Lisa Schönmeier, 29, has worked since October 2010 as communications assistant at Malteser International's headquarters in Cologne, Germany. For three weeks, she will be travelling around South Sudan – shortly after the country gained its independence on 9 July 2011. Schönmeier will visit Malteser International projects on the ground and experience first-hand the hope-filled, celebratory atmosphere in Africa's youngest nation.
For 15 years, Malteser International has worked to improve the health care system in South Sudan. The organisation has been active in various health-related fields – from combatting leprosy, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and sleeping sickness to improving maternal and child health.
Juba, 14 July 2011
After a twelve-hour flight, I arrived to the Malteser International compound at noon today – physically, at least. In order to arrive in spirit, I am slowly taking in my surroundings: the thundering sommer rain which is rolling over my head right now, the bleating of the goats and their kids, the crowing of the roosters. Cars, children playing and pedestrians strolling by add to the noise symphony: Juba, the capital city of Africa's youngest country, is full of life. Everywhere I look, the new independence has left its mark: Streets are decorated with plastic flowers, posters celebrate the new republic. And, thanks to the improved, well-organised formalities upon entering the country, I was able to leave the airport with my large backpack within a few minutes of landing – something completely new, as I am told by my Malteser International colleagues.
South Sudan has welcomed me with its best ... And I already have a new best friend as well: a cuddly little black and white cat. After spending a short time in the Malteser International compound in Juba, tomorrow we will continue directly to Maridi, around 300 kilometres away from Juba, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, Malteser International is working hard to improve the country's health care system. But how does our help arrive? More on that later!
Maridi, 15 July 2011
Today, we are already leaving the capital city once more. My journey takes me to our project office in Maridi. The almost 300-kilometre drive goes very smoothly and we make it there – almost unbelievable – within "only" five hours. "We", that is, Jan Kleinheisterkamp (Malteser International's country coordinator in South Sudan), Wiltrud Gutsmiedl (senior desk officer for South Sudan) and myself. Thanks to our car's four-wheel drive and a good local driver, we managed to avoid any breakdowns. Still, the farther we move away from the capital city, the more frequent the potholes on the dusty roads become.
Behind us, we leave a dust cloud from South Sudan's red earth – in it, my first impressions of this country, scenes I observed along the road, disappear: a group of men who display pride for their new country (even if they still wave the old Sudanese flag); a herd of cattle and countless goats in all possible variations; women with big yellow or blue water canisters on their heads; children chasing a ball back and forth with long sticks and loud screams. In the evening, I fall exhausted on my bed under the mosquito net in Maridi – and little by little, the red dust settles as well, so the images from the road come back to me, crystal clear.
Maridi, 16 July 2011
This morning, I visited Malteser International's office in Maridi for the first time. For the coming weeks, the office will become my "operational centre". Our office is located right next to a hospital which we also support, where patients infected with tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS get treatment. Although it's the weekend, Malteser International's monitoring officer, Taban Charles Millimon, stopped by. He told me that this health care centre has become really well-known in the area. Over the past years, word went around the villages that people could get help here. Together with Taban, I went for a short tour of the hospital's facilities. The patients are well cared for here – my own eyes convince me of that. A man on a wheelchair enjoys the fresh air on the balcony, a group of women sit together in the covered annex next door, while the children play around them.
In the afternoon, I go to the city centre and buy passion fruits. On the way, I accidentally passed by a small, white building with a blue roof. Workers were sweeping and cleaning the place diligently; as I later found out, the building was going to be inaugurated soon: it is the new home for the local health authorities. On the sign being mounted in front of the building, I read: Malteser International is managing the new construction.
Maridi, 18 July 2011
My first days in Maridi lie now behind me. In the meantime, I have already somewhat settled into the city: I now know how to get to Freedom Square, the central meeting place where the various tribes in the region performed their dances for South Sudan's independence. And I also know how to go from there to the Malteser International office, with its small pink flowers lining the entrance. From there, the team house is only a stone's throw away, right next to a large guava tree loaded with - alas - not yet quite ripe fruit.
After my great "achievements" in matters of orientation and place recognition, I am now ready to explore the many remote areas around Maridi where the Malteser International teams work. In a total of 19 locations, we are building small and larger health care centres, and the village communities are also getting their hands dirty and working hard to make it happen. They contribute, for instance, with sand from the region or make their own bricks for the construction; they also maintain the health centres and their immediate surroundings clean. That is called "ownership" -- when the local village communities feel responsible for the project and work closely with the aid organisation.
Two model examples of how this is supposed to work are the villages of Rastigi and Olo, where I was able to attend a meeting of the village committee. I was surprised at how structured and professional they were: the members of the committees knew exactly what had been accomplished and what needed to be tackled next. The village of Olo, for instance, is in dire need of their own well, as the village residents know that they can get sick by drinking the water from the nearby creek.
Exactly because of that, clean water and good hygiene are an important theme in the construction of health care centres. Because that is the only way to avoid new illnesses. In all 19 locations, rainwater collection tanks and latrines are part of the basic facilities of the new helth centres.
