Good Days

Today was a good day.

Working in a country with one of the least developed health systems in the world is not often rewarding. For every two steps forward, it’s often one step back. More often than not it seems like one step forward and six steps back.

Today I was invited to the graduation ceremony for the first class of students from Juba College of Nursing and Midwifery. If I’m honest, I wasn’t all that excited to be going – I had emails to respond to, a presentation to write, a whole meeting to organize for next week, and on top of that my computer is broken. Sitting in a stuffy hall for four hours was not my idea of fun. But I’d been invited, and as a matter of form and respect I figured I should go for a few hours.

I went and it’s one of the best things I think I’ve done in South Sudan.

I haven’t been involved in JCONAM, but I know it had a fairly rocky beginning – no classroom space, no dormitories, few tutors, little coordination. A great vision, but a rough start. Over three years however, a lot of progress has been made, and today they graduated their first class – 17 midwives and 13 nurses.

Today was a good day.

It’s easy to forget these days how difficult South Sudan’s past has been, and how incredible its citizens are. I’m writing this from the fancy coffee shop in Juba, just off a paved road, in a city that has exploded in the past five years with public and private investment. But most South Sudanese (minus perhaps the diaspora) didn’t grow up as such. Many grew up amidst a civil war, or living in refugee camps, or under the control of a government that systemically oppressed and treated them as third class citizens. Education was often not available or sporadic, mortality rates high, and expectations low.

There are millions of people in this country who have overcome extraordinary situations to be where they are today, including many of these graduates, and their families. I won’t deign to pretend to know what the graduates and their loved ones were thinking and feeling, but every time the dull self-aggrandizing donor speeches abated, and students or tutors or dance troupe came on, it was to praise or celebrate, and the audience lit up. I noticed several people crying at various points. I read it as a deep sense of pride and achievement, and damn well deserved.

Plus, you just can’t beat watching the undersecretary, all the DGs, and half the audience (including many colleagues) charge the stage to dance in celebration (sidenote: I forgot until today that it’s totally acceptable to join dance troupes/singers on stage, or go and put money in their pockets while they’re performing at events. Even in televised events like South Sudan Talent Search (imagine SS’s version of American Idol)).

Today was a good day.

It’s all too easy to get bogged down in the myriad of ways this place wears on you. Every time you see government drugs sold in a private market, every time you pay a “fine” to a police officer, every time you hear of a worrisome security incident, every time you sit in another four hour meeting about a policy that will cost millions to develop and never make a damn bit of difference. And remembering those instances are important and good, because they anchor you in reality.

But today was a good day. It wasn’t remotely about me, or associated with anything I am directly involved in. It wasn’t a sense of personal accomplishment or joy – it was a sense of hope and potential and possibility for the future which is so often here waylaid by reality and the grand scope of impossibilities facing this nation. But it was a good day for the graduates, for the teachers, for the mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children and friends who have supported these 30 graduates, who got to sing and dance and be proud of all the work that was put in. It was a good day for the Ministry officials who saw this first generation of Juba graduates make it through, despite all adversity. It was a good day for the people of South Sudan who have 30 more clinicians who know how to treat infectious diseases, safely deliver babies, and dress wounds and injuries to prevent infection.

There’s a long way to go. But people are pretty incredible when you think about it.

Today was a good day.

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