Everyone Has Stories

"I stood there and listened and the more that I listened, the more that he began to share."

Sarah is in Abyei Special Administrative Area, a disputed region between Sudan and South Sudan. She's evaluating the education and training needs of local nurses at Agok's MSF field hospital. This means organizing staff trainings, and supervising and mentoring our training team. 

It is easy to come here as an international staff member and to make quick judgements, to criticize what we see and to be quick to want to make changes. We often do not understand why, despite our efforts, many things remain the same. And we often fail to realize that at the end of the day, our best efforts can only go so far.

It was already quite late when I went to go refill my water bottle. As I approached the sink I saw one of our clinical officers standing there waiting to fill his water bottle as well. We began to talk. As he spoke, I could sense that there was more behind his words. I settled in. I stood there and listened and the more that I listened, the more that he began to share.

This remarkable young man began to share with me his story and it is a story I feel that needs to be shared; a story that he wants to share. He told me how he had lost his father when he was only a baby due to a curse that was put on his family by the local witch doctor. He shared how the curse had also been placed upon him, and that he too had come very near to death. He shared about his life, what it was like to grow up in the midst of war. He shared stories of pain and brutality that I cannot repeat. He shared how his mother raised six children alone and how he, the youngest, was the only child to go to school and receive an education. He spoke of the challenges of his recent marriage, the struggles to help provide for his entire family, the pressure and the judgment received for leaving his home to come to the ‘dangerous’ countryside to work. He shared his hopes and his dreams.

At times, he began to cry and had to stop speaking. And then he began to share about the challenges of working in the hospital. The international staff come and go but the national staff remain. They are the constant. We may not understand why national staff may feel resistance to change or why attitudes are not always receptive, but how often do we really take the time to sit with people, to turn off our phones, beepers, radios or whatever is on our ‘to do’ list for the moment and to truly be present with those with whom we are working. Often we assume so much without having knowledge of the stories behind the actions that we see.

Near the end of our conversation, he confessed something to me. He said, you are only the third person that I have ever shared my entire story with. The first person was my best friend and the second person was my wife. Out of all of the international staff that has come here to work for MSF, no one has taken the time to really hear my story, to understand who I am, who we are. "Can that be true??" I thought. I wondered, "How is that possible?" But you see, we are too busy. Even when we live together, we sometimes form our little groups, find our place of comfort and all too often forget that there is much more to be learned from our national colleagues. We miss out on this deep well of great beauty when we fail to take the time to hear people’s stories. I don’t say this as an admonishment. These words are for me as much as they are for you.

As I walked away from that sink, almost three hours later, I was reminded that everyone has stories. I felt honored to have been the vessel where this young man chose to deposit his.

I have been here only one week and as to be expected, am still trying to figure out what my time here will look like. I am tasked with training and capacity building of staff and yet I somehow feel that maybe the last thing that is needed right now is one more Power Point. I am trying to have fresh eyes and a new perspective and am trying to take the time to observe, to learn and, most importantly, to listen.