As was tactfully pointed out by a dear friend from Chicago I haven’t posted for a month. This is not, you’ll be glad (?) to know, because I have nothing to say but rather because I have too much to say and not enough time to put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – to say it.
As I write this I am sitting in Loki – one of our support sites in Kenya – where I have just been in a technical workshop with a lot of our field staff as well as some lower level govt. of Southern Sudan officials with whom we work and I have spent several of those days depressed. Not for any very valid reason except that, at every turn, everything seemed to not be working out. Have you had those days? Where it seems that the obstacles and challenges and problems seem to far outweigh the solutions? Sometimes those days like to chain themselves together in to weeks out of sheer vindictiveness. This has been my week.
Last night, one of the government officials seemed to be lingering around where I was having dinner, waiting for an opportunity when I wasn’t otherwise engaged to say something. He was a tall, thin, smiley man who has sat through our days and days of workshops going over internal issues with a patience that rivalled Job’s. When my colleague left he sidled up to the table and asked for a word. He leaned forward, tilted his head covered in tribal scars and began to tell me with heart-breaking earnestness that he needs health clinics in his county. We have three and he needs eight. Health facilities in Southern Sudan reach only 25% of the population and he wants us to go just a bit further, to do a bit more, to put up another one or two and give health workers (forget doctors or nurses…there are hardly any facilities in Southern Sudan that have those) – just some people trained in little more than first aid so that several hundred thousand people have somewhere to go instead of dying.
And what was I supposed to say? No? ‘Sorry, my friend. We don’t have the funding. We don’t have the access and ability to stretch our programme further in your area. You have to understand…it’s insecure where you are from and there are no roads. Your people will die and we could prevent it but we can’ because it’s complicated and messy and I’ve got other things on the task list.’
What was I supposed to say? Yes? ‘Ok, we don’t have the funding and we don’t have the access but I’m sure that we can do something. I’m sure that someone, somewhere will give us the funding and we’ll expand and hire people and give you a clinic or two.’
The choice was between despair and disingenuousness so I took the coward’s road and chose neither. I explained how difficult it was and how we would ‘like to help’ and how we ‘understood’ how his people were suffering but that the donors made choices and we were often bound by those choices and all we could do was advocate for him. But to him I wondered if my blustering and indecisive response wasn’t the highest form of insincerity. Me, who has - and has always had – everything. Him, in his tattered and oft-mended shirt, leaning elbows on the table and hands clasped…begging.
‘Please.’ he said quietly. ‘You know people. Could you talk to these people. To the European Commission (they’re giving $350 million to build roads in his state). You could talk to them. You could tell them about us.’
‘I’ll talk to them,’ was all I could say. ‘I’m sorry.’ I added but whether I was apologising for the donors, or my organisation, or myself I had no idea.
What would I actually do? Put it in a proposal, I suppose. We have a whole collection of them that we roll out for different donors as if at auction. ‘Ladies and gentlemen…look what we have here! A tidy little proposal primary health care for 232,000 people…oh, health care not up your alley? Well, then moving right along, could I interest you in a little watsan? No? Malaria? No? You look like an immunization crowd, am I right? Ok! Well then, how about a proposal to immunise about half the children in a country from the six deadliest, preventable diseases? Right! Ok, we have a winner! Shall we start the bidding at a cool million?’
Tonight, one of our staff came to me having exhausted her budget doing community trainings in a spectacularly successful effort to get the Catholics and Protestant churches in her contentious area to work together to provide health education and health care.
‘I have been waiting to talk to you all week,’ she said. ‘It is a small issue but I need to do my last church training and I need 500 pounds.’
‘British pounds?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Sudanese pounds.’
$250 USD is what she was asking for. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. ‘You need $250 to finish an amazing project?’ I asked.
‘I would pay it out of my pocket.’ I told her. ‘We will find the money somewhere I guarantee it.’
So that is what I have been up to…saving the world through petty accountancy. Coming up with figures and spreadsheets and requests and reports. Coming up with ideas of who can be convinced to spend a million, or $250 dollars, to save 100,000 people’s lives. Most of the time it isn’t very much fun. Most of the time it’s heart wrenching and I think, ‘if this is saving the world we’re not very good at it.’ It is less like Florence Nightengale providing comfort and succour to the war wounded and more like trying to put someone drowning in a headlock and pull them ashore. The world, for its part, has just refused to go quietly – throwing up another war, another disaster, another epidemic or outbreak. It simply won’t be saved without first insisting that you feel some of the pain too; without first demanding that it break your heart.