The long road from surviving to thriving

By Sisters Marilyn Lacey, RSM and Kathleen Connolly, RSM

Sister Marilyn Lacey, RSM, the Executive Director of Mercy Beyond Borders, wrote:  “The current debate raging around health care reform in the U.S. prompts me to reflect on the health of the women and girls in Sudan whom I have come to know through Mercy Beyond Borders. ‘What type of health insurance system would you prefer?’ is a question never asked in South Sudan. There is no debate.  Why?  Because, quite simply, there is no health insurance whatsoever. And for most of the people, there is little or no health care, either.  It is common for a woman to walk 6 or 7 days to reach a rural clinic or for a seriously injured person to ride atop a lorry jostling through the bush for 8 hours to get to a distant hospital – which may or may not have the needed personnel or medicines.”  Mercy Beyond Borders is addressing these problems.

Emma Ross, medical writer for the Associated Press, has described Southern Sudan as “one of the poorest and most neglected areas on Earth, with possibly the worst health situation in the world.”

There is, in essence, no health care system. Foreign humanitarian agencies provide nearly all of the doctors and medicine. Three surgeons serve southern Sudan, a span of 80,000 square miles (one and a half times the size of Iraq). The number of proper hospitals can be counted on one hand, and in some areas there is just one doctor for about 500,000 people. War has displaced much of the population and prevented a proper census, but experts estimate that 6 to 8 million people now live in the region.

“This really is the forgotten front line when it comes to health,” said Francois Decaillet, a public health specialist at the World Bank who has 20 years of experience in Africa. Southern Sudan has the world’s highest rate of maternal death by childbirth. Diseases which have been eradicated in most parts of the world remain stubbornly common in Sudan: guinea worm, Hansen’s disease, tuberculosis, polio.  And even now, 4 years after the signing of the peace agreement that ended the North/South civil war, gunshot wounds rank as the #1 “presenting problem” of patients appearing for clinic treatment.

What can be done?

The fledgling government of Southern Sudan is building clinics and attempting to set up an infrastructure for health care.  That will be a long process and ultimately a fruitless one unless Sudanese students themselves can train for health careers. Mercy Beyond Borders is now launching two new programs to improve the situation:

1. Nursing Scholarships and Internships:  Mercy Beyond Borders supports the academic training of young women graduating from 12th grade who wish to pursue careers as doctors, nurses, midwives or nurses’ aides at local colleges.  MBB also underwrites yearlong internships for young adults interested in nursing who need practical work in a medical clinic to qualify them for entrance into a nursing school.  Sister Angela Limiyo, recovered from the gunshot wound she suffered in a random vehicle ambush in Sudan earlier this year, has graciously offered to supervise interns willing to work with her at the remote Kuron Clinic in Eastern Equatoria, Sudan.

2. Women’s Health:  Mercy Beyond Borders began its Women’s Health Outreach workshops in villages in and around Narus during September.  Sister Kathleen Connolly works in partnership with Anna Mijji, a Sudanese woman who knows the local area and its Toposa people and can negotiate the protocols (e.g., permissions from local chiefs) essential for a successful program.  Kathleen and Anna are conducting half-day workshops to teach basic health practices to the women:  Wash your hands. Boil the water. Cover the food.  These health habits may seem obvious, but they are challenging to implement in regions where both water and firewood are scarce and burdensome to obtain each day.

Sr. Kathleen described what pure gratitude looks like.  Immediately after a torrential day-and-a-half rainstorm (the first real rain in two years, welcomed by everyone in that drought-stricken region), they conducted the first women’s health workshop in the town of Narus. This is her description:

“At first we thought the workshop might be canceled due to the rains, but no, the show went on when we learned that 30 women had assembled and were waiting for the training to begin…. We wound up walking in absolute muck twice to and from the compound and the workshop site because we underestimated the number of women who would come and I had to go back [about 1/2 mile] to get more cups and soap.

Twenty-five Toposa women came, not counting their children, and 5 more straggled in at the end.  I mimed a little scenario of what happens when you DON’T wash your hands before eating.  The women actually clapped, and I curtsied.  Two Sudanese women and I taught as a team for 45 minutes and then there were animated questions and comments… Afterwards, while we were doling out maize flour into large plastic cups for each woman, all the women spontaneously erupted into song, and after we gave each some soap they started dancing.  I wish I’d had a camcorder.  I had forgotten what pure gratitude looks like. Next week we are to go into the bush to another small village….”

Postscript:  Kathleen was bitten recently by a scorpion that had nestled in the clothes in the suitcase in her tukul.  “Never have I experienced such exquisite pain,” she wrote.  What an understatement!

For more information, please visit Mercy Beyond Borders at

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