Thirty Years In South Sudan: The Bethel Bond

by Vickie Turner Malone

Dr. Jill Seaman enjoys a light moment with one of her patients at her clinic at Old Fangak, South Sudan. Photo by Katie Basile
A boy enjoys some Plumpy’Nut, a ready-to-eat therapeutic supplement. Photo by Katie Basile
Zach, Ashley, and Seth Fairbanks of Bethel volunteering at Dr. Jill Seaman’s health clinic in Old Fangak, South Sudan. Photo courtesy of Vicki Malone
A mother and son at Old Fangak, South Sudan clinic. Photo by Katie Basile

Dr. Jill Seaman landed in South Sudan for Doctors Without Borders in 1989, during a huge infectious disease epidemic. When that organization left, Dr. Seaman moved to Old Fangak in 2000, and started her own clinic. Each year, Dr. Jill returns to Bethel to work as a physician at YKHC during the four summer months.

Over those years, almost 30 Bethel people have joined Jill as volunteers in Old Fangak. Their experience and stories have cemented Bethel’s bond to Old Fangak and Dr. Seaman’s clinic.

Every August, just before Jill leaves, Bethelites join her for an African dinner and fundraiser for the clinic. The slideshow gives our community a chance to gaze upon the hopeful, smiling faces of villagers who have received services, the faces of the staff Dr. Seaman has trained to carry out the work of the clinic, and to celebrate our small part in this effort.

Laura (Hoppy) Whitman, who volunteered to train staff, describes flying in a small plane through miles of African bush. Unable to land at Old Fangak because of flooding, they landed in a nearby village. The next day the villagers loaded her into shallow, wooden boats and transported her downriver, through the tall reeds where Old Fangak mysteriously appeared.

Hoppy took up residence in what she described as a “small, modern tent.”

“Jill taught me to avoid little red snakes that would kill or disfigure us,” Hoppy recalled.

The remoteness of Old Fangak, has provided some safety through the years of brutal civil war in Sudan. Ashley Fairbanks who arrived in 2011 during an outbreak of war remembers her service in the river culture of Old Fangak.

“People were nervous and worried soldiers might come to the village. But Jill wasn’t scared, so I wasn’t scared.”

Her brothers, Zach and Seth Fairbanks were not so lucky. Captured by militia while bringing supplies back to the village by boat, the boys were held captive for many hours before convincing the militia they were working for Dr. Seaman and must be released.

The South Sudan Medical Relief Clinic is the only facility for many miles around and the only hope for people suffering from a variety of serious tropical diseases such as the parasitic infection kala azar, malaria, T.B., river blindness, guinea worm disease and a host of others.

Still fresh in her memory, Ashley Fairbanks recalls a mother who carried her sick baby for a day and a half walk to the clinic. They saved him. The woman returned days later carrying a second child who had died during the journey.

The volunteers were not without disease themselves. Linda Curda volunteered 2013, and contracted a serious case of giardia during her stay.

Linda spoke highly of the local staff. “They are remarkably dedicated and thirsty for knowledge and education. They want to know and understand. The training Jill has facilitated for so many villagers is one of the most important parts of the project.”

The many volunteers who survived the famine, flood, war, fire ants, cobra encounters, giardia, fevers, heat, long hours, limited diet, and interrupted sleep have brought their rich stories and dedication to the people they served back to Bethel. Their encounters tell us that people in Old Fangak are generous in the midst of poverty, and hopeful in spite of the calamities of the times.

Katie Basile speaks about the tie to Old Fangak. “While visiting South Sudan in 2015, I was struck by the special connection between Alaska and Old Fangak. I even met a woman who named her child Nya Alaska, which means Daughter of Alaska. Through our donations and support we continue to build on this global friendship.”