Smiles & Tears

In their smiles, as much as their tears, the people of South Sudan struggle to make a better life, despite the incredibly long odds.

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The negotiators — representatives of Sudan’s Islamic government and rebels from the animist or Christian south — had reason to smile: after 20 years of war... they agreed to split the country’s oil wealth equally for the next six years, when the south will hold a referendum on independence.
— Stephan Faris, Time
Jan. 11, 2004

On my final day in Sudan, Nov. 12, 2009, I met a young girl on a ventilator in Yei County hospital. She was struggling to fight off a respiratory infection—likely pneumonia, tuberculosis or both—because HIV, contracted from her mother, had left her fragile immune system in shambles. 

Her name was Alice and without the machine, her body wouldn’t be able to breathe on its own. Thankfully, the hospital had electricity, but that would change at midnight when the city’s grid—a large generator—goes offline.

Really, Alice’s situation is hopeless, and on the surface her story seems to parallel the story of Sudan, a nation that has known only conflict and war. To most analysts, the upcoming elections look like a ventilator in a building that’s about to lose power, because on the horizon looms a referendum that could grant the South its sovereignty—and rarely does a nation gain independence in peace. The United States certainly didn’t. 

On the evening before my departure, I sat with a missionary doctor from Germany in the same children’s ward trying to understand the issues that Yei’s only hospital faces. A Ugandan trained Sudanese nurse named Cecilia explained that the hospital was underfunded and understaffed—in most cases, patients are admitted, diagnosed and then their escort is asked to go to a local pharmacy to get basic supplies, like IV fluids, syringes and medications—things the hospital can’t afford to keep in stock—before they begin treatment.

Cecilia earns about $100 a month and at the time the hospital was four months behind on paying her.

I asked why she keeps coming and she looked down at her hands—a typically giant Sudanese smile crossed her face, “because this is my profession,” she said, then looked up at me, “and if I don’t come, who will?”

This is the common spirit I found in so many throughout Sudan. These people care deeply for their country, they remember the decades of war that drove 4 million people from their homes and left another 2 million dead. On the surface, Sudan’s situation, like Alice’s, seems hopeless, but under the surface, this is a country full of people like Cecilia and that gives me hope for their future.


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