Welcome to our next ‘campfire’ story.
Campfire for the Heart is a collection of inspiring stories of
Although every story is unique,
they all highlight our ability to adapt positively to bad experiences and showcase our indomitable human spirit.
‘If I can get through Sudan, I can get through anything’.
I have always seen the world empathetically and made important life choices via a snap decision with no fear, just sheer naïve excitement and goodwill. Some of those decisions have led to extraordinary life experiences and others have been extremely hard lessons.
Growing up in Tamworth, New south Wales, I listened to my father’s travel stories and knew without doubt that this would also be my future. Further inspired by ‘Out of Africa’, I decided to be a nurse in Africa. More than a fanciful whim, it became a single-minded dedication.
My dream was realized in 1996 aged 26. I was amazed and disgusted by Africa in equal measure. Fascinated by its wildlife and landscapes, but above that, I was incensed at the imbalance of poverty and wealth. I could not get my head around it and felt I needed to help.
While looking for a job as a nurse, I lived in Nairobi painting overland trucks. After an evening of tall stories around a campfire, I noticed two pairs of eyes fixed to my every word. They were eavesdropping missionaries who told me they were taking six pallets of donated medical supplies from South Africa to Sudan and asked me if I could help itemise the goods. I agreed and started the next day.
They spoke about Sudan as if it was an untouched paradise. They admitted that the country was at war and had been for over 50 years, but they never saw anything like that. It was a peaceful place and their favourite country, a country too good to miss! Would I join them, they asked. “It would only be three days!”
Naturally, I said yes!
In Maridi, we went to the hospital where the medical supplies were to be delivered. The hospital was utterly disintegrated. The walls were littered with bullets holes and fractures. The floor was littered with blood-stained theatre equipment and shells from air attacks.
Upon returning to a compound, we were immediately detained by the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) and the six pallets of medical supplies were stolen from us. We were then taken to another town, Mundri, and held captive in a compound under armed guard. After a long meeting with the missionaries and the governor of the SPLA (that I was not allowed to attend), it was agreed that the missionaries would be allowed to complete their ‘mission’.
Until this time, I had known nothing of the true reason behind the journey- to deliver bibles to the front-line of the military activity. The missionaries had bargained off all the medical supplies and me! In return, they could keep their bibles and conduct their ministry to the soldiers. The deal was that I would treat the SPLA’s wounded soldiers using ‘our’ medical supplies. I was the missionaries’ bargaining chip!
The average age of these ‘soldiers’ in the SPLA was about 13 years old. Their uniforms engulfed their bodies which were dwarfed by their rifles. Although I was the only woman there, I strangely didn’t feel threatened by them. When they made lewd gestures towards me, I just ignored them. Whenever I washed myself, I did so with my clothes on and kept my passport in my boot ALWAYS. Food was scarce and I stole S26 baby formula (from the medical supplies) and choked down rats and bats caught by the soldiers to survive. As a result, we were all extremely sick.
At night I would stare at the moon, ‘talk’ to my mum and dad and ‘will’ them to know that I am alive and will get home. It was a terrifying experience and one that, at that time, had no end in sight. Whenever I asked when we could leave, they said, “There’ll be a truck for you tomorrow”, but the truck never came.
Thirty-nine days later, one of the missionaries had almost died of cerebral malaria. My attempts to treat him were unsuccessful and we were granted a trip under armed guard, back to Maridi to seek urgent help. On our way to Maridi, I saw workers from United Nations and Medicans Sans Frontier. I figured that this was the best opportunity I may ever have to escape. I jumped out of the moving truck and ran to safety. I was immediately embraced and flown to Nairobi.
Having not quenched my inquisitive nature, nor my naive ‘save the world’ attitude, I had to ‘get back on the horse’. In 1996, I continued to work as a nurse in Rwanda in the repatriation phase after the genocide. This experience too, was not without trauma.
One night, I heard a gentle tap, tap on my front door. It was a young woman who needed safety from violence for the night. She slept on my floor. The next night, she returned with another woman, then another. Over time, my house was filled with courageous woman, many had their faces torn to shreds from being beaten. I treated their wounds but couldn’t leave bandages on them because their secret safety hub would be exposed. The women talked and shared their stories. One woman stopped turning up. She was murdered.
Seeing my devastation, one of the other women said to me, “My dear Robyn, what you see as death, we see as survival. She has gone on to a better life.” Their unwavering faith in God gave them peace. It was the most profound and humbling time of my life. Sometimes, we all need faith and spirituality, whatever that means to you.
