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Martin Ochaya, South Sudanese priest: “There is still a mix between Christianity and traditional religions”


Firmly anchored to the stone foundations, the metal structure of the future bell tower soars skyward. Slaloming through the rubble, Father Martin Ochaya surveys the construction work of the new church in the Catholic parish of St. Kizito, in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. ” It will be the largest church in the city! “, he launches with enthusiasm.

We will finally have a place to pray sheltered from the rain and the sun, and to be able to welcome all our faithful “, welcomes the prelate, proud of his parish ” very multicultural “. ” Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, Mundari, Bari… We welcome people from all walks of life. (…) If there is a place where the unity of South Sudanese can exist, it is in Saint Kizito! », he jokes.

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Martin Ochaya admits not knowing the exact number of his faithful in the parish of Saint-Kizito. There are those who, by the hundreds, come to pray in the current church, made of jail and bamboo. And then those who go to the thirteen ” prayer centers scattered throughout the parish. With the expansion of the capital since the end of the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005) then the independence of South Sudan in 2011, the Saint-Kizito district, formerly located on the western edge of the city, is now in right in the center of Juba. What to give the bread on the board to Martin Ochaya.

Because Christianity continues to gain ground in the country. According to the US government in its Report on International Religious Freedom dating from 2021, the country would have 60.5% Christians, 32.9% followers of traditional religions and 6.2% Muslims. Figures that mask a more nuanced reality, notes Martin Ochaya: in many cases, “ there is still a mix between Christianity and traditional religions “, he notes. A porosity which the priest accommodates since “the concept of God in Christianity is not very different from that of traditional religions”.

Historical progression of Christianity

This approach ” glue ” to the history of the spiritualities of the region. Historian Douglas H. Johnson, in his book South Sudan: A New History for a New Nation (2016), moreover undermines the fairly widespread idea that South Sudanese – and Africans in general – traditionally worship “animist gods”.

On the contrary, “South Sudan has a long history of blending monotheistic ideas and theistic religions, both indigenous and imported”, writes the historian. For Martin Ochaya, the major difference between indigenous spiritual beliefs and Christianity lies above all in the fact that, “In traditional religions, God is present everywhere, in everything in daily life, there is no need to go to church to find him”.

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At the head of his parish for three years, the prelate is very busy: teaching at the Catholic University of Juba two days a week, member of the “peace and justice” committee of the diocese, he receives confession every day from 4 p.m., then celebrates a mass at 6 p.m. On weekends, in addition to the Sunday morning service celebrated in three services (in English, Arabic and Bari), there “performs between seven and nine “karama””a popular tradition of bringing loved ones and neighbors together for a significant event for a family, for prayers and speaking out.

Martin Ochaya considers baptizing “ 300 to 400 children, three times a year “, but also “adults and even grandmothers”rather from pastoral communities, Mundari, Dinka, Nuer… A discrepancy that the clergyman deciphers in the light of the historical progression of Christianity in his country: “CAmong the Ecuadorians, Christianity is more than 100 years old, while for example among the Nuer, who are the last South Sudanese to have been evangelized, it only dates back to the end of the 1980s. “, he analyzes.

Ancestor worship

In question, the geographical location of these Nilotic peoples, living in the heart of the marshes in the south of the country, which explorers and European missionaries spent a large part of the 19e century trying to cross.

With this relatively recent Christian breakthrough, “South Sudanese easily switch to their ancestral beliefs”, notes Martin Ochaya. He observes it especially during funerals: “People are Christians, but they practice rites drawn from their traditional beliefs. » In the community from which he comes, the Acholi, the children of a deceased, do not have the right to look at the hole dug to bury the dead. They turn their backs on it, cover their eyes and throw a handful of earth backwards, before walking away, without looking back.

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Among the Ma’adi, the burial of a wife can turn into a tragedy: if the husband of the deceased has not fully paid the dowry, his in-laws lock up the body, ” sometimes with the husband », in a room, and only agrees to let the burial take place once the guarantee of payment of the dowry has been obtained.


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The worship of the ancestors, considered as intermediaries between the living and God, is also problematic in the eyes of the Church and tends to disappear with the advance of the Christian faith. Among the Dinka, statues that look like “posts”, sometimes decorated with a rope and carved with simple motifs, are used to consult the ancestors during rites.

Use of witchcraft

In other communities, “people pour a little of their beer on the ground before they start drinking, or even throw on the ground the first products of an agricultural harvest”, and this, in order to satisfy the ancestors, whose wrath inspires real fear. “Today we are simply holding a prayer to celebrate a successful harvest,” he explains.

Managing to discourage the desire for revenge on the part of the clan of a murdered young man – another tradition deeply rooted in South Sudan – was one of the highlights of his career as a priest. ” I didn’t immediately talk about forgiveness, that would have been insultingexplains Martin Ochaya. I simply said that violence would not bring the dead back and the family should not make themselves sick with bitterness and resentment. » A message similar to the one he addresses to those who come to confess their recourse to witchcraft, ” a dangerously expanding practice in Juba he worries.