Southern Sudan Health Project: Saving lives with health education
Editor’s Note: This is a story of the Southern Sudan Health Project, a project that resulted from collaboration between United Methodist Churches in Central New York and the Lost Boys (Read about one of them here). The Lost Boys are a group of refugees from Southern Sudan, many who were granted help to resettle in the United States between 2000 and 2001. When this project started in 2005, Southern Sudan was part of Sudan. In 2011, the Southern region was granted independence and became known as South Sudan. For purposes of consistency, the area where this project started will be referred to as South Sudan.
In 2005, one of the Lost Boys who resettled in Syracuse, NY, Dut Deng, approached the Rev. Bradford Hunt at Andrews Memorial United Methodist Church and said “Do you think we can create a health clinic in Southern Sudan?” Rev. Hunt loved the idea and broached it to other United Methodist Churches in Central New York (CNY). Before long, a committee was created to get this idea off the ground with members from several United Methodist Churches in CNY, including: Andrews Memorial UMC, Geneva First UMC, Erwin UMC, Sandy Creek UMC, St. Paul’s UMC, James Street UMC, Fayetteville UMC, and eventually Journey of Faith UMC, and Faith Journey UMC (these two churches had not been formed yet).
Soon, added help came from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, who informed the group that the idea was great, but that healthcare clinics would be too expensive to run; however, they said a community-based health care system could work and suggested they try that.
This idea came to fruition in ways no one could imagine is possible in what is now known as the Southern Sudan Health Project. This project has helped improve the lives of thousands of Southern Sudanese and has even helped save lives. All this became true by trusting God is enough.
In 2008, a group of three CNY United Methodists (Jan Whitter from Sandy Creek United Methodist Church, Nancy Williams of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, and Mark Fullerton of James Street UMC) and two Lost Boys went to South Sudan.
Majer Kuon was in South Sudan at the time and helped make connections.
Nancy likened the conditions to TV commercials you may have seen produced by World Vision or a similar organization that seek aid to help feed children in Africa. She said, “Most of the children would have flies on their faces and nothing to wipe away their runny noses and eyes. A lot of children had distended abdomens from malnutrition. There were no latrines or anything like that. We saw villagers bathing and gathering drinking water in the Nile River at the same time cattle crossed and they just didn’t understand how this worked against their health.”
Witnessing the conditions first-hand, the CNY United Methodists were passionate about helping to resolve the problems they saw and they went about it very systematically.
Jan said, “We had questionnaires made out to do a survey; we met with a lot of people including the governor and county health officials, clinics, and more. We did a lot of touring. We wanted to find out the needs and resources. We learned that there were very little resources and a lot of needs.”
The group learned that 85 percent of the health ailments people suffered from could be cared for without a doctor. Most of these conditions were also preventable. The causes of most of the problems were related to improper hygiene and/or lack of education on how to care for the problems, which mainly included: malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory problems.
Nancy said that the approach that the CNY United Methodists had with the help of the Lost Boys was to, “train village people to provide these (needed) services…not to just go in and do the work ourselves. It was to educate and empower from the village level. We felt our role was to provide the resources and then allow the local people to take over. That jived completely with what the government was looking for at that time.”
Learning a lot from the first trip to South Sudan, Jan and Nancy and two Lost Boys returned again in 2009 and a third team went in 2010. During these trips, it was determined by the government, local healthcare officials, and an NGO (Interfaith Medical Assistance (IMA)) that Malek would be the perfect place to implement the Southern Sudan Healthcare Project.
Malek is a village, not like a village in the United States. It is a very spread-out area with four main territories. It borders the nearby city of Bor, which has a hospital in the event a serious emergency occurs. It was determined by elders in each community that eight healthcare workers would be hired, one woman and one man for each of the four territories.
These eight workers have done amazing things. They are funded by Upper New York Churches, each earning $100 a month, which goes a long way in South Sudan. In addition to the $800 spent to pay the healthcare workers, an additional $700 each month is used to support a liaison to the workers (Majer at one point and now that Majer is in the United States, a young man by the name of Nhial Kuol (who is referred to as Abraham) is now the liaison) and to also buy supplies.
The Bor County health supervisor, Paul Riak, serves as a supervisor for the workers as well.
Nancy said, “Those eight workers go beyond anything I could ever imagine to be people who serve one another. They serve over 1,000 people each month. They keep records that help us track data, which will help us get grants.
The workers are serious about their jobs; they have decreased the amount of preventable health problems; they have educated women’s groups, mothers, children, entire villages.”
Nancy shares a story of just how meaningful the group of healthcare workers is to the community, “One story was about a woman that was unable to conceive because she was sick; our healthcare workers helped her. She left during the conflict and came back a few years later with a child. She ended up being able to conceive! She named her child
Nyang, which meant healthcare worker in the Dinka language (spoken by the Southern Sudanese) because she was so grateful.”
Rev. Hunt shares another story of how committed these healthcare workers are. He said, “One of the best stories I know about these workers is that when the war broke out (again) in Sudan in 2013, we lost contact with all of our home healthcare providers. Malek was ground zero of the war zone and what we later learned is that the home healthcare workers had to evacuate and they went to refugee camps. We didn’t hear from them for three or four months. When we finally heard from them four months later, they were wondering where their pay was because they continued working in the refugee camps! Because it is a community-based healthcare program, it goes to where the people go; it’s not based on a particular location. It’s based on the people working together so when they went to the refugee camps, they just kept on working.”
Nancy also shares how amazing Majer and Abraham have been as liaisons; she said,“Both of those guys have been incredible, on-the-ground, upfront help for this project and their hearts are in this project as well.”
While the CNY United Methodists were in Malek, they also worshipped God with the villagers in the larger city of Bor.
Nancy described this powerful experience, “There is a metal building in Bor that people worship in; that was their church. You could see holes in the roof where the sunlight was coming through. Mayol (a Lost Boy) said, ‘Those are bullet holes from the conflict when we were little boys.’
It was so powerful to see all of us with the same belief system, all of us knowing what our roles are here. Jesus’s commandments of putting God first and loving one another are so evident among these people. I’ve never seen quite the extension; you are responsible for everybody. That’s a piece of Christianity that was very touching to me. All we kept feeling and thinking was peace.”
The Southern Sudan Health Project is successful because the people follow Jesus’s commandments and trust that God is enough. He is enough despite the wars and conflict against them. He is enough despite their lack of resources.
According to Nancy, “This is a group of people who trust in God completely; they have so little materially, but so much spiritually.”