In 1987 when Sr. Carolyn Buhs responded to a call for volunteers to go to the Sudan, her Bishop told her plainly, “I’m sending you to Hell.” True, summer months in Sudan are parchingly hot with sandstorms known as huboobs, but Sr. Carolyn found the people surprisingly open.
As she labored through two years of Arabic language studies taught by young Muslim men and women she also enjoyed their hospitality which extended to meals and a wedding. Once, a local leader from the Sufi mosque told her, “You are people of the Book, and we are people of the Book. That’s why we can dine with you.”
While studying Arabic, Sr. Carolyn also taught English at the Comboni School and in the Minor Seminary in El Obeid. Life changed in 1989 when an Islamic-backed coup rocked the country. The immediate backlash for Sister and others in the city included a scarcity of food as fearful merchants kept their shops locked. She still remembers the hunger. And the bits of stale pita bread.
Later men and boys were conscripted to fight against the Christians and animists who lived in South Sudan. Some mornings the teachers at the school and seminary discovered that one or two of the boys had been kidnapped for military training for this jihad. “Living in a Muslim country where Christians are an oppressed minority opened my eyes to a totally different way of life,” says Sr. Carolyn with a hint of understatement.
Returning to Kenya in 1993, Sr. Carolyn joined the relief efforts at Kakuma Refugee Camp, then just two years old, helping the thousands of boys who would later be known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Fleeing the violence that destroyed their families and villages, by the time the boys (mainly from Dinka and Nuer tribes) made it to the camp, they had survived army attacks, near starvation, dehydration, disease and crossing the crocodile-infested Gila River.
The camp offered shelter, at least one meal a day, and a chance for education. The boys valued the education believing it to be an important part of their future. Sr. Carolyn used her administration skills to oversee the efforts of the camp’s 21 primary schools and one secondary school. “Many of the boys couldn’t read. We had adolescent boys learning the alphabet.” Later she would help set up the camp’s first library. But one of her greatest joys came as she started small Christian communities in the camp. “The boys loved to pray and all of them wanted Bibles. Their thirst for knowledge and the Bible inspired me.”
When tribal violence erupted in the camp, it became too dangerous for the relief workers. Sr. Carolyn recounts, “One morning, we saw Dinka boys rise out of a gully armed with crude shields and daggers ready to attack the Nuer camp though which we were driving. It sent shivers down my spine. As the vehicle we were in turned to retreat, we passed a truck with six dead bodies of Nuer boys.”
When Sister left the Kakuma Refugee Camp where she had labored for three years, leaving behind her the boys who were so thirsty for knowledge and loved the Bible, they were not forgotten. Sr. Carolyn accepted a position training teachers and catechists–some of whom would later go to the refugee camp and teach the boys.
After 30 years in Africa, Sr. Carolyn moved back to the United States, but part of her heart remains in Africa. Her gentle spirit, gifts of teaching and administration and willingness to work with the poor in the most abandoned places has served her well throughout her career.
In October 2011, Sister returned to South Sudan to work with Solidarity with South Sudan.