A remarkable woman in Darfur

Sister Pierra has been tending the sick in Sudan for 25 years

By John Birchenough, Country Funding Manager, Norwegian Church Aid

The sun is already high above me when I arrive at the Sudanaid supported Catholic Church clinic in central Nyala to interview Sister Pierra who runs the clinic. Sudanaid is a local organization supported by Caritas. She greets me in the compound and proceeds to take me around the immaculately clean clinic showing me the different sections, the waiting room, the area for mothers, the laboratory and introducing me to the doctors and staff that she works with.

I ask her if she has time to sit down and tell me about her background and work in Darfur. Obviously very busy she nevertheless finds the time to sit with me and Dr Babiker from Sudanaid and talk to me about whom she is and her work.

Sister Pierra arrived in Sudan in Khartoum in January 1984. She was the first sister from her order “The Sisters of Charity of St Giovanna Antida Thouret” to come to work in the country and for ten years she worked in a Khartoum military hospital tending the sick. It was a long way from Italy where Sister Pierra, who was born in Padua, originally came from and where she had worked as a nurse and hospital administrator for twenty five years.

Her journey was however not at an end and in 1994 she came to Nyala in South Darfur, in the west of Sudan. She had finished her work in Khartoum and Nyala beckoned. When she arrived in Nyala, the Sisters of Charity worked from the Catholic Church providing nursing support and first aid to people in need. She was fortunate in so far that her work was flexible and allowed her to respond to those in need and travel when necessary. Today there are four sisters within the community in Nyala. The order has three other communities, one in Malakal and two in Khartoum.

In 1998 Sister Pierra started up a clinic in Nyala; “We had a lot of people coming to us for help” she recalls. With the financial assistance of the Jesuits and a group of Italian benefactors known as the “India Group” the sisters set about building up the clinic. From treating twenty or thirty people a day the sisters built up the clinic to what it is today; receiving between one hundred and twenty and one hundred and thirty people a day. Sister Pierra tells me how she did a lot of reading and worked hard on developing her understanding and knowledge of tropical diseases. All this work certainly seems to have paid off. Today the clinic enjoys a good reputation for its treatment of skin diseases and people come from all parts of South Darfur to seek assistance.

I ask Sister Pierra about the changes that she has seen over the last ten years. Apart from the increase in people attending the clinic which she sees in part as a result of the extended services and reputation that the facility now has, she describes the moment to me in 2003 when she was in Radom on the border with South Sudan. Up to this moment the sisters had operated a mobile clinic and Sister Pierra had travelled all over South Darfur on her own, visiting about 150 villages and conducting clinical outreach and listening to people’s needs. Radom was to change this. Sister Pierra heard a shot being fired and was told that a conflict had started. Regretfully the year later in 2004 she gave up the mobile clinic because of the insecurity and has not gone out to the remote villages of South Darfur since.

When I ask her about the future she tells me that she plans to carry on helping people as long as she can, she really hopes that one day she can go back to the people in the countryside and continue to help them. “They really need help” she tells me.

Sudanaid has been supporting the clinic with staff, medicines, equipment and logistics since 2007. Since Sudanaid became involved, the clinic has expanded the scope of services offered. Initially the clinic did not offer a complete primary healthcare package but with the support of Sudanaid this became possible. Sudanaid and the ACT-Caritas network contributed to the expansion and rehabilitation of the clinic and capacity building of staff. All of this has contributed towards making the clinic attractive and welcoming to patients and the clinic is so popular that some people have to asked to come back at later date.

Sister Pierra who oversees the administration in the clinic is grateful for the assistance; telling me that she prioritises the quality of the services that the clinic offers, but that good service depends on support.

Although I have said to Sister Pierra that I would like to focus on writing about her and her work, she reminds me of the importance and the roles of all the staff in the clinic, without whom nothing would work. “Staff here are competent and keen” she tells me, “this is reflected in the quality of the care we provide, but we need to remember to continue to invest developing local capacity and knowledge if all of this is to be sustainable.”

Several times during our meeting which we conduct in English, Italian, French and Arabic, with the assistance of Dr Babiker, she breaks off to remind me to thank everyone who has supported the clinic and how she wishes she could thank them personally.

My thoughts, however, are that I should be thanking this remarkable woman, who with her team is working so hard to help people far from her place of birth.

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Filed under Africa, Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Emergencies in Darfur and South Sudan, Peacebuilding, Sudan

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