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South Sudan: “Despite the language and cultural barriers we became very close”

21 Nov 2016

Australian nurse Brigid Buick recently returned from her first field assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières. She tells us about her role as an Information, Education, Community Health Promotor (IECHP) in Bentiu, South Sudan.

Tell us about your role as IECHP

My role was primarily health promotion in the community of Bentiu town, South Sudan. I had a team of 22 national staff and we went out on foot house to house, educating and supporting the community regarding a variety of health issues such as diarrhoeal diseases, malaria, hepatitis E, maternal health and sexual violence. The teams identified people who needed medical assistance and referred them to the clinic. Every six-eight weeks we did a population count, which involves going door to door and collecting number of people in each dwelling and their age and sex. I spent a lot of time preparing training sessions that would be appropriate for everyone. 

"When I speak to people here about some of the women I worked with they are surprised when I say they couldn’t speak any English thinking this is necessary to develop a proper relationship"

What was it like working with your national staff?

My team were wonderful. They were so welcoming and supportive, and it didn’t take long to feel I had a family there. We spent six days a week together working very hard under tough circumstances so it was natural that we became close and relied on one another for support, but I don’t think I was prepared for the depth of these relationships. When I speak to people here about some of the women I worked with they are surprised when I say they couldn’t speak any English thinking this is necessary to develop a proper relationship. But despite the language and cultural barriers we became very close. They were very warm and honest with me. I was quite impressed at the commitment the national staff had to their community. They were incredibly appreciative for any training and support I could provide but felt ultimately it was their responsibility as it was their community. 

How did your role compare to your work as a nurse in Australia?

It’s so different that it’s not really possible to compare. Living and working in Australia generally means that at the end of the day you knock off, say goodbye to your workmates and go home to your house. In Bentiu, work was life and you never really knocked off and you certainly didn’t say good bye to your colleagues.

What was the most challenging part of your role?

One of the challenges would have to have been the limited service we could provide to the community. We were doing lots of really great stuff but so much was needed and we were the only actors with a strong presence in the town. I wanted to be able to do more. It was also quite traumatic in some ways. Seeing so many children suffering from malnourishment and preventable disease like Hepatitis E and measles. Sexual violence was a massive issue and we did some great health promotion about the services that Médecins Sans Frontières could provide post rape such as HIV prophylaxis and treatment for STI’s. It is a hard place to be a woman. 

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work for Médecins Sans Frontières?

I would highly recommend the opportunity to work with Médecins Sans Frontières. I have never been so proud of an organisation. It was deeds not words and the community loved us for it. You have to be prepared to work hard and not be precious about your living conditions. But it’s such an incredible experience and helps put things in perspective, plus it was tons of fun.