Saturday, August 17, 2013

South Sudan in December!

Yes, that's right!  I’m trying to spend Christmas 2013 in South Sudan, Africa volunteering with an Alaskan nonprofit organization that works in public health.  

As you may know from having read this blog, I served as a community health volunteer in the US Peace Corps in Nicaragua from 2009-2011.  I worked in a small village to promote maternal and child health and prevent HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy.  These two years in Nicaragua were life-altering.  I will never again take for granted the clean water, nutritious and accessible food, and economic opportunity we enjoy in the developed world.  After returning to Alaska after the Peace Corps, I began to search for local volunteer opportunities. A friend told me of the famed Dr. Jill Seaman (a 2009 MacArthur fellow) and her involvement with the nonprofit, the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP). Since 1989, Dr. Seaman has split her time between Bethel, Alaska working for the Indian Health Service, and in the outer reaches of South Sudan in Africa.
In July 2011, after more than 50 years of bloodshed, Africa’s largest country split in two and the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest country. South Sudan just had its second ‘birthday’ last week.  I thought Nicaragua had dire health conditions, but after speaking with Dr. Jack Hickel, a friend and colleague of Dr. Jill Seaman, I realized that South Sudan’s plight is much, much worse.  In 2007, at Dr. Seaman’s invite, Hickel visited the remote village of Old Fangak, South Sudan.  Soon after, Hickel – who has a degree in tropical medicine – founded ASMP.  South Sudan has a struggling if even existent health care system and very limited access to infrastructure like running water or electricity.  I began volunteering in 2011 with ASMP locally in Anchorage, Alaska.  I’ve helped with fundraising, and continued to do so when I moved home to Sitka, and now in Washington, DC where I currently attend graduate school.
The remote reaches of South Sudan carry some of the worst health statistics in the world. The infant mortality rate is 70 deaths per 1,000 births (the US has a rate of 6 per 1,000).  Thirty-six percent of children are malnourished and just 10 percent of children have had full childhood immunizations. Due mainly to substandard health care, average life expectancy is just 42 years.
With help from ASMP, the village of Old Fangak is now is finishing construction of a health center and has begun building a second clinic. ASMP also is assisting in the construction of a school and to implement an immunization program. Past successful projects include construction of wells, latrines and the development of several vegetable garden small-businesses. One of the most important things to me about ASMP is that it strives for sustainable development where it works, providing jobs and opportunities for locals. With assistance from ASMP, villagers have been trained as community health workers and to work as welders.  ASMP also hopes to teach locals to use the drilling equipment and build new water wells, creating a lasting impact in the region. 
The tasks at hand for the new country are great and I am heartened to see an organization like ASMP that is leading the way in health care, development and service. To learn more, check out ASMP’s Facebook page or their website.  An amazing 37-minute video spotlighting the organization’s work entitled “The Village” is available here.   
I'm planning to go to South Sudan with ASMP’s annual winter trek of volunteers that go to build, train, and volunteer their time in Old Fangak.  I’ve been thinking about traveling there with ASMP since 2011, and this is the year I can finally make it work.  I’ll go for three weeks during my winter vacation from school (December 2013-January 2014).  While in the village of Old Fangak, I will assist in tuberculosis clinic construction, well drilling, health education, youth outreach – (similar to things I did in Peace Corps) – and also get firsthand experience that can help me continue to be an advocate for ASMP back in the US.  While in Washington, DC I’ve been engaging with the new Embassy of South Sudan.  At my invite, my school – Georgetown University – hosted the South Sudanese Ambassador for a speaking engagement this spring.  I’d like to continue fundraising and advocating for ASMP’s work and awareness of South Sudan and its future challenges and opportunities.
I’m humbly asking for donations to ASMP and my trip over to South Sudan this winter. I need to raise $4,500 to make the trip to South Sudan.  Some of the funds will go toward ASMP and supplies for clinic construction and trainings, and some will go toward my plane ticket from DC to Nairobi, Kenya, and then travel to South Sudan. I am grateful for a donation of any amount.  Right now, I'm about 60% of the way toward my fundraising goal!
I am using a website called FirstGiving to collect donations.  You can pay online at my Fundraising Page, and while there, read more about ASMP and keep track of how much I’ve been able to raise.  
You may have seen some things about South Sudan recently in the news, and have questions about the safety of the country.  There have been some changes in the government; the President, Mr. Salva Kiir removed many people from power in his cabinet and government, including the Vice President.  Maybe people were worried this would lead to violence and unrest, exacerbated by tribal alliances and conflict over oil between Sudan and South Sudan.  The New York Times had an article recently on the issue.
However, like many conflicts located far from the western world, not all of the nuances are being written about or portrayed correctly.  Last week, I met with a South Sudanese friend of mine who works at the Embassy of South Sudan here in Washington, DC.  She assured me that on the ground, things are safe in most areas of the country, including in the region/village where I will be traveling this December.  She says the Embassy is still issuing dozens of visas per day to travelers, and the President is quickly reappointing people to the vacated positions.  He is downsizing much of government to prevent corruption, and appears to be committed to democracy.  There are still unanswered questions moving forward, and the situation is evolving, but I feel confident after speaking with her that on the ground, things are safe.  I also spoke with ASMP staff last week and they were still moving ahead with plans for volunteer trips and construction this winter.
Please feel free to pass my fundraising page on to anyone else you think might be interested in contributing or just learning more about the organization.  I'm optimistic that we can make this happen, and I'm so grateful to those of you who have already contributed.