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Paride Taban: Voice of the voiceless

The Sudanese bishop emeritus expresses hope that “the eyes of the government, the church and the international community can be brought to the dying people through the [Kuron] peace village.”

January 19, 2010

Editor's note: For more information about Bishop Paride Taban and Duke Divinity's Center for Reconcilation, please see Divinity magazine.

Paride Taban is bishop emeritus of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Torit in southern Sudan. During his two decades as bishop, from 1983 to 2004, he provided leadership in the midst of the most difficult circumstances of Sudan’s civil war. As bishop, he was a spokesperson and advocate for the people of south Sudan, bringing food to the starving and traveling the world to secure additional relief.

After his retirement in 2004, he moved from Torit to a remote area in the Sudan and in 2005 founded the Holy Trinity Peace Village Kuron, a place where people of different ethnicities and faiths live together. Taban calls the village a “small oasis of peace” in a country torn by ethnic and religious violence and hopes “to make Sudan a nation where people live as brothers and sisters, different religions living as people of God.” He has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Taban spoke with Faith & Leadership while visiting Duke Divinity School in November 2009 for Teaching Communities Week sponsored by the Center for Reconciliation.

The video above contains additional comment by the bishop.

Q: How did you come to start the peace village?

I was made a priest in 1964 when the missionaries were expelled from the southern Sudan. There were very few priests left in southern Sudan. I lived in Sudan for about two decades of war. Many in the Sudan were persecuting the church; many people had to escape to Uganda, to Kenya and to Central Africa.

I founded the peace village because of the human suffering I saw in those years from ’64 to ’83.

I could not bear the way people were segregated from each other. During the war, there were prisoners of war who were Islamic fundamentalists. I gave food to them as human beings. I saw a lot of reaction against Islam, against different tribes. I say, “I have to make Sudan a nation where people live as brothers and sisters, different religions living as people of God.” I say, “Why not start a peace village where people accept each other?”

During this period I went to Jerusalem twice and discovered a cooperative peace village called Neve Shalom where Christian, Muslim and Jewish people live together. They had a big hall with a mosque in the corner where the Muslim could pray. The Jews would gather for synagogue on the corner. They lived as one body. I said, “Wow.” I said, “I will retire from the administration of the diocese and start the peace village as soon as the peace is signed.”

Q: How many people live in the village now?

We started with 81 families. Now we have over 3,000 people, but not all as members of the village. They came because of the services we brought to the area where before there were no services at all.

People also came from the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, where people raid cattle and call each other enemies. These people call each other brothers now. There was a hospital in one nearby region that was on the route between Kenya and Juba; people could not go there for medical treatment because of cattle raiding. It was difficult for people from one tribe to cross that area. The other tribe would take them from the vehicle and kill them. Now that has ended. We collected the cattle raiders, the youth. They play football together; they have workshops together.

Now the people can go even on foot 75 kilometers to the nearby hospital. We made the place so peaceful. In that small peace village we have people from different denominations, Christian, Muslim, Catholic, Pentecostal. We have Seventh Day Adventists. That is what I started in that area.

Q: Do you have Muslim families and religious traditionalist families at the village?

We have many traditional people, because they come for the services we provide. During the war this part of the Sudan was a safe haven where many people took refuge because the government didn’t know the area. It was not on their map. [We brought] a school to this area, and everybody wanted to come. One day when I came [to visit the school] some women made a statement saying, “At last we are human beings.” They didn’t know that they were human beings. We started a school; we started a health center, hygiene and sanitation in the area.

We also teach them how to plant new crops. They were living mostly on milk and blood from the animals. The women were the ones cultivating. The women were the ones building houses made out of bushes and grass. Very simple, done by women while the men go after cattle. The men are warriors; they keep their strength for defending. Those are the traditional people.

People from different tribes come here. We have teachers who are Kenyan, Ugandan and some Sudanese. My daily occupation is to teach, pray and give conferences. I hardly stay long in the peace village. I go to Juba, to Torit and Rwanda. We have a literacy campaign. We have gotten vaccinations to the people. We teach them how they can keep close to one another.

Pope Paul VI said that development is peace. We are [literally] building bridges. During the war we built 10 bridges in the area because the roads were all broken. That makes the government in southern Sudan respect the church. The president of southern Sudan is in church every Sunday.

Q: I understand that you get up very early, you exercise and you eat vegetarian. In what ways are your personal practices important to your role as a leader?

