Shangili Tobaya Talgi Dahabaya , is a rhyme from the opening song of an old Sudanese television series that takes place in Shangil Tobaya. The words Shangil Tobaya translate from Sudanese colloquial Arabic as “flip a brick” and the popular rhyme translates to “flip a brick you will find gold”. I heard that rhyme repeatedly when telling family, friends or colleagues that during my four day visit to Northern Darfur I would go on a day visit to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Shangil Tobaya. I arrived by helicopter on the cloudy morning of Oct. 19. MSF’s rickety, old Land Rover drove through sandy fields decorated with occasional green bushes. From the window I could see countless gutiyat, or huts, built from straw and thin branches. They were conical-shaped, with a carrot-top finish. Some of the gutiyat were fenced with mud walls, while others were preserved through a combination of mud and brick walls – perhaps because people assumed that they would not be returning to their villages anytime soon. Some of the gutiyat were right across from the MSF hospital, while the others were adjacent to it. These two areas are respectively known as the Shangil Tobaya and Shadat camps, where about 28,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) reside. Many of the IDPs fled from their homes due to the outbreak of violence in their villages, and have been living in gutiyat since 2004. Shortly after the arrival of the displaced people, MSF initiated its medical activities in Shangil Tobaya. The hospital is a simple structure, sturdy plastic tents along with local materials, such as straw mats, were used for the building. The hospital’s waiting room is a tent-shaded area with a straw mat on the ground and two backless benches. Despite this modest appearance, the MSF hospital is efficient and provides quality healthcare. The hospital’s tented rooms are full of activity. There are doctors, nurses, mid-wives, and medical assistants tending to the patients. In one room a doctor is weighing a baby to determine whether he suffered from malnutrition. Meanwhile, in the inpatient unit, three women in their early-thirties tightly hold their malnourished babies. I wish their babies a fast recovery and the mothers smiled sadly. The majority of the patients in the hospital are women and children, a group that has been most affected by the conflict. Some women have suffered from depression, trauma and sexual violence. These women come to the hospital’s psychological services for counseling and support. Also, a small number of pregnant women and children under the age of five are here because they suffer from malnutrition, caused by poverty and drought. These factors prevent pregnant women from increasing their normal nutritional intake or enjoying a proper diet. The IDP camps are crowded so people must live in close proximity to one another, making it easier for diseases to spread – and these children’s immune systems are already very weak, due to their young age and poor diet. During my visit I was unable to go out with MSF’s outreach team, which consists of 26 community health workers (CHWs) from Shangil Tobaya who conduct daily visits to the IDP camps and distant villages. The CHWs provide nutritional screening, follow-up on cases of malnutrition, conduct vaccination campaigns, refer patients to the MSF hospital and train people in basic healthcare and hygiene. The CHWs who work in the nearby camps travel by foot, while those that visit faraway villages ride donkeys, which is the traditional form of travel in Darfur, as cars are an attractive target for bandits. The Sudanese staff are the core of the hospital, while an international nurse and doctor fly in twice a week from El-Fashir. The volatile security conditions and risk of kidnapping of aid workers prevent MSF’s international staff from staying permanently in Shangil Tobaya. Without the dedication and willingness of the national staff, MSF would not be able to carry on its work here. The hospital staff are mostly from Darfur and have felt the impact of the conflict in their daily lives. The local staff and the patients have experienced immense loss, yet they carry on with dignity and they give generously to one another. Despite everything that the people in Shangil Tobaya have been through, community and kinship remain an integral part of their society. People are struggling to survive yet the locals, along with the displaced, pool the little resources they have to help their neighbours, relatives or friends. Poor living conditions, loss, emotional suffering and traumatic memories have not broken the people here. Henna, usually used for beautification during times of celebration, was on the hands and feet of many of the women as people continue to celebrate weddings, births, and many other occasions. Women have lost their homes, villages and loved ones, but they still want to celebrate life. Even today, when I think about the people I met in Shangil Tobaya, I am inspired by their resilience and strength in the face of despair and uncertainty. Gold may not be found when flipping a brick in Shangil Tobaya, but it manifests itself in many ways. It is the simple, yet efficient and resourceful MSF hospital and the dedicated hospital staff who continue to serve thousands of people in Shangil Tobaya and the surrounding villages. Gold is the spirit of a community that exudes compassion and humanity.

Related News & Publications