By the time Apollo, a 28-year-old South Sudanese community health worker, was born in 1984, Sudan was already one year into its second civil war. Decades of conflict preceded and followed his birth, culminating in a fragile peace accord between the north and south in 2005 that led to South Sudan’s declaration of independence in July of last year. Now, South Sudan once again teeters on the brink of war with its northern neighbor.
In sum, Apollo has seen more war than peace in his lifetime. Yet his is a story of survival and resilience.
Apollo’s father passed away when he was young, leaving no one to take care of him. When war came to his small southern Sudanese village, Apollo fled by foot—like the many young children who had to make their way hundreds of miles across a hostile landscape in search of safety. He ended up in Pinyudo refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he and the other so-called “Lost Boys” would call home for several years. Then another conflict broke out between warring tribes and Apollo had to run away again—this time back to his homeland, and the town where he was born.
In Pinyudo, Apollo had attended school through grade ten, but once he found himself back in the midst of Sudan’s conflict, education would became a luxury he could no longer afford. Yet years later, the NGO World Relief came to Apollo’s village and selected him for health training in Uganda, where he attended medical school for nine months. In February 2010, International Medical Corps employed Apollo as a community health worker (CHW) in Pochalla, a remote county in Jonglei State that lies on the eastern border of South Sudan with Ethiopia. This is where he works today.
Pochalla itself does not have much conflict, but it is surrounded by three counties with significant ethnic violence, contributing around 4,000 refugees to Pochalla’s 70,000 residents. Occasionally, outside groups raid Pochalla and kidnap children and cattle. But most of the time, it’s impossible to get in and out except by plane. Perpetual rainfall causes the river to overflow, cutting off the bridge, and makes the roads too muddy for driving. This extreme isolation has fostered high levels of alcoholism and gender inequality in Pochalla. Further, the combination of inaccessibility to health services and lack of education about health issues means that women tend to wait until the last minute when complications in pregnancy occur—and this is often too late. Consequently, women’s health in Pochalla reflects the norm in South Sudan, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
Through seven primary health care units and one main health center, International Medical Corps works hard to address maternal mortality in Pochalla, along with malaria, diarrhea and respiratory infections—but it needs CHWs like Apollo to succeed. Both a product of the community and its hope for a better future, Apollo connects International Medical Corps’ vital health services with the people they aim to reach. He visits extremely sick patients on the outskirts of the town who cannot reach the clinics and makes people aware of International Medical Corps’ services so that they know when and how to seek medical attention. Apollo also engages in extensive grassroots community outreach and education, teaching his own community members about proper nutrition and hygiene, and warning signs for malaria and pregnancy complications.
Apollo stays motivated working for International Medical Corps because the NGO “provides good services” and he has seen “a lot of improvement in the community.” Even though “people are suffering a lot because of war,” International Medical Corps “saves the lives of vulnerable groups like pregnant and lactating mothers and children under five years old.” When asked whether he would feel prepared to look after the health of his community even if International Medical Corps were to leave, Apollo answers, “We will be able to manage. At least the people who were trained can do something.”
Regarding his future, Apollo states, “I hope to continue to work for the life of the community.” But that’s not all. What Apollo really wants to talk about is education. With conflict continually interrupting his schooling and weakening his country’s infrastructure, Apollo desperately “wants to gain more knowledge.” He dreams of being a medical doctor or clinical officer one day, but cannot afford school at this time. He emphasizes, “Education is the key to the future; it is supposed to be a priority.”
South Sudan’s broader educational policies fall outside the scope of International Medical Corps’ operations, but the organization has nonetheless provided him with valuable skills and knowledge. Apollo may not be a student, but as an International Medical Corps CHW, he is already a teacher. In a region flush with arms and hatred, Apollo builds peace from the ground up by promoting health, positive behavior and stability.
Even in the face of widespread death and despair, Apollo’s commitment to “the life of the community” remains unwavering, guided by the hope that—unlike him—his children will grow up seeing more peace than war.