Sr Orla Treacy has worked in South Sudan since 2006, where she’s devoted her life to educating young women in a country where half of the girls are in arranged marriages by the age of 18.
But this week, the Irish Loreto sister is part of a group that has embarked on a nine-day walking pilgrimage to Juba to see Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland during their historic ecumenical visit to South Sudan.
Speaking to The Tablet, Sr Orla says expectation has been building in the world’s youngest country ahead of the visit.
In preparation, she and around 80 young people from 60 different justice and peace groups are walking 150 kilometres (93 miles) of the 410 kilometres (254 miles) from Rumbek, in the centre of the country, to Juba.
Each evening some members of the “walking for peace” pilgrimage perform a play which delivers a message of compassion, peace, and forgiveness. It’s similar to what Sr Orla tries to ensure is taught to the students in the girls' schools that she runs.
“Revenge is a big part of the culture,” Sr Orla says, “but we are trying to show the importance of forgiveness.
“The aim is to try and create a ripple effect through these young people who, through a transformative education, can model Christian virtues.”
It’s sorely needed in the country where 400,000 people have been killed and more than two million displaced in a civil war that has ravaged the country on and off since South Sudan declared independence in 2011.
On top of the conflict, the east African country has suffered an unprecedented four years of flooding and food insecurity, with only four per cent of children in South Sudan eating an acceptable diet, according to the UN World Food Programme.
The Pope’s ecumenical pilgrimage is focused on building peace in the country and urging its leaders to implement the peace process. Sr Orla is hopeful it will make an impact.
“There’s always bad news about South Sudan so I hope there will be hopeful stories out of this visit,” she says.
“The Pope is a leader and he’s an elder. He’s coming from his house to our house. Everybody’s excited. Just the idea that he would consider coming is already having an impact.”
Sr Orla refers to the retreat for South Sudan’s leaders in the Vatican in 2019, hosted by the Pope and led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. At the end of the retreat, Francis knelt to kiss the feet of the country’s leaders in a dramatic appeal for peace.
“We can never underestimate the famous kiss of the Pope to the leaders,” she says.
“The fact he’s coming to the country will remind them of that moment. It has to have a huge impact on the leaders.”
The walking group began on Wednesday, 25 January, at Rumbek cathedral. They were joined at the start by the Governor of South Sudan’s Lake State, Rin Tueny, the Bishop of Rumbek, Christian Carlassare and his Anglican counterpart, Archbishop Alapyo Manyang.
If they had 200 buses destined for Juba, says Sr Orla, she would be able to fill them.
She says the security situation in South Sudan has markedly improved recently and is the most peaceful she has experienced in 16 years.
For years, she’s lived with the country’s conflict, including danger on the roads, being threatened at gunpoint and facing the impossibility of travel. Last December was the first time she had been able to drive to Juba in a decade.
The 49-year-old religious is the director of an all-girl primary and secondary school and health care facility in Rumbek. She and two other nuns were invited to set up a school by the local bishop.
Her work has been recognised numerous times, and she received the Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad from President Michael D Higgins.
Sr Orla says that the biggest battle is keeping girls in education, given the large numbers placed into arranged marriages in exchange for cows, a valuable currency in South Sudan.
She points out that 52 per cent of 18-year-olds are in forced marriages and nine per cent of 15-year-olds.
Her secondary school has 356 girls, with parents required to sign a contract not to take their girls out of school and give them over to an enforced marriage. It’s been helped by a new law from the civil authorities aimed at stopping early forced marriages.
She says the girls in her schools are deeply inspired by the founder of her order, the Venerable Mary Ward (1585-1645).
The English nun was a prophetic figure who established religious life for women outside of the cloister, focused on educating girls and is famous for her phrase that “women in time to come will do much”.
Like girls in South Sudan, she faced attempts to marry her off along with clashes with the Church hierarchy, including a suppression of her order by Pope Urban VIII.