A tribute to Jesuit priest Victor-Luke Odhiambo who was slain while serving at a teachers’ training college in South Sudan. Francis Anyanzu SJ, a Ugandan-born Jesuit priest now living and studying in South Africa, reflects on his life of service in a remote place of great need.
Victor-Luke Odhiambo SJ, a 62-year-old Kenyan-born Jesuit priest, was in the living room of his home at the Daniel Comboni Jesuit community in Cueibet, a remote place in the Lake State of South Sudan, when unknown assailants stormed the house in the early hours of the morning on Thursday, 15 November 2018.
He lived with three companion Jesuits, who, together, with another Jesuit visiting the community, had retired early to their rooms.
Then, in the early hours of the morning, they heard the noise — and the gunshots.
Sounds of guns firing shots are commonplace here and threats on people’s lives are an all-too-familiar horror with which Jesuits missioned to South Sudan and all those living there have been forced to come to terms with. On 15 November, however, the shots were in the Jesuit community’s living room.
At around 02h00 two gunshots were fired and Victor-Luke was killed in his living room.
The priest was murdered for a motive known only to his killers. All that his companions saw when they came into the living room was an already lifeless body. Attempts to alert anyone of the intrusion and shooting were too late.
Victor’s journey to follow the Lord, as he had understood his life’s calling to be, began in 1978 when he joined the Jesuit Novitiate in Zambia. He is among the pioneer Jesuit scholastics of Hekima College and the first Jesuit from Kenya to be ordained a deacon at the Jesuit School of Theology in Kenya where many Jesuits from Africa and further afar come for their theological training.
He spearheaded a number of educational initiatives of the Jesuits in Eastern Africa and was one of the “Founding Fathers” of the Jesuit high school in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Since 2008, he has served as headmaster of Loyola House School in Wau, South Sudan. Loyola House was converted into a school after it had been used during the War as a military barracks. He also taught English at St Peter Claver Computer and Ecological Centre in Rumbek and became the first principal of Mazzolari Teachers College in Cueibet — where he met his death. He is the first Jesuit to die in service in South Sudan. His death has left a great pain for many of the people there who loved him so dearly.
I first met Victor in the Jesuit Curia (head office) in Nairobi. He had a very gentle and unassuming personality — a comfortable person to live with and be with. His readiness to make do with the bare minimums needed for life, which he kept to even when coming to Nairobi, was a way of testifying to the frugal ways of living in South Sudan where thousands go without the conveniences of life.
A man of wisdom who carefully weighed his opinions before intervening in issues. A Jesuit with an intellectual depth. He was very knowledgeable, ranging from the sciences to theology and literature. His commitment to the people of South Sudan is indisputable. Even when the conflicts there were at their peak, Victor always stayed with the people, never abandoning the “sheep” entrusted to him. A devoted disciple of Jesus’ vision and practice of being with “the least among us.”
Fr Arturo Sosa, the worldwide head of the Jesuits writing to the Eastern Africa province, where Victor-Luke served, recognises the great legacy he leaves.
He was a very courageous man, intelligent, caring, creative administrator and above all a believer in the value of education. He was not afraid of venturing into the unknown even into the most dangerous of places once he was convinced it was the Lord’s mission. His example of selfless dedication as Headmaster and Principal remains a challenge to many of our younger brothers in the Society of Jesus. He is a light, which has been extinguished, after enlightening other lights. Like a grain of wheat that dies in order to bear much fruit. And this is our consolation.
Mazollari Teachers College in Cueibet, the Jesuit mission where Victor was killed is the most recent collaborative apostolic work between the Eastern Africa Jesuit province and the diocese of Rumbek. The college was an initiative of the late Bishop Mazollari of Rumbek diocese whose aim was to respond to the lack of teachers in South Sudan. During the protracted period of civil war, the existing educational infrastructure of the country had collapsed into the direst state. The rebuilding process of the country required sourcing of teachers for basic education from neighbouring countries and elsewhere.
Cueibet is located in the remotest parts of the Rumbek town, the capital of Lake State of South Sudan, in the area of the Dinka Gok clan which is one of the clans of the Dinka community of the Lake State. The place has always been a hotbed of ethnic tensions between the Gok and neighbouring Dinka clans. We, the Jesuits, have been working here for about two years where we remain fully committed to the mission of reconciliation by providing education at the frontiers where few dare go.
Victor-Luke Odhiambo SJ, strongly believed in the future of Africa’s newest country. Over the past ten years he gave his entire self for that purpose. Educating the people is something he strongly felt could make a significant change and enable a future for the people there. At Jesuit gatherings he often spoke of the importance of education if peace and development were ever to be realised in South Sudan.
For the Jesuits, his family and friends, we mourn a great loss. But right up until his death in cold-blood, he planted seeds of hope and courage for many who want to see a stable South Sudan. The provincial of the Jesuits in Eastern Africa, Joseph Oduor Afulo SJ, preaching at his funeral offered the following words before laying his body to rest.
“Like a seed, he has died so that [a] good education[al] foundation and [a] deeply rooted faith may find strong roots in Cueibet, in Gok state and in South Sudan. He has been poured out like [a] libation [of] water [so as] to give life to [an] education[al] foundation and [grow an] intimate knowledge of Christ in this land.”
A death such as his proves that frontier ministry is not something to be dreamed from afar but a reality in and for which people like Victor choose to live. He would, not in vain, give his last breath for this.