'Mountains never meet but people do' - Irish worker on meeting the resilient women of South Sudan
Here in the Bentiu Protection of Civilians (POC) site in South Sudan, women are less valued than men. Survival is their number one skill. They have survived internal displacement, gender-based violence and the loss of family members, while continuing in their caregiving role. The women of South Sudan endure.
As an MSF nurse from Co Wicklow, I can think of no more humbling a place to be on International Women’s day than in Bentiu. In the West we talk so much of “building resilience” amongst women. Let me introduce you to the women of South Sudan:
*Nyandul cares for her husband who has TB. As part of the MSFTB-outreach team, I would arrive every morning to her dwelling to find her grinding sorghum with a large stone - an immensely difficult task - before using it to prepare a morning meal for her husband, two sons, her widowed sister-in-law and her children.
Nyandul is responsible for caring for her family alone, attending the MSF hospital weekly to collect her husband’s medication. Lighting a fire to cook means leaving the relative safety of the camp to cut wood for charcoal. Many women from the camp have been victims of attack or rape while on these trips, without which they cannot complete basic household tasks. Children are left unattended daily during this time, leading to accidents causing severe causalities such as burns, dog bites, snake bites, and fatalities.
As her war-widowed sister-in-law had not previously been a resident of the camp, she and her two children were not registered for food rations. Nyadul was forced to stretch rations intended for three people amongst seven. During these visits I watched Nyadul carefully dish out the Sorghum, always waiting until the others had eaten to serve herself. She went without food on occasion. Her home had been cut off from water so Nyadul and her sister-in-law had to carry heavy containers of water from another sector every day. Yet every morning I arrived to a huge, welcoming smile and laughter when she greeted me as her “Nyakawai (white) sister“.
Nyadul’s attitude is typical of the women of South Sudan. The MSF hospital is the only facility within the camp to offer secondary healthcare services; providing lifesaving surgeries including burn management, inpatient care for adults and children, and outpatient follow-up for people with HIV & TB.
Many of the women have travelled by foot in scorching temperatures from outside the camp to bring their children to the hospital. Teenage girls travel here on foot for days, to care for male relatives with whom they are unacquainted, as their culture dictates. They do so with fervent dedication. Elderly women being treated within the inpatient department, who have lived through generations of war and who are often in pain sit up smartly and don their dresses when the ward round arrives, to preserve their pride and sense of self.
Within the hospital we see and hear accounts of horrific traumas faced by women, yet when encountering the women daily, it is hard to believe that they carry with them such hardship.
Of the numerous women who come through our emergency room, many arrive severely under nourished, some have severe psychological trauma and others have fresh wounds from beatings that lie on top of old wounds. Psychosocial support is provided by sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) specialists and the team of mental health staff is on hand. These teams provide targeted support for mental health emergencies such as post-traumatic stress.
Many women have lost everything they own time and time again. Yet each time they leave the hospital shaking the hands of our staff with gratitude. I cannot believe a more resilient group of people exists than the women I have met here.
My South Sudanese colleagues have a traditional saying when one of their international counterparts is leaving: “mountains never meet but people do”. It highlights how grateful we should be for the people we meet in our lives. I am privileged to have met so many of the women of Bentiu POC. I hope that their future is a place where they are shown the value and respect they rightly deserve.
*Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.
Jennifer Collins is a nurse from county Wicklow who worked as a nursing activity manager for the Emergency Room, inpatient departments and HIV/TB outpatient department for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Bentiu POC, South Sudan.