My colleagues are often quick to remind me that the weather has
cooled down a bit in the last few weeks with the start of the rains. At
times I still find the heat stifling, my body covered in sweat, my mind
trying to concentrate despite the urge to sleep. In addition this week I
have suffered from the dreaded diarrhoea to add to my discomfort. I
sometimes start to feel a little sorry for myself working long days in
difficult conditions, moaning about the food. It’s important to remind
myself that my trivial hardships are really insignificant when compared
to some of our patients and their families.
Gai* arrived at our therapeutic feeding centre on the day
of his first birthday. He was suffering from severe malnutrition,
diarrhoea and dehydration. He looks gaunt, his skin hangs loose around
his body, his eyes sunken in his head. I quickly hear that he has
arrived with his family after a journey from Khartoum the capital of
Sudan, the northern neighbour of South Sudan. The following day after
Gai’s condition stabilises a little I try to find out more about his
His mother Catharina* tells me she was born in Mayom
county west of Bentiu about 22 years ago (many people seem to be unsure
about their exact age here). When she was young her father died and she
travelled with her mother and siblings to Khartoum. There her mother got
work as a domestic cleaner for a wealthy family. Catharina never had
the opportunity to go to school and instead she also began work as a
domestic servant whilst still a child. She got married when she was
fifteen and had her first child the following year. She now has four
children, unfortunately another child passed away in 2009. Gai is the
youngest but there is another on the way. Catharina is currently
pregnant and will have a new child to care for in a short few months.
Her husband is also originally from the same area as her and while they
lived in Khartoum he worked in health care and provided for the family.
Catharina tells me he also has a second wife who has three children.
Catharina last saw her husband seven months ago when he left Khartoum
to join the military in South Sudan. As far as she knows he is
currently in a military training camp. She has not received any support
from him in the last seven months. I ask Catharina what life has been
like in Khartoum since and whilst she doesn’t say she suffered any
mistreatment she does say that she felt it was made clear that
southerners were not welcome to stay.
Before she left Catharina saved up 700 Sudanese pounds (a little over
€200). She travelled with her children on the bus to the border. The
cost of the bus used up most of the money and the remainder of was spent
on food. When she arrived in South Sudan she sold whatever clothes and
objects the family had and raised 160 South Sudanese pounds (about €40).
She managed to get transport on a barge organised by the International
Organisation for Migration which was meant to come all the way to
Bentiu. Unfortunately due to low water levels the barge could not travel
all the way and she had to transfer to a smaller boat and then by road
the final section. When she arrived she had nothing left. In all the
journey took the family 13 days.
I ask her why she decided to bring her child here to the MSF clinic
just after arriving. She explains that she knew about the clinic from
relatives and even last year had sent one of her other children all the
way from Khartoum to be treated here. One of our nurses Simon who is
translating her story for me explains ‘MSF has been always working in
South Sudan for almost thirty years during many of our difficulties,
this is why the people trust MSF’
Hopefully Gai will recover over the coming days. The children’s
grandmother has already come to collect the older children. The family’s
journey is not quite over yet. Catharina plans to travel onwards to
Mayom her homeland. She knows there may be no food but plans to stay
with relatives. She doesn’t know if her husband will send any money ‘it
is really serious I have no food, I have no home. My main target is only
food because I have nothing else’.
*names changed to preserve anonymity