Last week, I came back from my semi-regular visit to South Sudan with a stopover in Ethiopia to see the work of Dr. Rick Hodes.
As I settled back into life and politics, many people asked me about the conditions in South Sudan and why on earth I would want to go there. I began to think about what six years traveling back and forth to the world’s newest country had taught me. These are six of the lessons I have learned.
Friendship knows no bounds, and language barriers don’t stop the bond between human beings.
I have two close friends in South Sudan. One is Dr. Luka Deng. He speaks English fluently and was trained not only in Africa but also in England and the U.S. An amazing physician, he is a role model to all. However, my best female friend is Adhel. The oldest of three wives married to a police officer. (Christians have many wives in the culture of South Sudan.) She saw seven people killed during the war with the North. Adhel runs our post-traumatic stress program group and is illiterate. She speaks no English except for “hello,” and I speak no Dinka except for “sheebok.” Yet we understand each other, and through a translator we talk about our lives. We have a close friendship, and hopefully I will know her throughout my life. Friendship spans language.
Simple pleasures are just as wonderful as expensive ones.
When you sleep on the ground in a tent, getting into a bed – any bed – seems like unspeakable luxury. To think that in my younger days what I spent on a pair of shoes or even a purse seems like living on Mars.
Once, I read about a man who calculated the gross domestic product of the world and divided it by the number of people living in it. He decided to live on his small share of the world’s output. He said he could get just as much pleasure by sharing an ice cream cone as he could by sharing an expensive dinner. I thought he was nuts, but now I know he was right. A cup of coffee made by boiling water from the hand pump can be just as wonderful to share with friends as a meal at the Ritz.
A free press is necessary to the survival of country and a people.
When I first came to the White House, Helen Thomas (yes that very same Helen) told me what I was doing was the best use of my time to ensure a free country. “Her thinking is off, “I thought, but Helen was onto something. Seeing how the developing world operates, it is the only way4.
Money and maneuvering are best exposed to the sunlight of the press. One of my mental health teachers once said, “If you want to stop a psychopath, expose him to the light.” The press has a job to do, and that is to keep politicians honest.
Corruption will kill a country almost as fast as a war will.
There is more to corruption than taking bribes. Corruption occurs when local people are given jobs they are not qualified for, or certain needs are taken care of for one group but not others. It stops progress and, although it temporarily makes one group richer or happier, ultimately it destroys the whole group or country. As a long-term strategy, it is as destructive as war.
War not only kills in the short term, it kills in the long term.
South Sudan has been at war for 40 of the last 58 years. In our post-traumatic stress program, we have seen women slowly recover only to be re-traumatized by the recent civil unrest. The trauma makes them fearful of close relationships and unable to carry on basic tasks that require concentration. It destroys families and renders entire communities feeling helpless. Peace education, reconciliation and mediation of disputes are the only way to go. It is time and money well spent.
What happens in the parts of the world we might not think about, such as South Sudan or Congo, matters.
President George W. Bush understood this. If we help with AIDS, we can stop the disease from spreading in the U.S. If we make sure there is stability in these far-flung countries, terrorism will not grow. We are all connected.
The lesson I’ve learned the most is that we are all connected. What happens elsewhere in the world is our business. We need each other to survive and be productive, happy human beings. This is the most important lesson. The Bible teaches it, and our human experience confirms it.
Media wishing to interview Ellen Ratner, please contact email@example.com.