FP: A recent Human Rights Watch report says the government has imposed a de facto blockade on humanitarian supplies to rebel-held areas.
In August, the Khartoum government signed an agreement to allow humanitarian access to the SPLA-controlled areas of Nuba. I'm still not sure what is going on. There are supposed to be [international] monitors coming in to report back on the situation. I haven't seen anybody. I haven't seen any monitors, I haven't heard of any monitors coming. The Khartoum government is expert at this kind of game. They know how to hide facts, how to hoodwink people, how to tell half-truths, how to obfuscate.
FP: You told me previously that you grew up in a large Catholic family, and that a large part of your motivation was to emulate the life of Christ. Can you tell me a little more about what inspired you to spend the past four years in the Nuba Mountains, and the last two years within a half-mile-square compound there?
Well, certainly it's a religious motivation. I've always wanted to do mission work with the poor. I was influenced very much by St. Francis of Assisi, whose idea was to radically live the gospel. He was not a priest, or even a brother. He was a layperson. His whole concept was to emulate Christ through the gospels, and to live it in a radical way. That has always resonated very much with me: Not to just live it half way, or live it from a distance, but to really enter into that reality. I can still get out if I want to, but I have no desire to do that. I want to continue this line of work, living this kind of life.
As a Westerner, as an American, you never fully enter into the reality there -- to know their mind, their way of thinking. But I try to do it as much as possible, given my limitations.
FP: There's been a lot of criticism of the Western aid community in general, that Western aid or "white saviors" from afar are doing more harm than good -- promoting corruption, dealing unrealistically with situations, making matters worse. What do you make of that kind of criticism?
I would agree with a lot of it. It's very difficult, because most everybody involved in humanitarian work is well intentioned, I think. The trick is: How do you do it in a good way, without making people dependent. My approach is to enter into this work with the people, and to work along with them. We do it in a low impact way. We don't come in with 20 doctors, take over a hospital, and do all the work ourselves. The whole thrust of the church and diocese is that we want the hospital and infrastructure to last for 50 or 100 years.
In a lot of cases, NGO's have a project with money for two years, and they come in and run an emergency clinic. When the money [for that project] dries up, they pack up and they leave -- move on to the next crisis. That's not our idea. The church is part and parcel of the people there. Our goal is that local people will eventually run the place. We tell them over and over: This is your hospital.
It actually helped a lot when [some Kenyan and Ugandan staff, including a pharmacist and a midwife] got evacuated in 2011. That June 16th, I had a meeting with the staff and I looked at them and said, "The expatriates are gone; you're left with myself and a couple of sisters. You need to pick up the slack. You've got to do the job now." And they did it.
The criticism is valid, however. We always have to ask ourselves: Are we doing the right thing? Are we creating dependence or harm? If you don't do that, you can make a mess.