Saturday, July 9, 2011

Happy Birthday South Sudan

If you can find a medical school that will accept you, my wife and I will support you financially.

That's what I told Mabior when I left Sudan. He was the best student I'd ever seen - he'd unknowingly earned a scholarship invented for him, on the spot.

The Nile

Mabior’s whole education had taken place in refugee camps in Somalia and Kenya. Instead of a formal degree, he held a certificate of training as a medical assistant (from UNHCR, I believe). He was a Lost Boy of Sudan. Mabior had lost his family and his home in the Sudanese civil war of the nineties. MSF (Doctors Without Borders) had taken over an abandoned building, inflated a tent as an operating theater, and become the only functioning hospital in an area the size of England. Mabior had returned to serve his childhood home community in South Sudan.

Bor was a Nile-side shanty town doubling in population every couple of weeks with returning refugees. I operated with MSF there, mostly on victims of inter-tribal gun violence and on infants who’d crawled into cooking fires.


At six-foot-nine, Mabior wasn’t the tallest of his trainee colleagues (many Dinka among them), but he distinguished himself as their natural leader. Easy charm, photographic memory, and tenacity served him well. After his daily twelve-hour shift, he’d come to the operating room to pass his free time learning anesthesia and surgery. In a couple of weeks he was doing inductions, unpaid in his spare time.

Mabior arranged for me and our Hong Kong anesthesiologist to lecture his young colleagues, who functioned as interns after a high-school education and a course in medicine. He took roll and helped his mates to understand our English.

Shortly after I flew out of Bor in a four-seater, Mabior left for Kenya with a bag holding his world.  He was bound to plead his case at Nairobi med schools. Election-time mass violence held him up, so he took a right turn for Uganda instead.  He was having trouble crossing the border – little surprise, given the lack of formal government, much less travel documents in his departing land. Absence of a bank in a two-hundred-mile radius also held up our plan.

I was in Phoenix drinking a Margarita under umbrella and cooling mister when Mabior called to update me from malarial African hinterlands. Our communication was poor, but I made out that he lacked money, a travel pass, and food. He had no school interviews pre-arranged and was bound for a city unfamiliar to us both. He'd never seen a city before. And now he was rafting the Nile or something - I couldn't really tell. Our scheme was a long shot, but I hadn’t intended to send Mabior to his death by crocodile. Best I could understand he was stranded halfway on a marshy 300-mile cow-trail between Bor and Kampala. (His phone service was a mystery, but noise from the Chandler Chihuahau races and my sizzling fajitas made hearing impossible.)

Mabior was a survivor, accustomed to long foot-journeys, hunger, and making his own way in a violent world without roads, leaders, or services. He walked back to his shanty town with its one bank, picked up my deposit, stocked his bag with bread and started again.

Weeks later, he called again. He’d been accepted conditionally at the third school he tried. I was ecstatic!

Just one problem Dr Chris.


I was robbed while speaking to the admissions officers. I left my bag outside the office and all my things are gone. I’m very sorry.

Mabior. I said, Find a Western Union and buy yourself a stethoscope.


July 9, 2011, South Sudan became our planet's newest nation, after decades of civil war killing millions. I'm hopeful Mabior will become the first native doctor in a new nation of peace.

Happy Birthday, Sudan - Mabior's education is a gift from my family.

Mabior, holding roll-book on right. Porter, white guy, second from right.

1 comment:

  1. I am hubbled by Mabior's passion and perseverance.