Before departing for a first mission with MSF people have to complete a PPD (Preparation for Primary Departure) course. This involves eight days of intensive preparation on issues such as team building, management skills, cultural and security awareness as well as more specific medical and logistical topics. As well as helping me prepare for working with MSF it was a great opportunity to meet over twenty people from different countries and backgrounds. We have managed to keep in touch since then through a Facebook group. Shortly before I departed for South Sudan I had a look at a few of the posts and one in particular struck when one of my PPD colleagues responded to a general question, how those already posted to a mission were finding the experience. Her response simply read ‘passed through all emotions you can imagine’
I am often reminded of this post when during any given week I can pass through emotions ranging from amusement when some of the mothers laugh at my attempts to speak Nuer, frustration at the difficulty in doing basic things in South Sudan, joy at seeing a child recover and marvel at the simple sight of bubbles, to despair when a child dies. Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed by emotion and it’s difficult to find somewhere to escape given long hours at work and the daily routine of compound-clinic-compound.
To try and get a little escape one Sunday morning I decide to accompany George our ATFC (Ambulatory Therapeutic Feeding Centre) supervisor to a local church service. It’s an opportunity to see some of Bentiu life outside the TFC and to remind myself that there is more to life here than childhood malnutrition. The service takes place in a simple, small church comprised of mud walls and a grass roof supported by sticks. There are no grandiose religious artifacts. Nor are there any dreary or serious people. It’s a joyous occasion where families have come together to pray and also to sing, play music and dance and socialise.
A few days later over some tea I chat to George and wonder how Christianity can mingle with local traditions. George is very much Nuer. He bears the scars of six straight lines across his forehead which were made with a knife whilst still a teenager in keeping with tradition. These are called ‘Gaar’ in the Nuer language. These marks are used to distinguish Nuer from other people. Some people say they have originated from colonial times when colonists wanted to easily distinguish between different tribes but others believe they are more ancient than that. George also has had his four lower front teeth removed when he was just eight years old, again another traditional custom. He has two wives and six children. Unlike many Nuer he is not particularly tall but he is proud yet kind. I ask George what it means to be Nuer. He mostly talks about a code of life involving not stealing another’s cows or wife. He also tells a story about the origin of the Nuer people.
‘Long ago some people were gathering in one place and they took a gourd which had been cut into two pieces to make a bowl. Then they called themselves and each one put his own saliva into the gourd. When they saw the gourd was full of saliva they got soil and mixed it with the saliva. Then everybody drank out of that gourd. Then they made rules and laws and if you broke these you will be punished or die, and that is where the Nuer people come from’
George goes on to tell me that the Nuer people live in Northern part of South Sudan and some even in neighbouring Ethiopia. He explains the welcoming nature of the Nuer saying that ‘if you live among us in my house for one year I will share my food with you and even give you some cows so that you may marry’.
Life is hard for many of these people now with many struggling to feed their families, access to health care and education poor and the ongoing risk of further insecurity. Add to that the previous centuries of domination by various groups. It puts my own emotions somewhat in perspective. George doesn’t recount much history of times past but does say that during 1997-2004 ‘I witnessed a very severe time with a lot of fighting and a lot of death’ Talking to people like George helps put the difficulties I perceive as facing into perspective.