Arriving in Liverpool, new beginnings and reflecting on 9 months in South Sudan

Blog 14 Feb 2019

The baggage we bring; the past we can't leave behind, the memories that shape us all, unseen, unimaginable, hidden beneath blank stare. Stories that must be shared, not buried in private grief.

I arrived at Liverpool Lime Street, 2 days after New York, meeting my charity there for a mission debrief, 2 months after leaving Nzara, South Sudan where I'd been a doctor for 9 months. What indeed just happened?

Do the numbers tell the story? 3,000 children perhaps, 45 of whom died under my care, sometimes in my sight, occasionally in my arms; 7 days off in that time, 5 and a half months without a single day off at one point.

Or perhaps the photos, that captured in just a single brief moment that suffering and the happiness of the community; the stories I tried to tell, the inadequate and ineffective language, grasping in the dark for cliché and truism. Conveying the emotions: terror, anxiety, dread, boredom; joy, happiness, relief, fulfillment, completion. Sometimes in one day.

The failures and successes still hovering in my mind, the lives lost for moments of weakness, for oversights, for misjudgments; and lives saved by commitment and perseverance, or mostly just luck; the encounters, the hopes, the dreams, the despair. A kaleidoscopic tour through a community closer in routines and rituals and rhythm to something from a distant past, before any of our grandparents.

And the meaning, the depth of meaning; to see humans unfolded and reduced by misery, to see them cope and then rebound, to thrive and prosper where one might imagine nothing could reside but futility and hopelessness; people unknowing of pretence and artifact and status; so little to lose, so much they offer.

To live amongst them in their beautiful simplicity, a privilege, an honour, accepted by them as a brother, needed, loved and cared for. How I came to need them and love them in turn. The simple connection to people with so little possession and so much dignity and decency and honesty.


Yet, when the 9 months end, when you step off a plane back home or off a train into a new city, or into a new building with a 100 new faces before you, you feel no wiser, unchanged on the outside, missions and purpose left behind, haunted by a thousand receding young faces who perhaps now struggle a little more for basic medical care. The guilt of abandonment.

Once again just another clean cut face hiding a tangled thicket of identity, in search of something lost, wandering amidst the bustle of everyday life. Television shows you've missed; podcasts you’re told you 'must' listen to; career plans in need of urgent renovation; expectations and ambitions, a future to be grasped, potential, those awful words. Far easier it seems to deal with the moment, the unending, senseless terrors of the present, than accept the myriad of life choices here.

Where once you fought death as it stalked the wards; a good day when the wail of a bereaving mother did not pierce your ears; now the complexity returns. The arcane trivia of western life: forms, online passwords, applications, itineraries defined by the minute. Trying not to feel frustration and boredom at what might have seemed insignificant from the other side.

And the only terror now dawning on you slowly, relentlessly; the terror of amnesia, forgetting these people, the experience decaying to nought as everything seems to do in this flawed world. Clinging on desperately, yet needing to let go a little to breathe. To find new meaning.

That advice, the only advice of any value, the simple bold fonted command on the wall when you look up in moments of loss for that other world, the word, 'breathe'. 9 months, a lifetime, but over now. A new world, a new present, one equally deserving, one equally rich. No less connection called for, no less engagement, no less meaning, no less deserving.

To bury a little of yourself, in every place, so that one day, when you're old and dying, you might retrace your soul to distant corners, each memory glowing in the smiles of children in the setting sun. Forever there, forever alive, forever connected.

Courtesy of CMMB