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May 12, 2020

Life is a Splendid Torch: Lessons from my Dad’s time in Africa during COVID-19.

Elephant’s Continually-updating Coronavirus Diary. ~ Waylon

I am always relieved when I see another illuminating Facebook post or email from my dad, who turns 78 this July.

My worry for him has intensified during this global pandemic. You see, Dad has lived in South Sudan since early 2018, where he has been working at a teacher’s college near the capital of Juba.

Well, he was working until a couple of weeks ago, when the South Sudanese government closed educational institutions in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus.

As each day brings more news of the spread of COVID-19 globally, the concern now shifts to Africa, where the World Health Organisation has warned we could see as many as 10 million cases within three to six months. I find myself checking the “coronavirus cases by country” tables, refreshing the page for any changes, much like I used to check the football scores.

At the time of writing, there have been a reported 74 confirmed cases in South Sudan, a figure which slowly rises every couple of days. It’s hard to know how accurate that figure is though. Humanitarian crises are certainly not unfamiliar to the developing country, which has extremely limited health services. If the coronavirus were to spread through Africa, as is warned, Dad could quite possibly catch it. He could quite possibly die. Despite this, I oddly feel less worried about him being in South Sudan right now than if he were here in Melbourne.

I guess I should be slightly worried. Having worked at an international non-governmental organization (NGO), I am well aware of how dangerous a place South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, can be. Ask Google if it is a safe country and the answer is a clear no. “One does not go to South Sudan and start roaming freely,” comes the answer. It’s second to last on the Global Peace Index. This is all before you throw in a global health crisis that isn’t discriminating in its reach. The country’s borders are shut due to the pandemic and there’s no way to leave.

However, Dad’s Facebook photos and stories show me hope. He would be there regardless. “You don’t run away from people because there’s trouble on the horizon. What sort of message is that?” reads one of his posts. While rescue flights bring home trapped Australians from other parts of the world, he regularly assures me and my four brothers—his family—that it was his choice to go to South Sudan in the first place, and it is his wish to stay there now.

In another email, he tells me about a book he is reading containing a collection of quotes on Irish wisdom. He shares his favourite quote from the book, by George Bernard Shaw:

“Life is no brief candle for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

My dad is my hero.

I don’t especially like to dwell on the possibility of Dad dying from coronavirus. I’ve already had one parent pass away and it is the worst thing in the world. After my mum died, I would see Dad for lunch every Wednesday at the local sporting club; we would have a few too many beers and then remember something beautiful about mum and then cry.

This could have been it. Dad’s torch could have dimmed, and he could have carried on depressed, playing Keno forevermore at the sporting club. But his torch didn’t dim. He packed up the car for a road trip up to Queensland. He stopped in small towns along the way, sharing stories about my mum with people he met, and in turn writing short stories about their lives. Soon after, an old friend and former teaching colleague invited him to work in South Sudan, initially running errands, such as shopping at the markets and picking up visitors from the airport. He also began writing the school curriculum and training eager students English, and how to be teachers. While he asked his offspring what we thought of the offer, we all knew what he would ultimately do.

He’s always been a man of service, purpose, and thinking beyond his own existence. He initially trained to be a Catholic brother before he fell in love with my mum and forged out a teaching career. As children following him around on yet another adventure, we would often run into a former student in the most random of places, and they would more often than not recall something Dad had said or done in a particular class that had stuck with them, not realising the life lesson he was teaching them until reaching adult life.

A lot of his former students are now his Facebook friends, and I see many more friends are now being added from South Sudan. He has become affectionately known in his community as “Grandfather.” He posted a video recently of himself with a couple of his graduating students. They understandably love him. “Grandfather is a good guy and he is a helper,” said one. “He is the King of Kindness!” said another.

Their school is now closed, but Dad is still connecting with those students who have returned home in an attempt to quell the spread of coronavirus. For many, home is a Protection of Civilians Camp without adequate living conditions, let alone educational resources. “The authorities in those camps insist on social distancing and get very angry if there are more than 17 people gathered in one square metre. My heart bleeds for them,” says Dad.

During the limited hours of available internet, he sends his students feedback on their written English within the journal entries they send to him. His humour shines through as he sends cryptic photos that turn out to be brick walls and drainpipes and beautiful teak trees for students to guess and describe where they are from—part of a game called Know Your Campus. Of why he does it, Dad simply says, “I think there is an important job to be done here, keeping in touch with as many as possible, while the clamps are on, getting them to write to me, encouraging them to keep improving their English, and giving them hope.”

Even in this crisis, whilst he might tell me he’s craving a cold draught beer, my father still focuses on what’s ahead and thinks beyond himself. He has been burning his life’s torch brightly like this for as long as I can remember. The roof once blew off our local primary school in a freak storm. Dad was part of the team who went to rebuild it. He once invited a Tibetan monk home, and we all made delicious dumplings together while asking the monk about his life. We would go on drives where we would be on a road with no towns in sight, and I could see from the passenger side that the petrol was at a dangerously low level. Dad would smile and look forward, “We’ll be fine, we’re on an adventure!” he would say, while I stressed my little brain out imagining that we would run out of fuel on a deserted highway and that would be the end.

After an initial six months, Dad came back from South Sudan to share a wonderful family Christmas. One of my brothers surprised us all by announcing he was to get married while we were all together. On Christmas Day, I unhelpfully opted to get drunk down at the kids’ end of the table, but my father picked up his torch again and welcomed the new members of the family into the fold with a heartfelt pre-lunch speech. He made sure they were happy, accepted, and comfortable. That same day, he handed me a card, it was addressed “To the sons and daughter of Allan Drummond.” Inside were handwritten notes of thanks from some of his friends from South Sudan. They are a joy to revisit.

“Thank you for sharing with us the great gift of your loving dad. We won’t mind if you give him back to us.”

We did indeed give Dad back to South Sudan; he returned not long after that family Christmas. In the darkness of the coronavirus, I am happy to share him. My father is making the world a better place. He teaches me that we can dwell in despair, or we can learn and move forward and grow. We can be of purpose and share ourselves with the world.

In one of his musings, he tells me: “The human spirit is urged on by an optimism which defies logic, especially in a country like this which has suffered so much already.” Even in a global pandemic, my dad is a beacon of light. I am grateful that I can bask in some of his glow and hope that I can keep the torch burning when one day he hands it to me.


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