Trevor Buchanan is an eye surgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital, a CMS Ireland board member and a parishioner of St Columba’s, Knock. He reflects on his experiences of South Sudan.
“It is not easy to paint a picture to you of life in South Sudan. Someone once compared isolated areas of the country to Ireland in the 1700’s and suggested more built up areas in towns resembled Ireland in the early 1900’s. Television coverage has given us all a glimpse of life in various parts of Africa and we are familiar with the floods, the periods of drought, the wars, and the scarcity of food, the poverty and the disease. Indeed our link diocese in Maridi in South Sudan has more tropical diseases than any other place on earth.
“These television reports, however, do little to prepare you for the challenges you meet when you arrive there. Children dying for the want of a 2p pill or clean water, young mothers struggling in labour to give birth to their first child without a midwife and without any pain relief and as if that were not bad enough one in 30 of these new mothers in some areas die without help when labour becomes obstructed. You see young men and women losing the battle against Aids and other diseases and elderly, that is those over 40 years of age, with all the diseases we normally associate in this country with people in their 70’s.
“But when you eat and sleep with the poor who have virtually nothing, you realise before too long that these people, despite their difficulties and lack of material goods, have enormous qualities – their cheerfulness, their warmth and their courage, the strength of the family and in particular the resilience of women and their enormous capacity to survive in the face of what to us would seem impossible circumstances. You admire their faith as they depend on God in these adverse circumstances. In the Western world we expect to live through even the most dreaded of diseases. In Southern Sudan however, people rarely receive treatment. They expect to die of these illnesses and are amazed by their recovery and attribute their survival to God’s mercy.
“Since a ceasefire, brought an end a 40 year long civil war in 2006, Aid Agencies have returned to South Sudan and are helping to rebuild a very primitive infrastructure. Health care and education for children are top of everyone’s priorities and the Church Missionary Society in Ireland has been awarded a large and generous grant from Irish Aid, an Irish Government body, to establish several health centres throughout the region. The first of these, Martha Health Clinic, a 6 room building in Yei, has been completed and 3,000 patients visited and received medical care at the clinic in the first month. Numbers increase from one month to the next and most days nursing staff treating these patients and facilities at the clinic are overwhelmed.
“During my last visit I was astonished by the prevalence of eye disease in the community and I realised there was an urgent need to provide staff with facilities to treat eye and other conditions. Some of the parishioners in St. Columba’s and others outside have supported the Sudan Appeal and we have been able to build a waiting room and establish a borehole to access clean drinking water for the clinic. We have purchased an incinerator and funded 2 nurses and a laboratory technician to travel to Uganda and Congo for eye training.
“I hope that staff from Juba (80 miles away) will travel to the clinic once a month to supervise treatment and encourage the eye nurses so that difficult cases may be treated locally and if necessary patients transferred to Juba for inpatient care and surgery. Long–term I hope to train a midwife and start a prenatal clinic, train a dentist, a pharmacist and other nurses in tropical diseases to initiate vaccination and educational programmes at the clinic.
“Challenges are huge but we know from the parable of the talents that those to whom much has been given, much will be expected and as Christians, we have a duty to help our Sudanese brothers and sisters in Christ. They too were born in the image of God and are as much a piece of God’s intricate needlework as ourselves.
“Some have told me that the problems are so great that we can hardly make a difference but lying in my sleeping bag under a mosquito net on a wooden bed in a mud hut in Maridi, with the mosquitoes buzzing around in the middle of the night, I remembered the saying that if someone thinks that one individual can’t make a difference they should allow a single mosquito into their sleeping bag and watch what happens.
“One can certainly make a difference and as followers of Christ we should not focus on the obstacle or the mountain before us that may seem immovable but concentrate instead on the mountain mover because through Him we can achieve anything.”