Mary Ward Health Centre Rumbek
– An interview with Sr Orla Treacy ibvm
I never wanted to be a missionary when I joined Loreto in 1998, or so I thought. In 2004, as the sisters discerned a new mission, I spent some weeks in India meeting many of our older missionary Sisters. I admired their life and commitment. The seed was planted. At the time I was working in Dublin as a teacher and chaplain in a school with many social issues – a great challenge, I loved it.
When our sisters decided on the mission to South Sudan, I was drawn to volunteer. I love travel, new experiences and adventure; this was definitely going to be all of that. The proposal to start a girls’ secondary school in an area where girls weren’t going to school was a challenge. I was genuinely called to be a missionary, though I wasn’t clear on what that meant.
I left Ireland five months after my Final Profession, volunteering for five years. I am still going strong in South Sudan fifteen years later and loving it! Over the years I realise it’s not what we do or where we are, but that we are fulfilled in our mission and that we keep our heart and eyes on Christ in all that we do.
We have faced so many challenges over the years here; war, famine, and insecurity, but prayer and community have kept me strong. A good sense of humour and a flexible spirit have been important qualities.
I love working with young people, their freshness, courage and ambition consistently impress me. The students we work with come with their own tales of trauma and it is beautiful to see their spirits grow. Many of our students have had to fight for their lives, their education and their dreams. In school you see transformation every day. I have the privilege of seeing our students come full circle. I have welcomed them to school, seen them go on to university, graduate, marry, work, become mothers and return to help their family, community and country.
The pandemic presented a unique challenge at Loreto, as it did globally. Once active COVID-19 cases were discovered in South Sudan, the government shut down learning institutions. Students of Loreto Primary and Loreto Girls Secondary School were sent home. During this time, Mary Ward Health Centre opened its doors to the community, helping bridge the gap as the demand for health services soared. Monthly consultations doubled. The dedicated clinic staff of professional nurses and nursing assistants, comprising of former Loreto Students studying medical courses, ensured that the facility was able to meet the increased demand. The emergency funding and support of donors such as MWIA ensured that the clinic was well stocked with medical supplies.
Tabitha Ding Majak is 40 years old and a mother of 13 children. Her household has 21 members consisting of her children, her stepchildren and her in-laws. She remembers the first time she visited Mary Ward PHCC. “The first time I came to the clinic was when I brought my granddaughter who was just a few days old. The child was not able to breathe well so I rushed her to the clinic together with her mother. The nurses discovered that the child was suffering from pneumonia and took quick action to save the child’s life. She was given medication and after some days she became well.” Tabitha has since joined the Mary Ward PHCC staff and works as a community mobiliser for the nutrition program, encouraging new mothers and mothers with malnourished children to embrace immunisation and nutritious diets.
Since the PHCC opened in 2016, community health has improved. The PHCC serves a population of around 10,000 community members who, initially, had to walk over 10 km to access health services. This limited access reduced the community uptake of modern medicine. The PHCC facility has helped students stay in school and reduced absenteeism, particularly in primary students who are able to access health care while in school. Health education undertaken by the clinic has improved public health. The community is largely traditional. Most illnesses and infections are the result of poor personal care and hygiene practices. Health education for students and local workers in the community has led to a dramatic reduction in cases of diarrhoea, skin infection and respiratory illness.
Makur Manyuat, a father of eleven children from the nearby village of Aber. He is grateful for the free medical care that his family receives from the PHCC. He says “I am very glad for this clinic because it is saving us in different ways like giving us free medicine. In other clinics, medicine is very expensive and the distance from our villages to town is very far and most people walk there even when sick.” He also appreciates the health education from the clinic and the contribution the clinic makes to children attending school. “The clinic is not only providing us with medical attention but also with health education that is always carried out before treatment. We feel so good that the clinic is in our community because it is helping mostly the young ones who are studying here. We don’t get worried about our children falling sick because they get treatment for free and they do not have to miss school because of illnesses.” He finishes by saying, “Since this clinic started, I have never sold any of my goats or cows for the treatment of my children or my wives.”
The community is evolving. The years of support provided by MWIA donors have made an incredible transformation in access to health and education. Despite ever-changing needs and communal challenges, there is progress towards a healthy and educated Maker Kuei community.
When we came to Rumbek in 2006 people thought we were mad opening a girls’ secondary school. They told us ‘the girls won’t come’, but when we opened in 2008, they saw the girls coming. The next comment was ‘the girls might come but they won’t complete their schooling’, and then in 2011, we had our first graduation. Again, the comments continued, ‘they may graduate but they won’t go to university’. We currently have three of our graduates back on staff having completed their university courses, and up to 85% of our graduates pursuing university courses. 100% of the class of 2012 are now university graduates.
These girls are real Mary Ward women, young women of courage who show us every day that the impossible is possible. I believe these women will help shape a better future for South Sudan.
Feature Image: Sr Orla with Mr Charles Yuga the Head teacher at Loreto Girls Secondary School