This is a time of year to think of the goodness of human beings and also consider what is possible.
We give ourselves permission to think what is possible and even engage in a group fantasy of Santa coming down a chimney and reindeer flying with a sleigh. It is a wonderful time of the year, and even in the poorest state in South Sudan (poverty rate is 82 percent on the global poverty scale) people celebrate Christmas. Many of the citizens in the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal eat only every other day, but Christmas is a time of celebration. Peace in the area has been a long time coming, with two wars spanning from 1956-2005 that killed somewhere between 4 million and 4.5 million people in the South in what was an Arab-Christian war.
There are still about 35,000 people held in the North against their will in slavery, and most of them were taken from Northern Bahr el Ghazal. Christian Solidary International brings them back, and we give them a female goat and grain for planting. Americans contribute to these beautiful people so they can get grain and goats and become self-sustaining in their new freedom from years of slavery.
People in South Sudan will dance and sing and share the food with each other at Christmas time. It is a time for family and neighbors and entire villages to gather and celebrate. These villages are far in the bush, with no running water, no electricity and poor, if any, sanitation. But Christmas is still a time for great celebration.
This year is even more special in the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal (the translation is “river of the gazelle”) as 10 students from the state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal will be entering a special pre-med program at St. George’s University, in Grenada, West Indies.
St. George’s is the first medical school in the Caribbean. It is a “for-profit” university with the first extensive program in Africa. It has trained 100 physicians in Botswana. (Disclosure: I am on the nonprofit board associated with the university, Windward Islands Research & Education Foundation, or WINDREF.) Now, through the vision of founder and Chancellor Charles Modica, students who have not had the privilege of attending a college or university that educates students for science and health will have the opportunity to do so. Ten people will have a chance to help themselves and their country.
Some people are critical of for-profit colleges and universities, and it happens to be true that few, if any, do what St. George’s has done in the developing world. Now, this Christmas, 10 top students will be talking to their families over the holiday about boarding a plane and crossing the Atlantic to study. St. George’s, deeply committed to education “Beyond Borders,” is not just taking these students and placing them in classes. It is designing a program for them. Students will attend the university, all expenses paid.
Dean Margaret Lambert and her staff have worked hard to develop a program so these students will succeed. St. George’s is a leader in this kind of education. It pioneered a “Foundations of Medicine Program” for older students or students needing a better academic foundation after pre-med courses so they are ready to attend medical school. Chancellor Modica and Dean Lambert have now developed a “Foundations of Pre-Med” program so students from South Sudan can succeed in a competitive and Western education environment.
English, although the official language of South Sudan, is not the first language of the country. Most of these 10 students have grown up speaking the tribal language, Dinka. According to Northern Bahr el Ghazal’s health minister, Tong Deng, these students have seen the worst of war. Some have been child soldiers. Some have seen relatives killed, and all know the hunger and deprivation that the war with the Arab North (now the country of Sudan) wrought upon the people of South Sudan.
This Christmas, these 10 students have hope. They all want to come back to the world’s newest country and help make it strong. They want to learn medicine for a country of 10 million people, where there are only 200 doctors.
St. George’s has as its motto, ‘Think beyond.” It has done this in a place of unbelievable poverty, hunger and lack of education for success.
Minister of Health Tong Deng called me and told me this week how proud the entire state of Northern Bahr el Ghazal is of their students going to St. George’s University and how it will make a difference in the whole state. That is a wonderful gift this Christmas, and it will change lives more directly than almost anything else. It is a gift greater than any reindeer can bring and will help 10 people get educated and 10 million people obtain access to real health care.
It is an extraordinary gift from St. George’s University to the people of South Sudan.