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S. Sudan Med Students Learn and Inspire Others

  • Kelly J. Kelly

T-shirts, including one featuring South Sudan's local beer, raise money for University of Juba medical students. (Brett Walkley)

T-shirts, including one featuring South Sudan's local beer, raise money for University of Juba medical students. (Brett Walkley)

American Brett Walkley traveled to Juba in July last year to celebrate South Sudan’s independence and to visit her father, who was the top U.S. diplomat there.

While in South Sudan, she learned about the plight of medical students at the University of Juba College of Medicine. More than 900 were enrolled at the school, despite the fact that there was only one permanent faculty member and a single classroom. Nevertheless, the students were determined to become the first generation of locally trained doctors. For some, that meant living in tents on the university campus and teaching themselves biochemistry with sticks in the dirt.

The medical students’ story inspired Walkley to find a way to help. That meant combining her professional skill as a graphic designer with one of her other interests: beer.

“As a beer lover, and especially my husband who’s a beer lover, pretty much everywhere we go travel, one of the things he always picks up is a beer shirt, whether it’s a Tusker’s shirt from Kenya or a Beer Lao shirt from Laos,” she said. “They’re also the kind of gifts we give his friends or his father. While traveling in Juba I enjoyed many White Bull Lagers, I realized there was no way to purchase a shirt, and knowing all too well how popular beer shirts are I thought it would be a good idea.”

Back home in California, Walkley created two t-shirts to raise money for the medical students. One has a map of South Sudan with a drawing of an anatomically correct heart over the city of Juba. The other features the White Bull Lager logo.

Walkey said she’s sold hundreds of t-shirts and raised thousands of dollars. All the money goes directly to a charity called Ujenzi, which supports the Juba medical students. Ujenzi is funded by private individuals, and it focuses on serving poor and vulnerable people in East Africa, particularly in South Sudan.

Roy Ahn, a public health specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and an Ujenzi adviser, said contributions like Walkley’s help provide resources such as text books, microscopes, and even teachers from Harvard Medical School.

“The students have learned a lot, and I think more importantly they have a sense that people care about them and want them to learn,” Ahn said.

Chol Makur Aciek, a medical student at the University of Juba, said he decided to become a doctor when he was a child in Wau suffering from malaria.

“I recovered from it,” Aciek said. “And I said this could be a good thing to do. So I can help other people like they helped me now.”

Aciek recently finished a summer school program in Kenya, and now Ujenzi is bringing him to study for one month at Harvard University, which has one of the top medical schools in the U.S.

Journalist Karen Day made a documentary film about Aciek and his classmates in Juba.

“All of them want to come back,” Day said. “They take great pride in the fact that South Sudan has become liberated. All these kids want to come back to work, even if they have to leave the country to become doctors.”

Day pointed out that because resources are scarce, it’s taking the Juba medical students longer than their counterparts in other countries to earn their degrees. But she said they remain intensely motivated because they can see the tremendous need for medical help in their country. Day said their enthusiasm is like a bonfire—it lights a spark in other people and makes them want to join in.