2011 marked a magnificent yet daunting year for Sudan. The states making up the majority of the southern part of the country decided to secede to form their own nation. In 2011, South Sudan was born. But problems that existed long before their independence were in no way fixed overnight. Sudan has seen decades and decades of strife from other countries as well as from within. With problems and tensions arising for the better part of a century, it makes progress an incredibly difficult task. As an outsider looking in, I can only imagine how these patriots must feel. If I were in their shoes, it would be hard to believe that one day things would look brighter at all. On one hand, Sudan and South Sudan have had the world’s attention, being gifted aid from a number of developed countries, NGO as well as mission organizations. However, only so much can be done when every few years, the nation’s internal struggle gets broadcasted across the media and slapped with jarring descriptions like “unsafe,” “turbulent,” and “warring.” Can you imagine seeing planes whisk away the very people sent to offer a helping hand?
East African Ministries (EAM) is an organization that I have had the delight of spending time with before. If you travel back into the dusty archives of our beloved blog, you’ll see evidences of my first stint in South Sudan before its independence, documenting the beauty and redemption brought through something as simple as clean water. Well, since 2010, EAM has seen a greater need in this young country and sought to bring a remedy. Droves of men, women, and children are experiencing illnesses, infections, and sadly, death all due to a myriad of things. EAM initially sought to institute a mobile health clinic that would deliver medicine and antibiotics to villages that didn’t have access to health care. In their trials of the mobile health clinic, the organization realized that what the country needed wasn’t a temporary bandaid, but a permanent solution. They observed that the majority of the nation’s health issues could be solved by being properly educated. In other words, teach the people preventative heath care that eliminates the majority of the illnesses instead of just treating the illnesses themselves.
But how do you disseminate information to a nation separated by hundreds and thousands of miles of unpaved terrain? How do you find someone willing to take on a task as great as this? Will it even work?
It was amazing and truly awe-inspiring to see the Lord’s provision through a man named Thiel Thiel. Nope…that is not a typo. His first and last name are the same and what makes this even cooler is the meaning for the name “Thiel” is quite literally “goes to bed hungry.” Thiel has a unique story, one that has haunted me since we left. Thiel was one of the original Lost Boys of Sudan, displaced without his family from the Northern region of Sudan during the second civil war back in 1983. After seeking refuge first in Ethiopia, then in Egypt, he finally received an opportunity through a Catholic organization that flew him to America for schooling. Thiel said he was around 19 years old when that happened. Imagine years upon years living in refugee tents and then being flown to America to see thriving education, water sources, and peace.
As soon as he got off the plane, the driver immediately drove to the nicest area of New York City, the wealthiest suburbs with the biggest houses and looked at Thiel and said, “This could be yours.” And as soon as Thiel had taken in the majesty of that vision, the driver turned the car around and then took him to the least fortunate slum in the city at the time and said, “or this can be yours. Futures are determined one choice at a time, so choose wisely, my friend. Get an education here and create a successful life, or be lazy and end up in places like this.” Thiel had seen enough of poverty for a lifetime, so you can imagine which road he chose.
As Thiel spoke to us, he recounted his time in America, recounted how he learned the English language out of desperation in only 6 months, recounted the years of obtaining his undergraduate degree in parasitology at Rutgers University and then onto his Masters in Arabic. He also spoke warmly about how he finally married the woman he loved since he was 10 years old after being separated for seven years during his time in the States. As we listened tearfully to his story, it was clear how he viewed his life: he didn’t see his life as one of a victim, but one of opportunity.
When I met Thiel, I couldn’t imagine that he would have returned to South Sudan, his home. Why would he? His nation was in ruin, torn about from years of civil war, and here he was a graduate from a prestigious university with the option to go anywhere. But he said to me, “Why would I not want to use what I had been given to help my country? I would be a fool to run and hide.”
WHAT?!? WHO IS THIS GUY?!
He returned a few years after finishing his schooling to Egypt and became a lobbyist against the genocide in South Sudan. And eventually, he was able to return home to help rebuilding from the ground. Soon after, he began working with EAM to build a model that would eventually reach the entirety of their new nation. Essentially, Thiel and a team of 4 other fantastic men systematically drive to villages in their county and state. They will then stay with that village for 8 days teaching the appointed Community Health Volunteers 2-3 different diseases and their preventative measures. Those 6 Community Health Volunteers are then responsible for training their local village the same information, and are given the responsibility of insuring the health and safety of their family and friends.
(From left: Nyara Moses, Abiriga Fred, Muresuk Joseph, Thiel Thiel, Aputi Manase)
The best part of Thiel’s story—the part of the story that Ashley and I got to witness the tail end of—was that of Thiel’s spiritual journey with the Lord. Thiel became a follower of Christ nearly two years ago, after returning to South Sudan, but his wife wasn’t. He knew that there was a bigger plan, a bigger purpose for why the two were together. They now had a son, and Thiel couldn’t bear not sharing the joy and hope he had been given to his only son. So as he continued to pray for his family and read the Word of God, and as his wife, Rose, saw the transformation in the man she had known all her life, she too began to change. Rose too saw the gift God had lavished upon her and slowly began reading the Word as well and speaking to Thiel more and more about it. The faith her husband had made her curious and ultimately led her to a faith of her own.
While Ashley and I were in the field with MHI, part of their normal 8 day stint in each village is to evangelize and spread the good news of the Gospel. Afterwards, the MHI crew will then baptize whoever longs to make an outward proclamation of an inward change. This time, Rose walked down into the river, with all of her clothes still on and no spares to change into, to finally declare that she was the Lord’s and He was hers.
For the entire rest of the day, Thiel walked around proclaiming, “I am so proud of my wife. Never have I been more proud than I am today.”
Our time with MHI (Mobile Health International) was humbling, to see these five men work tirelessly to gift their country with knowledge, wisdom, and information. In comparison to Water Harvest and Leadership Development (the two other wings of EAM), their mission is the quietest of the three. There are no climactic moments where water spurts into the air, nor are their graduation celebrations with diplomas being handed out. There is only the quiet transfer of knowledge, but knowledge that will ultimately that will ultimately shape the future of their young nation. If most of us are honest, we wouldn’t last but one or maybe two months in a job that doesn’t give us some kind of glory, some kind of tangible manifestation of our hard work (or even something we can Instagram and get a hundred likes from). But these men don’t care about the glory, at least not their own. They care about God’s glory, and betterment of their country. They’re the true definition of selfless, and I would never trade in the experience we had with them.
[written by my husband, Cole]