One Thursday, I was in the Bishop’s office and heard the sound of mourning. I recognized this sound because the Bari beat their drums a particular way whenever someone dies. By my fourth week in South Sudan, I had heard this drum beat twice already. Only, this time the drum was accompanied with wailing and a rather large crowd. A few minutes later, one of the Priests came into the office and told us that the deceased was a young girl.
The girl was from a village in the countryside. She fell sick with a high fever and seizures. The girl was quickly brought to Juba for treatment. Upon arrival, the doctor tested her for malaria and typhoid but both came up negative. By the next morning the girl was dead after being sick less than 24 hours.
The following Saturday, I traveled with the Bishop, the head of the mother’s union, an archdeacon, a dean, a local pastor, and two mother’s union members to conduct a survey of the illnesses that affect the people in a particular area of the Diocese of Rejaf. The goal of the project is to drastically decrease the prevalence and impact of illnesses through biblical lessons and health education. Our trip, which was scheduled and planned two weeks prior, included visits to 8 villages in an area called Lobonok, located roughly 55 miles from Juba, the capital city.
Our first stop was a village called Sindiru. Sindiru, which was once the heart of Bari civilization, is currently occupied by 80 families that resettled in 2008 after being displaced for 12+ years during the civil war. The village has two wells, a handful of latrines, and one primary school with one teacher. Primarily, the occupants of the villages are subsistence farmers. They grow corn, okra, leafy greens, yams, and potatoes. Occasionally, that is about once every 3 months, they may eat chicken or some form of beef.
Ironically, Sindiru, was the home of the young girl whose funeral rites we overheard from the bishop’s office. When we arrived to Sindiru the men of the village left the burial to come and talk with us. The first person I met was the father of the young girl who died. After introductions, I listened as he described the symptoms of the illness that caused her death. Another man rose and said that this was the 3rd child to die in a similar fashion in the past two months. They asked me for help to discover the cause of death, but I was truly at a loss.
The men went on to tell me about their frequent bouts with malaria, which I was already expecting. What I wasn’t expecting was the number of people already blind, or going blind, from onchocerciasis (OV). OV is caused by bites from little black flies that carry the filaris worm. All the men complained of itching on their legs and body, a symptom that typically precedes blindness. I watched a blind man being led to the latrine by a younger man. The blind man held the back end of a stick, while the younger man who led him held the front end. After the meeting, they continued walking in a similar manner through the tall grass that surrounds the village and separates the homes from the road.
Each of the eight villages I visited over my two-day visit produced similar results. The conversations typically included passionate comments. One man said, “I don’t want to go blind, I don’t want to go mad”. Another said, “I don’t want our children to die”. And yet another, “Why is this happening to us?” People complained of malaria, typhoid, OV, a high prevalence of seizures amongst the young people (usually not leading to death), and the absence of midwives.
When I asked how women usually deliver, the people would respond that they take the women to Juba. I had a sense that this could not always, or even typically, be the case. I found myself turning to women who were holding babies and asking, “Where was this child born?” Each time the mother responded, “Here, in the village”. Not once did I encounter a mother who had actually traveled to Juba to deliver. I would ask the mother further, “Who helped you deliver this baby.” The whole crowd would respond, “Bayin”, which is to say “No one!” I responded by asking, “Are there any midwives here?” “Bayin” was the response. “Are there any traditional birth attendants?” They shouted in unison “Bayin!” I remember asking one woman, “Were you completely alone when you gave birth, did you have any help?” She responded by saying with a chuckle, “Only God helped me”. At this point, another person said to me, some of the older women helped her but they were not experienced. I was surprised by what I heard, but I didn’t wholly understand the gravity.
We spent the night at the “Speaker’s” house. Coincidently, the third highest person in the new Republic of South Sudan is also from the Lobonok payam, and a good friend and former classmate of Bishop Enock. He availed his private home (separate from his government issued home in Juba) for us to spend the night. When I awoke the following morning, I read some scriptures before we headed to Sunday morning worship. I just picked a scripture arbitrarily, not knowing what it would read or what God would reveal. I ended up reading Isaiah 37. The scripture describes King Hezekiah’s anxiety from the impending attack on Jerusalem from Assyria. The Assyrian king’s spokesperson had just given a riving speech, putting fear into the troops and King Hezekiah, alike. After hearing the news of the speech, Hezekiah tore his clothes, covered himself sackcloth, went into the Lord’s house to pray, and eventually sent the elders of the priests and scribes to the prophet Isaiah with a message that included these words, “the children have come to birth, but there is no strength to bring them out”. The words of this text, this plea from Hezekiah, penetrated me deeply. Hezekiah was facing a vicious enemy, one with a reputation of horror, an enemy with an army far greater and stronger than his own. Under the realization of his situation, the best analogy Hezekiah could imagine to describe the fear stemming from his military circumstance was a woman entering labor without the necessary strength (or resources) for delivery. Through Isaiah, I began to understand the gravity of situation faced by these women in the village. Entering labor alone, without a doctor or midwife, without clean water or a sterile environment, without any plan of recourse should something go wrong, is the equivalent of facing an overwhelming military enemy who taunts of the demise he intends to bring.
After returning home, Bishop Enock summarized the trip by saying, “Surely, people are suffering!” Truly lament is the appropriate response to the current dilemma of the people of Lobonok. Dear Lord, Ancient of Days, You who are mighty in battle, answer our cry for the people of Lobonok as you answered the cry of Hezekiah. Overcome that which causes Lobonok to fear. Bring strength to those who are without. Move in us Lord. Cause us to be faithful vessels in the plan of your spiritual and physical salvation. May we bring to you honor, and to your people edification. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.