Posted by Br Bill Firman
on 6 May 2019
Today, I am writing from Melbourne, Australia, sitting in the same house from which I first ventured to South Sudan almost ten years ago. Here, anything I want, I either have it, or I can go out and buy it, if I have the funds. The roads are all sealed, there is very little dust, the showers are hot, my room is air-conditioned, the washing machine and dryer work very efficiently, the internet is faster, the recliner chair in my room is very comfortable, I have my own TV set and there is not a gun in sight. I don't have a smartphone a deliberate choice on my part as I think one can become 'too available' but I can see I shall probably have to succumb on this matter as so much of modern society is geared to operate on the assumption that today everybody has a smartphone!
All this is a long way from my cherished colleagues and friends in South Sudan. Fr Jim Greene MAfr has now replaced me as the Executive Director of the inter-congregational initiative, Solidarity with South Sudan, and this great ministry will continue under his sound leadership. My profound thanks and gratitude to the many inspiring people I met from diverse congregations and various nationalities while working for almost ten years in South Sudan. I am very much the richer for having been part of this mission. Many people wrote to me expressing thanks for my contribution. I had hoped to reply to each individually but simply found I had no time and energy as I tidied up affairs preparing to hand over to Jim.
The fact was that during my last month in South Sudan, I felt quite unwell and found myself with an unaccustomed lethargy. Thankfully, I am now feeling much better. I am not sure what caused my illness. Was it simply physical or was there a psychological link to the many people constantly seeking assistance from us? It is very confronting to be meeting people with desperate needs - such as mothers, with emaciated children, who have no food. It is good when you have the resources to respond but hand-outs to some act as a 'pull factors' to others. One woman at the gate can soon become ten. 'Harden not your hearts' is a gospel imperative but that is easier said than done when you are in a situation of overwhelming need. There are never enough resources.
Essentially, Solidarity is not an emergency relief organisation but one that focusses on capacity development. Throughout all of the recent period of civil war and violent crimes, we continued with our key tasks of training nurses, midwives, teachers, pastoral worker and farmers. Those people we have trained now train other people and deliver services that are of great help to the people of South Sudan a multiplier effect. It is all about the people. The local people really appreciate our presence among them. There are many countries whose governments are prepared to help South Sudan but their dilemma is how to get aid through to the people. So much intended aid can get siphoned off into the pockets of officials or diverted to wasteful military expenditure. What is essential are qualified people on the ground offering support and encouragement, providing educational opportunity, generous workers such as our Solidarity missionaries bringing hope.
There is a special place in my heart for the South Sudanese people with whom I worked. They were my partners in achieving our goals and I came to see that there are many things they can do much more effectively than I can. I shall miss being with them but I also intend to enjoy my new situation where I am now meeting old friends and family. I once heard a Sister state at a Conference: 'You cannot love all mankind, only people, one at a time. The one you are with is the one that counts.' Very good advice, I think. We are shaped and formed by what we do and who we meet but we must always look forward. The next step on my personal journey begins.