The pain crawled through my neck, up into my face, and down into my chest. I briefly opened my eyes. Everything was white and bright. I tried to swallow but the pain was too intense. The sounds of beeping machines and respirators edged into my ears. It took me a few minutes to realise I was in High Care at Linksfield Hospital in Johannesburg and a few seconds more to remember I was waking up after neck surgery. I knew there had to be a morphine button close by and gingerly felt around with my hand in search of this miracle. I got tangled in the tubes and cords attached to my arm. A nurse noticed I was awake and came to assist me in accessing the pain relief. I enthusiastically pushed the morphine button and as the medication flowed through my sore body, I went back to sleep.
The neck surgery I had just undergone was ground breaking. My neurosurgeon, Dr Weinberg, had invented and developed the small ceramic and titanium disc he inserted between my C5 and C6 vertebra. It was a microscopic surgery utilising the most modern technology and equipment. Eleven years earlier, Dr Weinberg replaced a broken disc in my spine with a titanium disc and did a fusion at the base of my spine using three screws. His ingenuity and skill are inspiring and have significantly improved my quality of life.
My family visited me later that evening. They marvelled at the technology surrounding me; the dozen plug points, oxygen outlets, monitors, medications. Everything was tracked and monitored, and if anything went wrong, the nurses had all the equipment around me to fix the problem. It was an incredible setup showcasing progress and precision.
Three months later I landed in Juba, South Sudan. The Juba International Airport is a fitting welcome to the brokenness of the country. The airport is a series of dirty tents. The ground covered with splintering and broken ply wood. The space too small to hold the passengers and pesky baggage carriers. Next to the tent airport is the unfinished building of an established airport. The incomplete building next to the tents is a picture of what South Sudan could have been and what it actually is. The country had the potential for greatness, development, prosperity, but instead, it is battered and worn down, barely functional.
I have been living in South Sudan for almost eight months; the most fulfilling yet challenging eight months I have experienced. I am accustomed to the basic living conditions, familiarised with the limited movement allowed and extensive security restrictions, used to the simple diet, adjusted to living communally, and living in intense heat. These are not the challenging aspects of my new life. These are all manageable. The difficulty comes in my responsibility to bear witness to the suffering of South Sudan and the toll it takes on me as a result.
I have visited our field teams and projects in Renk, Aweil, Maban, and Pagil. Each site provides a variety of services to the surrounding communities; health, nutrition, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), non-food items, and emergency shelter. The needs are great yet exceptionally simple; safe water, malaria treatment, wound care, supplementary food, cooking pots. More than seven million people are estimated to need humanitarian assistance. The population of South Sudan is 12 million, of which, 2.1 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and 1.9 million are internally displaced people. 4.8 million people are severely food insecure. It is difficult to comprehend the scale of the needs in this country.
My job as Communications Officer means the needs become individualised. I meet and photograph the people receiving our services. I interview mothers who have lost children to malnutrition and husbands to the civil war. I hear stories of pain, despair, torture, death, fear, and mere survival. I bear witness to their tragedy.
The people of South Sudan are often described as resilient; despite the incredible hardships, they keep going, keep raising their families, keep moving around, keep holding onto hope for a better future. But I don’t see resilience, I see survival. Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. The word recover implies the return to a better place. I understand resilience to mean that when crisis strikes, the people work together to overcome the crisis and improve or at least return to a place of safety. Resilience is a choice, a privileged choice. South Sudanese do not have this choice, they do not have this privilege. They are forced to survive. They do not have the opportunity to recover and are given no tools or support from the country’s leadership to facilitate this recovery. Each new crisis, whether it be a cholera outbreak, increase in violence, or food security emergency, reduces their capacity to be resilient and pushes them further into just surviving.
I began this post with the recollection of surgery because it is something I often think about when I am walking through sparse villages where women are trekking hours to collect water and firewood, children are not afforded the gift of an education, men are jobless, food is scarce, there are few roads, little if any phone network, and no electricity. Given this environment, the healthcare our teams provide is exceptional. With limited resources and infrastructure, our doctors, nurses, and clinical assistants successfully treat thousands of people each year. Our team in Renk runs a Stabilisation Centre caring for malnourished children with medical complications. In Maban, our team runs a 24-hour delivery centre assisting mothers to safely give birth. Our team in Aweil uses bicycles to access the clinics during the rainy season to provide life-saving nutrition treatment. In Leer, our team crosses swamps with backpacks full of medicine to reach the most vulnerable. Our Emergency Response Team is active across the country running vaccination campaigns and treatment centres. The lack of state of the art facilities and equipment does not restrict the Medair health teams. They are as skilled and innovative as Dr Weinberg, perhaps more so. They save lives every day.
The work we are doing in South Sudan is easy to bear witness to. The work is good. The work is hopeful. The work indicates a potential for the choice of resilience. But the situation in the country and tangible trouble the people encounter daily make bearing witness impossible at times. It crushes my spirit and shatters my heart. I physically feel the pain of the place and the people.
There is a responsibility in bearing witness, but it is also a privilege. In my twenty minutes or so interview with a man, woman, or child, I get a window into their lives and their troubles. Opening this window, even a little, motivates and grounds me. It makes life simple. Life becomes about the tangible and the now. My perspectives are stripped, and I am left with an authenticity that can’t be attained in comfort. This life of mine is a gift. In its simplicity, rawness, and regular hopelessness, it’s a gift.