate passed with grades of 60 per cent or higher. It also reveals that during her dozen years in South Sudan Orla Treacy has yet to draw a salary.

A co-educational primary school was added in 2010, providing the basics to 600 children from the immediate neighbourhood. The Loreto complex also boasts a primary health care unit where the staff of four nurses handles at least 1,000 consultations every month.

The break from Sudan in 2011 was ushered in on a wave of optimism in this mainly Muslim land of 12 million people. However, the excitement soon evaporated in a corrosive, destructive, divisive conflict which has wrecked the currency, collapsed the economy and displaced populations.

'In a civil war everyone is affected,' says Sister Orla who notes one especially unsettling element: 'Our young men are able to access arms.'

Loreto Rumbek operates against a background in which murderous old scores are settled and cattle rustling disrupts farming.

As well as offering a shelter from military conflict, the school also has a role as a refuge from social pressures.

According to the web-site, ten per cent of the boarders would be facing the prospect of becoming child brides if they remained at home.

A majority of girls in South Sudan find themselves married before the age of 18, often without their consent.

'There is a big problem with forced marriage,' says the principal who has fought the trend by keeping the dropout rate to a minimum.

South Sudan is an extraordinarily difficult place for any young female who wants to learn anything other than the basics of home-making.

Only 7 per cent of girls complete primary education and just 2 per cent go on to secondary secondary. In this context, the Loreto is a beacon of enlightenment as it sends most of its graduates on to further education and a conscious effort is made to train them for leadership.

The breakthrough for the girls of Rumbek has been followed by a similar initiative for boys, with the arrival of the De La Salle order.

Achieving progress is daunting but Orla Treacy is there to stay: 'South Sudan is home for me.' She is in South Sudan to stay.

Bray People