I’ve been in South Sudan 10 days now and feel pretty settled already which is awesome. The weather is drydrydrydustydrydrydry, but apparently it’s the best time of year to arrive in terms of temperature acclimatization – it’s 22 degrees during the small hours of the morning til about 8ish, then rapidly up to 36 C during the day. Am such a sunflower, I’m really loving it!
OK, I’m a nurse, not an historian or an economist, but it’s going to be impossible to talk about my project without talking about a bit of context first in terms of the country. To give you all some idea of the situation that MSF is working in here is a (very!) brief potted history of what’s been happening here in the last few years and the sort of challenges this new country faces…
South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, just 18 months old. It became independent from Sudan in July 2011 following two decades of civil war and, as could be expected, is experiencing many difficulties. The long conflict diverted any resources from any form of education/health/infrastructure/transport/business development and the ramifications of this are unsurprisingly massive. Compounding these problems are inter-tribal disputes. In some areas, cattle raiding and large-scale inter-communal violence is common and something that my MSF colleagues regularly see the impact of in their projects.
Despite fertile soil, untapped mineral reserves and known oil fields, South Sudan doesn’t yet have formal trade agreements and has almost no exports.
MSF has been working in the area that now makes up South Sudan since 1983 and currently has more than 350 expatriate staff and 3000 national staff dotted around the country. A good proportion of that is dedicated to emergency response programmes in five refugee camps near the Sudanese border to where around 170,000 people have fled in the past 12 months.
The project that I have been assigned is Nasir, a town in the east of South Sudan about 30 miles from the border with Ethiopia. As a first timer with MSF I was relieved to find out that the hospital there is well established and resourced – I would be taking over the responsibility for Outpatients (GPish, but without the appointment system!), Childhood Immunisation, and Community Outreach programmes. The plan is for the new Ministry of Health to gradually take over the hospital departments, but given the deficit of trained staff following the 20 year long conflict, this is likely to be a prolonged process.
It was strange to fly out of the UK on the 23rd December and arrive in Juba just in time for Christmas… my first tropical Christmas for a long time! The office in the capital was running on skeleton staff as a lot of people were on leave, but it was wonderfully reassuring on arriving from a red-eye flight and wrestling my way through the obscure customs systems to have the first two people I clapped eyes on be Nina and Tessa from my MSF training week six months ago! I spent a relaxed Christmas with the staff there acclimatising and getting to grips with the mission, security and health briefings that are routine for all new arrivals.
On the 27th I hopped into a teeney 18-seater plane to Nasir along with some serious MSF veterans who were getting off at Maban, the emergency project. It’s pretty crazy to imagine living this transient lifestyle for a decade or more. Couldn’t resist asking them for some wise words for a first timer…
“Don’t overdo it”
“Make sure you take your days off”
“Don’t go in thinking you’re going to heal the world in your first week” featured heavily.
The combination stressors of unfamiliar climate and diet, not to mention the ideals that lead you into this sort of work in the first place make a lot of people push themselves hard at their jobs – unsurprisingly illness and periods of emotional burnout are not uncommon among the expat workers… only time will tell how I fare. For now I’m going to follow the advice that I’ve been given and hope and pray that my immune system holds up!
“Hello, Emma? Welcome to Nasir, paradise!”
I was met at the little airstrip by an MSF land cruiser containing a cheerful, sunburnt, German man who introduced himself as Stefan, the project techlog. If something’s broken – he fixes it – if we need a new department – he builds it! There are about nine expat staff altogether living in a riverside compound – it’s going to get pretty intense living and working with the same group of people day in and day out, but it’s part of what you sign up for… and they seem like a great group so far – very experienced and friendly.
The project itself is in one of the most beautiful areas of South Sudan – bordering the Sobat River which itself is a tributary of the White Nile. There are birds, lizards, bats and all kinds of amazing wildlife in abundance, including pelicans and eagles and a 4ft long Nile monitor lizard that lives in our compound and trots around it regularly. I just love it. Am feeling ridiculously lucky at the moment. Have been here a week now and will write more about the project and my job itself next time – when I get some grip on what I’m actually doing!