Tom Catena is a medical doctor from the US who for the last decade, has been living in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. Ahead of his participation at AidEx Nairobi, we spoke to Catena about his experience delivering healthcare as the only permanent doctor in the area.
What is the current situation in the Nuba Mountains?
The region remains a war zone, and the future is unclear, but the Nubians are very resourceful. These very resilient people have been traumatised and oppressed for centuries, and yet, despite all the problems, they maintain their dignity and pride, and keep moving ahead.
If anybody else in the world had suffered what they have suffered, people would have given up and died years ago. But they persevere and are so fiercely independent. And I can’t help admiring them. They are, for me, a very special people.
What would be the best-case scenario for the current context you work in Sudan and how do you believe this can come about?
I didn’t know much about the Nuba before I went there. I heard about their history, but it wasn’t till I got there that I really understood who they were. These people need help, but that doesn’t mean they want everything done for them. You feel like you want to come and assist them in their journey to come up and to improve the standard of living there. That would be the goal.
What advice would you offer other medical professionals working in challenging contexts?
The work can very frustrating, but I think in the end, the personal reward you get from taking care of somebody gives you a lot of instant gratification. Taking care of somebody, seeing them improve – I think there’s no better feeling than helping somebody else, whether it’s in the medical field or education, any arena. I find that in helping others, I receive much more in return.
How does the work you do link to your religious beliefs?
My underlying ambition has always been to be in a job where I could work with people and really help them. At my time in the university I started thinking I wanted to be a missionary. That was my overriding idea, and that’s what guided me. As Catholics, we are called upon to humbly serve others and do what we can to help them. These are not just words, but many people nonetheless feel hopeless. They feel the problems are too big. Poverty, famine, terrorism – what can I do as an individual? Surely nothing! But the truth is that you, as an individual, can always do at least something, even if you go and help just one person.
Do you think religion can isolate some aid recipients/has this happened?
I think we are interconnected as human beings, no matter what your race or religion is. From my perspective, we are all children of God, no matter our religion, ethnicity or nationality. And we do have an obligation to look after our brothers. Every single person can contribute somehow.
As the only permanent doctor there, are you concerned about what will happen when you retire? Please share your thoughts on the sustainability of your work.
I could never abandon the people I have gotten to know when they need my support the most. When there are airplanes over your head and you hear them bombing, you feel terror. You feel it down to your bones. I think if you don’t feel fear, you’re not human.
I feel afraid, I feel like this could be my last day on Earth, I really feel that. But I think I get courage from people around me. They can’t leave, you know. They don’t have that option. This is their home. I take courage from the people here – the young, the old, the middle-aged – everybody here puts up with a lot more difficulties than I’ll ever have to. I also take courage from organizations like the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. Their continued support has not only enabled me to sustain the work at the Mother of Mercy Catholic Hospital, but also allow me to continue the cycle of giving.
How do you manage to do your work without medical infrastructure to support you?
It’s true that medical supplies are limited, and often what is needed is simply unavailable. The work is very hectic. Most of my time there, it’s work, go back to the room, go back to the hospital, back to the room again. It’s a very one-dimensional life. Work and a little bit of rest, work and a little bit of rest – back and forth, back and forth.
What are your key priorities at present?
The vision of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative is to give a voice to those who fall between the cracks of today’s humanitarian system – and that certainly includes the people in the Nuba mountains. As Chair of the Initiative, I strive to ensure it remains an effective vehicle to shed light on what’s happening there, the plight of the locals, how the people have suffered, how they need some help in certain areas just to get them going so they could eventually help themselves, that would make me very happy.
What are the key messages you would like to share at AidEx Nairobi?
Aurora focuses on the “unsung heroes” – those frontline humanitarian workers who operate in their local communities and risk their lives to provide health, education and other much needed services in oftentimes forgotten conflict zones.