Maridi, 20 July 2011
Today, we went deep into the African wilderness, to the health care centre located furthest from Maridi which is being built by Malteser International. It is a four-hour bumpy ride to Kosi, a small village in dire need of a health care unit. There, I spoke to Yemima Guli, the doughter of the village midwife, who had to take her one-year-old son Kenneth Angutuwa to Woko to have his fever and cough checked and treated. In Woko, the health care centre which was built by Malteser International together with the village residents is already in operation. The Woko health centre even has a unit only for mothers and their children. Little Kenneth is already feeling much better, but he is still coughing a little.
The villages of Kosi and Woko are actually only a few kilometres apart. But for Yemima, visiting the health care unit in the neighbouring village, be it on foot or by motorcycle, a large undertaking: the path is covered in termite hills, obstructed by reeds, full-blown potholes and bodies of water which are too deep to be called puddles.
For that reason, the people in Kosi are especially happy to see me and the Malteser International car. The visit is a sign for the villagers that progress is being made so they can have their own health care centre.
Rumbek, 24 July 2011
I had to leave Maridi again much too early. Still, I am taking with me so many impressions which I was able to collect during my visit. Throughout my days in Maridi, I met a lot of people, and they all had stories to tell – whether the village elder, mothers and their children, health care workers or tribal leaders holding their chief’s staff in the hand. Although each story is different from the other, they all have one thing in common: the people are filled with hope, looking toward the future of their new nation, the Democratic Republic of South Sudan. A positive mood of change is in the air and is being carried to all aspects of life.
Two days after my departure from Maridi, after many hours riding in a car on dusty „streets“, a sleepover in the capital city Juba, and one anxious hour in the somewhat rickety airplane, I arrived in Rumbek today. Rumbek is the northernmost of Malteser International’s project locations in South Sudan. I will have a full schedule here. My very first visit was to the laboratory school, where Malteser International is currently training 21 students from all regions of South Sudan. And guess what comes to greet me like an old friend? The new positive energy which has taken hold here as well! Proudly, one of the students shows me the local newspaper, where the congratulations to the country’s independence can be found even in the sports section.
Rumbek, 26 July 2011
The people in Rumbek are very tall and slim. I've never felt so short in my entire life. The Dinka, as they're known, are one of the tallest ethnic groups in the region. Many of the men are marked with initiation scars which run horizontally on their foreheads. The women wear necklaces made from many small, colourful beads. I found these necklaces in my foray into the market this morning, which was sold together with rice, beans and living chickens. They come in all possible lengths and colours. I bought one in green, red and black - the national colours of South Sudan.
In the afternoon, I accompanied our "Leprosy Officer", Daniel Lueth Malnal, to the village of Malek, which is about a one-hour drive away. The Malteser International team has started an awareness campaign there. Daniel talks to the village residents about the symptoms of leprosy and tuberculosis, how the diseases are transmitted, and how they can be treated. These diseases have been all but forgotten in Europe, but in South Sudan they are still widespread.
Daniel is also a Dinka, so he's quickly accepted by the local population. Under the shadow of a large tree, surrounded by dozens of white cows, members of the village community listen attentively to Daniel for two hours and ask lots of questions. The residents tell about cases of illness in their families: the grandfather who won't stop coughing - a clear sign of tuberculosis - or a child who is covered in spots - a clear indication of leprosy. The nearest health clinic is far away. For that reason, Daniel will see to it that they receive medication, since, with the right medicines, both diseases are completely curable!
Rumbek, 28 July 2011
At Malteser International’s compound in Rumbek, I live in a tukul. Tukuls are small huts with walls made of mud or bamboo and a roof made of dried grass. These tukuls are also inhabited by other beings, such as small sand-coloured or larger blue-orange iridescent lizards, which, in the night, join the frogs and cows to create a typical African “symphony”. Inside, the tukul is surprisingly spacious: there is room for a bed with mosquito net, a table and shelves.
Still, tukuls come in many different sizes. I got to see that when I went to the leprosy colony located close to Rumbek which is supported by Malteser International. The people living in the leprosy colony have just now returned to the place where they lived many years ago. Because of troubled times and of the war in the country, they had been displaced. But now, things are much calmer.
“We had to sleep outdoors for a long time – under the rain and in the scorching heat”, the 84-year-old Achol Mading tells me. She can still remember the times of British colonial rule. “Thanks to Malteser International, we now have our own tukuls. They gave us bamboo and grass so we could build the tukuls”, she said. There is a large community tukul, the others vary slightly in size, depending on the family’s status. Even the chicken have their own tukul, built on stilts. Achol Mading also has a garden where she plants peanuts, okra and corn with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. With their own harvest and a roof over their heads, she and the entire leprosy colony are well on their way to an independent, healthy future.
Cologne, 07 August 2011
Today, a week after my departure from South Sudan, I can observe the many impressions I gathered in the country from a certain distance. In my mind, all of the experiences and the many different colours of Africa blend together: the light-green, shoulder-high reeds in Maridi, the endless streets of red earth, the many white oxen in Rumbek, and, of course, the radiant smiles of the people. From all of these experiences and images, I have been able to extract the essence of my journey: it is the expression in the eyes of the many children who, despite their difficult living conditions and their land’s long history of violence, look with optimism towards the future. They met me with...
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