Why I post about pretty trees and pizza instead of the plight of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda

Sarah is a field administrator currently based in a refugee camp in the north of Uganda. This is her first assignment with MSF, and she's been using social media to keep in touch with friends and family. Here she writes movingly about her experiences so far... 

Chickens and goats, food, pretty trees and late nights with tequila; I know I post a lot about these things It’s because those things are easy, and they take no emotional energy to tell you about, even if it sometimes takes upwards of an hour to upload a single photo. And let’s be honest, when you ask me “Hey Sarah, how’s Africa??” those are the kinds of things you want to hear about, aren’t they? The fun, cute photos and anecdotes about things that are easy to relate to. So when I only have a few remaining moments in my day to write, those are the things I reach for.

Sarah Clement poses with a chicken in an MSF house in Uganda

Sarah and chicken. Photo: MSF.

I reach for them because all the rest of it is so hard, complicated and messy that I don’t even know where to start.

I post a picture of the skyline with pretty clouds because I don’t know how to explain the dire situation of the tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees scattered around those fields. I post about the pizza our cooks made us for dinner last night, because it’s a whole lot easier than trying to tell you about how some areas of the settlements are receiving insufficient food distributions, and are thus going hungry. I post pictures of the sunny views outside of our clinic because I know you’d much rather hear about that than about the countless men and women who, during job interviews, recount stories of watching their parents, spouses, or children get murdered in front of them. Telling me as casually as you or I would recount what we ate for dinner last night. 

I post a picture of the skyline with pretty clouds because I don’t know how to explain the dire situation of the thousands of South Sudanese refugees scattered around those fields

I haven’t done enough mental processing to properly explain to you what I read in the hundreds of resumes that come across my desk, mostly from the South Sudanese refugees. Brilliant, talented, highly educated and experienced individuals who left everything and ran for their lives – quite often literally. People who have lost everything. Cover letters that explain how they are unable to provide any photo ID or diplomas, because everything they had was burned by armed men. Resumes written carefully by hand, and not infrequently tied together with a piece of grass, because they can’t afford a paperclip. And then, because we receive so many applications for every position we post, I have to put the majority of them in the “unsuccessful” pile. Which for many is effectively saying to them: “You must go hungry another day.”

I don’t tell you about these things because I’m accumulating so much emotional baggage that I haven’t even begun to properly unpack. I see and hear these things, and then messily fold them up and stuff them in a box somewhere in the back of my mind. There is so little I can do, so few people I can have an effect on. But when you step outside our compound and into the sandy roads of the camp, the need for help, for water, for income, for anything, is so vast. And it makes you feel so small, insignificant, and useless. Like no matter what you do, it will never be enough.

There is absolutely no other place I’d rather be right now

None of this, of course, is even beginning to mention the long work hours, endless paperwork, inescapable heat and dust, and what is starting to become a kind of loneliness that I can feel in my bones and that I know won’t go away for as long as I continue to walk this humanitarian road that I’ve chosen for myself.

Rhino Camp, a refugee settlement in Uganda, is populated mainly by South Sudanese refugees

Rhino Camp, the refugee settlement. Photo: Yuna Cho / MSF.

Even before arriving, I knew this was going to be hard. I was expecting it to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life so far (and in some ways, it’s definitely living up to that expectation). So I’m not questioning my being here. There is absolutely no other place I’d rather be right now. I am confident of that with every fiber of my being. This is my place, my home. I guess what I’m saying is that while I’m here, I’m not sure I’m capable of being anywhere but here.  I don’t know how to reply to your messages and emails anymore. I don’t know how to disconnect from everything that’s going on here in order to give your words the attention they deserve. You all feel like a billion miles away, and I miss you all dearly, but it feels like if I open that door, everything over here will fall apart.

Sarah Clement smiles happily with a baby goat while on mission with MSF/doctors without borders in Uganda

Sarah and a new friend. Photo: MSF.

Eventually, I’m sure I’ll find a way to balance both inside my head and my heart. I don’t want to be only either here or there. But for now, it’s just too difficult. So I’ll post the easy things, and tell you about our dinners and the road trips, the views outside my office, and the chickens and goats I’m making friends with. And bit by bit, once I figure it out in my own mind first, I’ll tell you about stories on the ground here. About the hardships, the successes, and the failures. Because there are currently over 900,000 South Sudanese people taking shelter in Uganda, with hundreds and sometimes thousands more arriving every day. And while the Ugandan government is generous in the rights it gives to refugees, the current infrastructure is incapable of fully supporting their need for water, food, shelter, hygiene, and medical care. That’s why we’re here. Other agencies need to be pushed to do more, and the world needs to continue to hear about what’s happening. These beautiful people, whose stories and struggles I read at my desk nearly every day, desperately deserve it.