Nyan Pieth: spending our lives on what's good

I’d been working in the ER in South Sudan for two weeks when one of the medical assistants, a Dinka woman in her 50’s named Achol (I called her Mama Achol out of respect), announced in Dinka that she had decided on a nickname for me.

“Nyan Pieth!” she announced with a big smile.

“What does that mean?” I asked the nursing students, because Mama Achol doesn’t speak English.

“It means ‘Pretty Lady,’” one of the students said in a heavy accent.

I smiled. “Thank you,” I said to Mama Achol. But my heart sank a little because of the damaging, centuries-old bias that lighter skinned people are more attractive than people with darker skin. (To this day, skin bleaching is a 10 billion dollar industry in Africa.) So I was worried that she had called me ‘Pretty Lady’ simply because my skin is white.

But then another student with a better command of English spoke up. “No,” he said. “Nyan Pieth doesn’t mean ‘Pretty Lady’; it means ‘The Good Lady.’ She calls you Nyan Pieth because you work very hard doing good for the people of South Sudan.”

My eyes welled with tears, and I gave Mama Achol a hug.

“Nyan Pieth,” she said again as she hugged me. The Good Lady.

And word got around town. Instead of calling me “Kawadja” (the Dinka word for white people), kids in the village began calling me “Nyan Pieth” instead.

I’ve been back from South Sudan for a little more than a week now, which has given me time to process the experience, and time to think about the future.

In some ways, I don’t have much to “show” for the nearly three months I spent in South Sudan. I didn’t earn any money. I didn’t do anything news-worthy. Working at a small hospital in a remote village without electricity or running water doesn’t get you accolades or attention. I’m just one small person trying to do small acts of healing in a great big hurting world.

But in another way, I am so very enriched by the time I spent there. I have met South Sudanese brothers and sisters whose tenacity, dedication, persistence and joy have left an indelible impression on me. And in spite of the heartbreaking losses, there were many opportunities to alleviate pain and offer life-saving treatment to patients who were suffering. And I was able to train nursing students and hospital staff so they can continue the hospital’s healing work.

I have spent the last three months casting a vote with my life for how the world should be: filled with compassion, healing, unity and hope.

There are a lot of things we can live for in the world. We can live for security, for superiority, for wealth, for fame, for attention, for success, for prestige. But those ambitions often enrich us to the exclusion of others’ good, building our transient ladders of pride and sand castles of self-aggrandizement at other people’s expense.

But there is another way.

We can also choose to live for Love, using every opportunity to insist with our lives that the world deserves healing, peace, harmony and goodness.

And that’s what I want to live for. Step by step, smile by smile, day by day, patient by patient, word by word, hoping to live up to the name Mama Achol gave me. Hoping that at the end of my life, I can say,

Sarah Thebarge.

Nyan Pieth.

The woman who spent her life doing good.

Sarah ThebargeComment