Bill with a Sudanese Midwife
Ann and I set out on the mission field nearly twenty years ago in response to a calling and desire to make a difference. My own dream of becoming a missionary doctor to Africa came true, though not exactly the way I had envisioned it. Practicing medicine in a developing country entailed re-learning much of what I had been taught in medical school and learning to do without the amenities I had become accustomed to while an intern, resident, and then in private practice. There were to be no consultants to call upon, no state of the art equipment, imaging studies, or lab tests to guide my decisions or confirm a diagnosis. My best teachers were not other doctors but seasoned and locally- trained African nurses. It was in fact a nurse who sedated my first patient, who pointed out the rash I had overlooked, and who handed me the scalpel during my first C-section and said ‘don’t worry doctor I’m here to help you’.
One of my first jobs when I arrived in Africa 15 years ago was the Dean of a Nursing School….and it turned out to be my fondest. I knew little about nursing education but what I was asked to teach; physical diagnosis, rational use of antibiotics, and inpatient management were concepts that Congo’s nurses needed the most as they would become the primary health care givers in Africa (and often the only health care provider patients will see in their lifetime from birth to death). There is roughly one doctor for every 90,000 people in the Congo. As I write this letter two of our seven American Baptist hospitals in the Congo are in fact, without doctors.
Even my own time as hospital-based physician came to a sudden and abrupt end a decade ago. The early years of my missionary work were memorable: raising four children along the banks of the Kwilu River, teaching nurses and doctors at a 400-bed hospital, healing the sick, serving the poor…until a series of civil wars came to the Congo and with it chaos, disruption, and change of direction. The dark years of the late nineties were marked by rebel invasion, pillaging, rape, destruction, and the flight of the few national health care workers. Ann and I were separated for nearly a year when our hospital fell behind rebel lines; thankfully our mission board had the foresight to evacuate all women and children a week earlier. Those months were the lowest of my career; not just the sheer loneliness but the violence (one of my African colleagues was shot and killed), the assaults, the loss of medicine, supplies, and the witnessing of all that we had built being torn apart. When a peace treaty was signed and our family was reunited state-side nearly a year later, my previous visions of missionary medicine: healing the sick, training young doctors, praying with patients, and living in communion with God were replaced by the carnage, the panic, the flight, the evil, and the despair. I had done my job…let another take the mantle, I thought as I returned to the United States in 2000.
God brought us back to the Congo less than a year later, though I wasn’t sure why at the time. As events turned out within days of arriving back in Africa I was approached by a Christian medical organization (IMA World Health) and was asked to head up a nation-wide relief effort to help rebuild, replace, and retrain not just what was lost in our American Baptist hospitals but hundreds of others. Over the past ten years I have had little use of my stethoscope as I have criss-crossed the nation, including pockets still under rebel control, using support from secular and faith based donors alike to rebuild and restore much of what was lost. The work was completed a few weeks ago, the contracts fulfilled, and the millions of dollars spent. I look back over the past ten years on what was accomplished: over 300 hospitals, clinics, and maternities rebuilt and resupplied, nearly a thousand clean water sources installed, 162 containers of relief medicine from the United States and Europe distributed, 10 million children vaccinated, 2 million pregnant women put under mosquito nets, 33,000 doctors and nurses retrained, and much more. To think that I had contemplated not returning to Congo ten years ago and that I would have missed what God had planned in response to the prayers of the faithful make me shudder. My hands have been used, my heart restored, my hope rekindled…..but my passion is still unquenched.
I turn 54 years old this year. Ann and I will have three children in college this fall and will have spent half our lives in developing nations. Maybe this is the time to come home; to work, to save, to build for the future? ‘Whose future’ is the salient point.
The organizations we serve with (International Ministries and their affiliate IMA World Health) approached Ann and me a few weeks ago and asked what we thought about Sudan. The southern part of the country (largely Christian) in a referendum overseen by the UN, recently voted for secession and the process of independence has started. Hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps such as Darfur and others are walking across scorched land towards the South looking for a new home, a new start, a new way of life. Sudan is beyond doubt the poorest nation in Africa and health statistics there are abysmal. I have agreed (tentatively) to help take over an IMA -led initiative to create a health care system in the Sudan which can deal with the influx of millions; of poor, malnourished, homeless, and sick. It is akin to what we faced in post war Congo ten years ago; but the language is unfamiliar, the conditions austere, the security, questionable. Ann and Cassie will remain in Congo until June to finish the school year, and if all goes as planned, Ann will join me in Sudan this summer as Cassie heads off to college.
I have been in Sudan for the past 4 weeks and there is much to be done. Half of the health facilities are closed, there are few trained nurses and almost no doctors. Less than 15% of children are vaccinated, less than 10% of women have help with deliveries; there is a paucity of water, food, medicine and the like. Does God really want us to start over? I spent my first week living in a refurbished 20-foot container and the next few weeks in a tent. And it is hot. Yesterday it was 106 degrees in the shade. This was not the milieu I envisioned when I entered medical school 25 years ago….nor the challenges I anticipated encountering once our children left for college. The important question however is not what we anticipated……but what God has planned. If this is where the Lord wants us then the pieces will fall into place; our children will integrate without us back home, security issues will be worked in the Sudan so Ann and I can be together, supplies will arrive so we can make a difference, support from our churches and friends will continue so we can remain, even if it means skipping an upcoming year of furlough to visit churches, families, and friends. God has provided for all such needs in the past……and much more. What makes us think he won’t provide them now?
We covet your prayers as we contemplate such needs…..and seek most assuredly God’s calling and plan for the future.
Bill ClemmerJuba, Southern Sudan