Letter from Brother Bill


158. Mystery or Misery

The Mystery of the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus, God become man in Bethlehem, is one of the most stunning events and celebrated moments in history. In many part of the world, Christmas is a time for rejoicing, for families to gather, for bonds of love to be reinforced, for a time of shared laughter and happiness. It is a time for putting aside daily concerns, for renewing our perspective of what is, or is not important, and looking towards the coming year with new optimism and hope. We all know that Christmas happened in very poor circumstances as the infant Jesus was born into this world in a stable. Some how the human spirit can rise above disadvantaged circumstances and celebrate joyfully nonetheless.

In traditionally Christian countries, children everywhere look forward to Christmas, perhaps sometimes with unreal expectations as to gifts they may receive. Even in first world countries many parents ask themselves, ‘What can we afford to give the kids this year?’ Here in South Sudan the prior question for many parents is ‘What can I give my children to eat, today, tomorrow, next week?’ Recently Br Denis was surprised to find four women sitting in our lounge room in our house in Juba, led there by a child from across the street. They were looking for food. One woman spoke reasonably good English and she explained that between the four of them they had 28 children to clothe and feed. How hard must it be for a mother to see her children under-nourished and starving!

This incident was before the Government finally accepted the reality that the official bank rate needed adjusting. All year the bank rate has been pegged at US$ 1 = SSP 3.16 while, in reality, the street rate had risen to US$ 1 = SSP 19. As the street rate went up, the purchasing power of the South Sudanese Pound (SSP) went down. Not so long ago it was three oranges for five pounds; now it is one orange for 10 pounds. If one’s income is in dollars, or if one receives cost of living salary increases, then one can live with such inflation. So we are okay as we get many more SSP for our dollars. For the privileged few, who could convert money at the bank rate, they have been more than okay. They can make 500% profit by doing no more than trading in pounds at the bank for dollars and then selling dollars on the street. A blatant rort! The ordinary person, however, has only income in SSP and generally wages have not increased by much! Many now find they cannot afford to buy much at all.

Most economists would agree it is a good thing that the exchange rate has recently been ‘floated’ and the bank buying rate is now $1 = SSP 16.5 and the selling rate $1 = SSP 20.5. The blatant rort has been at least contained. But the trouble is that no preparation was made for this decision. The banks still do not have dollars. The timing of the float could not have been much worse. Who normally has dollars to sell to the banks? International NGOs, and their employees who are paid in dollars. But at this time of they year, most NGOs suspend operations and their staff go on home leave, taking dollars with them. At the start of 2016, they will return bringing dollars in, so easing the dollar liquidity problem facing the banks. I think early in the New Year would have been a better time to make such a significant change.

As it is, the price of the 20-litre water bottles we buy has jumped from SSP 13 to SSP 25; the price of clothing has doubled; diesel and petrol have officially increased from SSP 6 per litre to SSP 22, if you can find someone selling it. So many people are hungry and are facing this Christmas with scant ability to buy anything. I find myself wondering if the mystery of Christmas this year may be overshadowed by the misery of hunger in many homes. Yet these are a people who have survived by eating grass and the roots of water lilies. The churches will still be overflowing at midnight mass, the singing will be strong and the celebration vibrant as they cherish what they have rather than lament what they have not.

- Br Bill

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