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Providing sustenance in a war zone

by Alida Fernhout, RN MPH

As a Registered Nurse, my work has taken me from Africa and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to my current home in the Northwest Territories. But while the work has been worthwhile and rewarding, I’ve sometimes wondered whether I was really making a difference.

My experience a few years ago in South Sudan showed me the answer is a definite yes, although the impact of my contribution can often be of the intangible sort.

In 2011, after a long struggle, South Sudan finally achieved independence. Just two years later, however, tribal warfare exploded. The town of Leer, with 100,000 people, was burnt to the ground and reportedly thousands of Nuer people were killed, women raped, and cattle stolen.

I worked for an NGO serving more than 40,000 people with nutritional clinics in four small villages. We assessed children under the age of five for malnutrition and sent some for further assessment and distribution of Plumpynut. This is a peanut paste specially formulated to improve a child’s nutrition.

In Leer, I oversaw a program educating mothers and caregivers about hygiene, sanitation, breast-feeding, and nutrition. It involved a lot of sitting on plastic woven mats and talking with girls and women (my colleague John would translate and co-teach).

I could demonstrate my work by reporting the number of topics covered and caregivers that sat on our collective mat, but I struggled with the feeling of whether I was making any difference. I often felt like I had to justify my existence with my “talking job” when such extreme circumstances created great material needs. Even my own NGO asked me “what exactly are you achieving?”

Fortunately, the answers came from the South Sudanese themselves. I sat with a group of displaced chiefs one day talking about digging wells, latrines, and feeding children. One of the chiefs shared, “It’s nice that you do all these things, but what is most important to us was that you just showed up. We thought the world forgot about us. We are so happy to just have you in our presence.”

A group of women told members of a peacekeeping NGO, “More than food, more than clean water, more than clothes or blankets, we want to talk. We want to be able to share our pain and our trauma. This is what you can do to help us. Help us to heal.”

It was profound hearing this from people who were literally on the brink of starvation. What they wanted more than material goods and proper nutrition, was healing in the context of relationship and community.

Several months later I learned that my presence had made a sustainable impact. I had been feeling sullen and discouraged since my team had been evacuated. There had been no time for goodbyes or closure. But I kept in contact with my South Sudanese colleague, John, who had later escaped safely.

Months later, John bumped into a young Nuer woman. Upon learning that he and I had worked for the same NGO, she asked him, “Do you know Alida?” He replied, “Yes, I know Alida. But how do you know Alida? You’ve been away in Kenya for five years!” She explained that her younger sister had regularly attended one of our remote nutrition clinics. She talked frequently of “Alida, who came to our village.”

Her memories were not of how much food was distributed or how many children were assessed. None of her memories were about numbers, reports, or statistics. Her memories were of how Alida sat on the mat and talked to everyone.

Relationship and community in the context of nutrition. It’s not only food that you have to feed to a broken and hungry people.

Alida is a grateful bursary winner and loyal donor to the Registered Nurses Foundation of BC. With the generous support of RNFBC donors, Alida was able to complete a Master of Public Health (MPH) at UBC and a Diploma in Tropical Nursing at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in England. Both of these studies were essential to her in securing humanitarian employment overseas.