I now have a 25- year nursing career, working mostly in developing countries (Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) and rural and remote areas of Australia with marginalized populations. As you might expect, there are inherent trauma risks in such areas and they have certainly impacted my life. The things that bring me close to breaking point are not the horrific injuries to humans or animals. We nurses can learn to prepare for them. What I found most challenging was what humans can do to each other and the sheer horror that comes from that and, secondly, my perceived inability to affect change. My sense of failure settled heavily in my mind and was my biggest downfall.
Going into Sudan, for me, was a pivotal odyssey which became a benchmark for future life experiences. ‘If I can get through Sudan, I can get through anything’ became my mantra. This attitude, however, was unhealthy and unsustainable. It drove me to extremely difficult work situations. I was setting unachievable goals and over time, became highly critical of myself. I adopted the habit of gathering stress and not resilience, then wondered why I felt so miserable.
Finally, I had an epiphany. No achievements could appease my self-esteem while I had low self-worth. I had to stop this self-flagellation habit and start being kind to myself. I was not respecting myself, nor the people who had expressed their concern and love for me. I didn’t have to make huge gargantuan, world saving changes. It is the little things that matter. Small, achievable goals like making a difference in one person’s life each day.
When I decided to be kind to myself, I made healthy adjustments to my life. For example, I removed myself from people who did not have my best interests at heart, who used my vulnerabilities against me. Some people see giving yourself a hard time as permission for them to do the same and do it with relentless obsession. It was liberating to recognize this and free myself from them. I have been blessed with a loving, large extended family and an extraordinary community of friends who remind me of my worth. I now choose to surround myself only with positive, supporting people.
I have also been blessed with other people who have entered my soul deeply. People who I will never forget. Impoverished people who offered me kindness and care, and their innermost truth. Victims of unspeakable crimes, conflict and illness, who have continuously tried to balance joy with their tragedy. I am blessed to have been a witness of their courage and, in their memory, I give them my gratitude. Life is so tough sometimes and it’s hard to turn grief and fear into strength and courage. I am inspired by the people who go beyond their oppressions and inequalities, pull themselves together and carry on.
I maintain my ‘if I survived Sudan, I can survive anything’ mantra, but I have let go of the high expectations. I dug deeply into what peace and resilience means to me now and realise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Sometimes they lose their potency and effect. We need an arsenal of coping strategies. If one strategy fails, you try a new one.
Gratitude is a powerful strategy. My beloved mother recently died, an event I have feared all my life. I am grateful for the life our family had with her. I am grateful that she is no longer in pain. I did absolutely everything that was humanly possible to ensure Mum had some quality of life in her final years…. and I am at peace with that.
Acts of kindness also help. When I am sad, I volunteer to help someone local. It gives me a sense of worth and joy. I cook. My friends and I have a casual community cooking arrangement. I cook up a big batch of something and share it with friends who are on the own or are struggling. My friends will do the same next week. We choose to eat alone or share company. I have a fire-pit and often say, “You are welcome at my campfire anytime.”
Be realistic and accept that pain is a part of life experience. We can choose to stay there and feed it, or break away from it. Accept that there are highs and lows in life. It would be foolish to think that once we get over something it is ‘up, up and away”! With resilience, we manage the lows so they don’t stay and are not as severe.
Integrity is a magnificent quality for resilience. If someone treats you badly and you have done what you thought was right, walk away with your head held high. If someone chooses to walk away from you, let them. Don’t beg for anyone to treat you with respect and don’t be frightened to say no or state what you want. It’s YOUR relationship too.
Be aware of your thoughts and words. Thoughts and words have energy. Instead of the word ‘suffering’, which portrays powerlessness and failure, I say ‘living with’, which portrays survival and strength. I dropped the word ‘should’ from my vocabulary. I no longer say, “I should be this” or “I should be doing that”. That’s just negative blah!
You create reality with your own thoughts. Darkness cannot survive in the presence of the smallest amount of light. Light illuminates darkness. Through your thoughts, let in the light, even just a bit. Humorous thoughts and words often help. It’s ok to laugh even in times of grief. Good friends can sledge each other. I even sledge myself- kindly.
Writing this has been both difficult and cathartic. Some of these experiences have left deep scars that I hold so privately and dearly, but I am ever grateful to be alive and to write anything at all. I recount these events in humble hope that at best they may be useful prompts for reflection. At worst, they may provide entertaining solace for people struggling with the same issues.
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others.
Robyn Hill's story
Written by Robyn Hill and Natalie Stockdale