I don’t eat meat because people in the area raid cattle. When I went [to visit], the people would kill a goat for me. I said, “No, I don’t eat this meat because I don’t know whether it is raided or not.” Also sometimes I would go to visit a poor family. Because I am bishop, they would kill their only goat or their one chicken for me. I said, “No, I eat what you eat.” They have green vegetables; they have beans. Their goat is very precious. Why should they kill it because of me?

I don’t take sugar; I sometimes take honey because you can get honey even in the bush, in the forest. I miss nothing, and I live happy.

Q: Do you hope to serve as an example to others in your personal habits?

No, I don’t. I want just to live my life for God and for people. When I studied Latin in school, I read de gustibus non est disputandum: Don’t dispute the tastes of another person.

Q: So you don’t judge the meat eaters.

No, no, no. I like them. When you come I kill a chicken, cook meat, bring beer for you. Anything, tea, coffee you will find on the table. I have my porridge every morning made out of sorghum or millet, and honey and vegetables, but the visitor must have everything that the visitor needs.

Q: You mentioned that you travel outside the village a great deal. While you’re gone, who takes over the leadership?

We have a board. We have council members. The parish priest is also the member of the board. The bishop is also involved. We are not cut away from the diocese. I am a church person. [The village] is registered as a nonprofit church organization. It is not my own, it is for the people. People live there like a cooperative, looking at the project as their own.

Q: Your village is called Holy Trinity. Do you ever worry that the name might make people suspicious because they fear that it’s evangelizing -- in a Muslim area, for example, would people be afraid of this?

When we look at Trinity, it is the unity [we see]. In Africa we have a stove. You put three stones at the bottom. These stones are all equal and the pot can rest on them. When you remove one, that pot cannot stand. It will fall. But when the three are in the three corners equally, the same level, and you put the pot there; it remains steady. That’s the meaning of the Trinity, equally supporting one thing, Unity. The unity is equality, respect for one another and love for one another. That is what we stress in our belief in the Trinity.

Q: Have other peace villages been created?

There have been some ghost peace villages created, but not in practice. Many people get money in the name of creating a peace village, but in reality where is the money for that peace project going? I don’t know. Peace conferences. They’re holding one conference and all the money is used.

Q: In some ways, a peace village is a tiny solution to a huge problem -- 20 years of war and millions dead and all the issues that you face in Sudan. Why choose a small village project as opposed to a broader project?

God made a very small start; you see that start everywhere. It is even living there, in the sheep. In the morning star. I read a book, which says small is beautiful. Once you start something very small, it can hold practice that is solid. People can see it. How small is that moon? But the light is spread all over.

Many people are still angry with me. They say, “You should be bishop over the whole southern Sudan.” I say, “If I make myself like that I also create enmity. I don’t like such posts, which are really ambitious and so why don’t I start with something humble.”

Q: It sounds like your village has had influence within your area.

It is not only for that area; it has impact even for Ethiopia. The people who come from Ethiopia use that route to go to Juba, to other parts of Sudan. The people in my region use that route to go to Kenya. We had a conference with people from Uganda, Kenya and other parts. We look like a small place, but the concept has gone beyond that small place.

In the wilderness they go on the Internet and send emails. They say, “Bishop, we are broke here. Have you anything?” I’ve got my satellite telephone. [The village] brings communication to more people.

Q: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you would like to address?

At the Kuron Peace Village we want to build more bridges through relationships. That’s how Jesus got his disciples: “Come and see.” Financially, even this year, people are dying there from hunger. I went there a few days ago in a small plane somebody chartered for me. People ran to me. People were suffering in the whole area. “Bishop, if you are here we shall not die. We want food; we want food. Please go out and ask.” I sat weeping with them.

We need people who can see that the peace village is a hope for the dying people. The eyes of the government, the church and the international community can be brought to the people through the peace village.

During the war I went all over knocking on the doors of the governments, lobbying for peace in Sudan. I went out to New Zealand. In Washington I went about many times, knocking on offices.

Now through the peace village I knock on the doors of the world, especially now that election is going to happen in the southern Sudan. Now they are going to think of self-determination. We have been looking for a modern federation since 1947. We would not like this to be abandoned.

In the past, Christians in Sudan had no contact with the world. The Islamic fundamentalist regime -- not the people, but the regime in Khartoum -- said, “Who are you? You are toothless barking wolves.” Their teeth are the worldwide Islamic fundamentalist community. Since we had no one on our side supporting us, where were our teeth?

I’m sitting here; you are our teeth. Not in biting people, but you are our mouths. You are to speak out; you are the voice of the voiceless. We need to have more voices of the voiceless; our voice alone in the Sudan will not be enough for supporting the voiceless.