Thought Leadership

Memories and Hopes of South Sudan

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Today is a special day – so we will make an exemption from our focus on health in Nigeria. Today, Africa adds a new independent country – South Sudan.The significance of this moment is difficult to describe. But sadly, very few of us Africans have had the chance to travel on the continent. South Sudan is an abstract entity to many of my friends and colleagues. Ill reminisce on my first and only trip to South Sudan…and ask you to join me in wishing this country the best of luck as it emerges into nationhood. 

In May 2004 I was part of an international team that responded to an outbreak of Ebola haemorrhagic fever in South Sudan.Growing up in Nigeria, and having traveled the country quite a bit, I thought I knew what poverty looked like. But, nothing quite prepares you for South Sudan. Firstly, getting there was an adventure on its own as we flew from Nairobi to Lokichogio to Juba and finally to Yambio, flown in this small aircraft by  a team of South African pilots….looking down at the beautiful landscape of a ravaged land….

In Yambio, South Sudan, we worked with whoever we could find locally, walking through the villages looking for patients that might have symptoms. As is the case in these outbreaks, separate teams dealt with surveillance, case management, social mobilisation and logistics. The astuteness of the local medical staff and the rapid international response resulted in relatively few deaths in this Ebola outbreak as had been the case in several previous ones.

To support our control efforts we recruited some recovered patients to join our work, two of whom joined us in our social mobilisation and health education campaigns. One of them was a bright teenager in his final year of secondary school who had lost his mother to the Ebola virus. He was quickly integrated into the social mobilisation team and came with a powerful message, which he delivered eloquently. He told his story through our loudspeakers carried around the villages, in churches, schools, and markets. Crowds came out to listen to the child who had survived the deadly Ebola virus. His presence reinvigorated the team, strengthened our message, and contributed substantially to controlling the outbreak.

With the outbreak over, we packed up to leave. Our former patient and colleague promised to keep in touch, and he did. Initially I replied to each mail enthusiastically, trying to inspire him to rise above the enormous obstacles in the path to success in South Sudan. However, once I was back to my daily routine, investigating small outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness, South Sudan quickly became a distant memory. But his mails continued; he sought help to go to university; he wanted to be a doctor, to be like us. There were no universities in South Sudan, and Khartoum was out of reach for those in the south. The best hope was to move to Uganda, a long trek indeed. Sadly, I could do little more, my replies became less frequent and eventually stopped.

At the time, news had just broken that peace was close at hand between South Sudan (or New Sudan as they call it) and Sudan. I prayed for my teenage friend and for all the children in South Sudan. Decades of war and unrest had robbed them of a chance of an education…robbed of a fair shot at life. I prayed for the people of Darfur, that they too may have peace. I prayed that they might be spared the ravages of Ebola epidemics.

The week we left, the community was preparing for a visit by John Guarang, then the political leader of South Sudan who had only recently signed a peace agreement with the Government of Sudan. There was a palpable hope in the community for peace and I left with a much better understanding of the conditions and circumstances of the people of South Sudan of my age who had never known peace in their lifetime.

Today as South Sudan celebrates its independence, I think about my friend, with a more hopeful tone. Once, there is life, there is indeed hope. I hope one day to return to vibrant progressive country and that they avoid the mistakes my country, Nigeria has made with its oil. – will they do it?

Sign at the hospital entrance

Aluta continua…

Most of the contents of this piece first appeared in the British Medical Journal, under the title – Once there is hope, there is life. At the time, Chikwe Ihekweazu was a fellow of the European Programme for Intervention Epidemiology Training (EPIET).

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

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