If you’ve read my previous post about my plans to travel to South Sudan and Bangladesh this September, you would have read just a little about Steve and his plans for this trip.
I thought you might be interested to delve a little deeper and know more, so we sat and chatted via Skype a few days ago…
Angela: So tell me Steve, how did you get involved with this kind of work overseas?
Steve: It was completely by accident. I never imagined I would ever have any involvement in international work at all. It wasn’t something that I’d hoped of doing, wanted to do, or that I’d even imagined that I’d be able to do it.
It started for me one day when I had a phone call from some Sudanese leaders, asking if our church would sponsor a family of refugees. Through that connection, my involvement with the South Sudanese community grew quite strongly, and then after a few years to the extent that they asked me that instead of helping refugees settle in Australia, would I be willing to travel to South Sudan and help them develop their homeland. Which I did in 2008. I travelled with a Sudanese friend, Rev Joseph Mawien, and we began exploring what Australians could do to support them.
Angela: Was is an overwhelming task ahead? Was there something you could just see instantly that you could help with, or did it all seem so big and too hard?
Steve: I’ve never been so overwhelmed in my life. Overwhelmed and useless and hopeless. The degree of suffering and trauma was beyond anything I could imagine, let alone anything I’d experienced. People would look at me expectantly, and I knew that my capacity to do anything was very small…so it was completely overwhelming.
Angela: What kind of reception did you get when you arrived? Were people generally welcoming towards you, or was there a degree of suspicion regarding your motives?
Steve: I don’t think I’d ever experienced such hospitality. Everywhere I went, it was like being welcomed into the family.
Along with this, there was a mixture of responses. Some were suspicious, some laughed when they saw me, some were terrified of my white skin and ran away screaming (laughs). Overwhelmingly though, there was a very warm, hospitable reception everywhere I went.
Angela: What can you tell us about the projects you’ve worked on in South Sudan.
Steve: The work developed gradually. I would visit about once a year, I’d stay about a month, and each trip I’d develop something new and manage and maintain the projects that had already been started.
We’d commenced a program for children that had lost their parents in the war. We started training traditional birthing attendants, and resourcing them with birthing kits.
There was a small program that supported survivors of the Darfur genocide.
Also a school, and some agriculture, and more recently, training midwives.
Angela: So with everything you’ve done, what do you see as your greatest achievement so far in this kind of work?
Steve: To be honest I feel a bit uncomfortable with the question. I haven’t done anything on my own…everything that’s been done has been through local leaders, and through the support of people here in Australia
Angela: Oh absolutely, so let me re-phrase the question. Which of these projects has made the biggest impact on community over there?
Steve: The midwives school is clearly the one that has made the biggest impact, both in terms of the change it makes and the scale. It has really affected an entire state of people.
On my first trip, I visited the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, and I learned there was only one midwife for the whole state, with a population of about a million people. When I went back 2 years later, even she had left which meant for the ministry of health there wasn’t a single trained midwife for the entire state.
The United Nations midwives told me that the maternal mortality rate was the worst in the world. One in 10 women were dying in childbirth. They asked me then whether I would support establishing a midwives training school as a way of reducing the maternal mortality rate.
In 2012 I worked to establish the training school, and it opened in 2013. Currently there are 20 midwife trainees, and they will graduate with a national certificate in midwifery.
Angela: Wow, just one midwife for so many…that’s difficult to comprehend. How long does it take to train a midwife? Is it a long process?
Steve: The national course is 2 years.
Angela: Do you have full support from community leaders for the work you are looking into?
Steve: The work we do in South Sudan has been at the request of local leaders, including the government. We can only do a fraction of what they ask us to do, but yes, we have their full support.
The way I have operated is through local leaders, and assisting them to bring about the changes they are dreaming of.
Angela: So, if the government and community leaders are aware of the issues, what stops them from doing this kind of work themselves…why do they need help from other countries?
Steve: There are so many different reasons – lack of resources, lack of training, lack of security… It’s complex. The best help we can give is to empower leaders and communities to find their own solutions. Even in places where there is extensive corruption we find resourceful and innovative leaders working hard on issues like education for girls, food security and health care. I find it very encouraging. When I find a leader like this I know we can make a difference.
Angela: What is the biggest risk going into South Sudan?
Steve: The biggest risk is that we do nothing because we are frightened, or feel inadequate, or feel there is nothing we can do.
Angela: Hmm, I did not expect that answer…but that’s a really good response. It puts it in perspective doesn’t it.
Steve: It’s not hard to think of a thousand excuses why someone else should do it, or why it’s not our responsibility.
Angela: Wow, yes…how many times do you hear people say “what can I do, I’m just one person”. I know I’ve said it so many times myself over the years…wondering what can I do in the big scheme of things, I’m just one little person. But yes, you are so right…we just need to do what we can.
Steve: The fact that we can’t do everything, is not an excuse to do nothing.
Angela: ok, I feel as though I should that underline that statement…
Steve: Sorry, I kind of hijacked your question about risk didn’t I? (smiles)
Seriously though, we take every precaution to minimise the risks, and if it becomes obvious that the country is unstable or for any reason is unsafe, then we don’t go.
Angela: Share with us what you love the most about these countries, and the people you are helping.
Steve: I’ve fallen in love with the people. They’ve become like brothers and sisters to me. They are the most beautiful, resilient people…full of faith, and with all they’ve suffered, they still work towards and believe in a better future for their children.
Angela: What is the purpose of this particular trip?
Steve: We’re going in response to requests from local leaders and government. We will talk with them about the needs they have identified and explore what we can do to assist. Hopefully we will identify a few projects that are within our capacity and then come back with all the info we need to support them.
Angela: This has been a great insight into your work in South Sudan. Bangladesh is the second destination in the trip…can you share with us about the work you’ll be looking into while you’re there?
Steve: We have a couple of projects to explore in Bangladesh. One is a hostel for kids with HIV. From what I’ve been told they have already lost their parents and there is no facility to provide treatment or even a safe place for them. They are some of the most vulnerable children in the country. And then we will talk to another group about the possibility of some agricultural enterprises. The idea is to enable the community to develop income so they can finance their own development – like schools and health care and employment. Its just an exploration at this stage.
Angela: Are you working with an organisation? What can you tell us about it.
Steve: We are just in the process of setting up a small organisation. We want to keep the administration and costs to a minimum and keep the focus on the grass-roots. That’s our niche I guess. Everything is based on relationships with local leaders, and this enables us to respond quickly and work very economically.
Angela: So who is going, and how long will you be away?
Steve: At this stage three of us are going as a team. Along with yourself and I, there will be another director of the organisation. We’ll have about two weeks in South Sudan, and about a week or so in Bangladesh.
Angela: How can people assist if they would like to?
Steve: If people are interested we’re receiving donations to help cover the travel costs (details below).
When we return we hope that we’ll have specific contributions that we’re making in a number of areas, so if people are wanting to learn more about that and what they can do to help, they are welcome to ask for more information and provide contact details so we can stay in touch.
Angela: Thanks so much Steve, it’s been a great chat, and I appreciate your time.
Steve: No worries Ange. All the best.
*If anyone is interested in donating to offset the cost of the trip, Please call Janeen Norris (Red Cliffs Church of Christ) on 0418 478 696.
**since writing this, we are disappointed to hear that we may not be able to travel to South Sudan at this stage, as it’s potentially just too unstable right now. So that may have to be another trip at another time. This being the case, Bangladesh would be the full focus of our time away.