Cover Story

Home is where the start is

"Home is where the start is" Continued...

Issue: "Home again," July 12, 2008

Life in Uganda's refugee camps, Vuni said, was "the worst." The camps were overcrowded, unclean, and lacking basic services. Locals confiscated refugees' livestock, he says, and food rations were meager. Local hospitals refused to provide basic healthcare, Vuni said, or asked impoverished Sudanese patients, "Did you bring your brother?"-a reference to money. Living conditions made it difficult for Vuni and others to move beyond basic survival, he says: "It was just unbearable."

Vuni still has concerns about security in the region but says he's here to stay: "To tell you the truth, if another war comes, I will not leave. I will live and die here."

For those settled in Borongole, living here has distinct advantages. The community is the site for Operation Nehemiah, a Christian ministry to returnees. The small compound off a dirt side road includes an open-air church, a community well, a health clinic, agricultural projects, and a 20-foot radio tower.

Founded by William Levi, a southern Sudanese who fled his nearby village after enduring torture for his Christian faith at the hands of Islamic captors, the ministry began in 1993 to southerners who had fled to refugee camps. Levi, who eventually sought political asylum in the United States, where he now lives, provided support for pastors, scholarships for students, mobile health-care clinics, and agricultural resources in the camps. Today, one of those scholarship students, Luka Gobi Benson, completed medical school this year and has returned to Borongole to direct the ministry's health clinic.

In 2004, Levi and a group of U.S. missionaries opened the road to Borongole to re-establish the community. Since then he has made regular trips to the village to deliver aid and meet with field staff, nearly all of which are Sudanese returnees.

On a June trip to the village, Levi found villagers in the hot morning sun planting peanuts and sweet potatoes in neat rows in the dark, rich soil. The ministry recently acquired a tractor and a tiller, though most villagers will need training to operate the equipment. For now, most plant by hand.

Near a crop of banana trees next to a river, Levi encourages the villagers to be self-sufficient, planting enough crops to help the needy and sell in markets. "You don't need more money," he tells them. "You need faithful men who will work with their own hands."

This is a message Levi repeats often. While U.S. aid is critical to the new work, Levi emphasizes that the goal is self-sufficiency. If southerners work hard, he says, Sudan could become the breadbasket of Africa. Other nations-including Abu Dhabi and South Korea-already see its potential. They have recently approached the government about leasing its rich farmland for their own food supplies, yet South Sudan imports nearly all of its food from other countries.

As some villagers are busy planting, others line up at the ministry's health clinic. Nelly Tebui, a clinician from Kenya who helps operate the clinic, says as many as 60 patients come each day. A large donation of prescription medicines from the United States allows the clinic to treat serious diseases.

Health services in the area are so scarce some people walk several miles for treatment. The UN estimates there is only one doctor per 100,000 people in South Sudan. Poor communication and transportation mean emergencies often turn into fatalities. On a recent afternoon, villagers carried a woman suffering from complications in childbirth nearly five miles on a bed frame to the clinic doors. She recovered, but South Sudan suffers from the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

The most common health problem is malaria, says Tebui, especially in young children who are often convulsing by the time they reach the clinic. As many as 45 percent of children in Sudan under age 5 suffer from chronic diarrhea caused by waterborne diseases like cholera, and the child mortality rate is high. Babies lie languidly in their mothers' arms waiting for treatment. Tebui says the clinic staff offers information on proper hygiene, preventing malaria, and accessing clean drinking water.

The compound's radio station is another way the clinic is improving community health. Its 20-foot tower can reach as many as 100,000 people, and the ministry distributes small solar-panel radios tuned to its frequency. Mostly the station broadcasts Christian preaching and teaching, and Levi says this is critical to the region's recovery as well. Islamic forces didn't destroy the people, he says, "but the one thing they have succeeded in is the family being broken beyond belief."

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