Six Months in Sudan: A Young Doctor in a War-torn Village Hardcover – Apr 14 2009
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Quill & Quire
The ongoing crisis in Darfur confronts us with the remarkable phenomenon of scholars, anthropologists, legal minds, and activists documenting a lengthy genocide-in-progress, with all parties seemingly powerless to stop the carnage. How can such intolerable human rights atrocities receive almost universal attention and condemnation, yet draw so little concrete reaction from the global community? That question forms the central subject of the essay collection The World and Darfur. Like any product of an academic conference, this volume tends toward repetition, a style redolent of postgraduate term papers, and a distance that presents the issue as a cold analysis of policy, not people. Essays include an analysis of the recent history of the region, the policy and institutional barriers that prevent real progress, and the tunnel vision that sees Darfur through mainly white, Eurocentric eyes in print media, art exhibitions, and political activism. Ironically, a number of essays in this collection suffer from exactly this kind of blinkered vision. Discussions of ways in which the world might have responded more decisively in Rwanda are well executed here, as are examinations of the ways in which debates over semantics – does Darfur constitute ethnic cleansing, a humanitarian crisis, or genocide? – become a sideshow that does nothing to help those suffering on the ground. While the individual contributors raise many good questions, a coherent set of solutions remains elusive. The collection is also notable for the voices that are missing, especially that of leading African scholar Mahmoud Mamdani, whose challenging take on Darfur, although briefly referenced in the introduction, may have provided a deeper understanding of why so much of the interventionist spirit among activists and politicians alike is shortsighted and, possibly, counterproductive. Gerald Caplan hints at this broader perspective in his passionate opening essay, which questions whether the war-on-terror co-operation between Sudanese intelligence services and the CIA is the real roadblock to any progress toward ending the bloodshed. Although Darfur garners much of the world’s attention, millions of others in Sudan suffer the ravages of poverty and armed conflict spilling into their communities. One such war-torn village, Abyei, was recently home to a young Canadian doctor, James Maskalyk, whose memoir Six Months in Sudan recalls the sights and sounds of an impoverished medical outpost. Maskalyk was posted there by Médicins Sans Frontières. Six Months is full of stories that range in format from ER drama (right down to his makeshift recreation of M*A*S*H-like operating room scenes) to blog entries Maskalyk wrote to update friends and family. The author is an interesting, if not always sympathetic, individual who questions throughout why he has chosen to go to a place where he struggles constantly with the blistering heat, the parasites, his own deep-seated cynicism, and the emotional distancing that happens when one is surrounded by misery and death. Inspired by culture shock upon his return to Canada and his inability to deal with questions about his experience, Maskalyk attempts to get it all down (perhaps as an act of decompression therapy), resulting in a work that, while interesting, is overly long and full of recalled dialogue that provides too much colour at the expense of keeping the story moving. Indeed, it takes over 200 pages to sense the emotional kernel at the heart of the story: Maskalyk wants those of us in the comfortable West to really understand how bad it is in places like Sudan. A noble desire, but one that tends to get lost in the focus on Maskalyk’s own search for meaning, against which the people he treats often fade to backdrop. While both The World and Darfur and Six Months in Sudan are important reminders of injustice a world away, it is not clear how they will ultimately engage and challenge readers to move beyond the very distancing syndrome they seek to eliminate.
"A rich story that gives a wonderful, raw awareness of what we are as humans. . . . Our hopes and illusions are stripped away, yet we are left not with despair but with a deeper appreciation and a sense of wonder. . . . Brilliant writing. I'm sure Maskalyk is a fine doctor, but he's an even better writer."
— Vancouver Sun
“One of the greatest successes of Six Months in Sudan is that it does not try to be anything more than it is—a moment in time. . . . [It] can be read and enjoyed by those who are interested in the humanitarian movement and in global issues, as well as by those who glance at the headlines and want to know what it is like to be there, responding to world tragedies as they unfold.”
—The Globe and Mail
“[Maskalyk’s] empathy is palpable. . . . As he details daily life on the drab compound—the inescapable heat and dust, the terrible food served by their hostile Sudanese cook, the petty bullying of the local militia—and the wrenching demands of the hospital, the book is vivid, and at times even funny.”
“[A] gripping and humane account of a mission spent working for Medecins Sans Frontieres. . . . The crowded and airless hospital is understaffed, under-equipped and periodically invaded by groups of excitable militia. . . .Despite all this, Maskalyk does not lose faith in the work he and MSF are doing in places such as Sudan. If his initial, bright-eyed enthusiasm is soon buried under blood, dust and sweat . . . he retains enough humanity to find consolation in small acts of kindness.”
—Daily Mail (UK)
“Powerful and shocking. . . .We share [Maskalyk’s] immediate, intimate experience as he confronts so much death... and struggles with limited medical resources in often chaotic circumstances. Heartbreaking scenes are recounted with searing honesty and without a trace of self-satisfaction or self-congratulation.”
—The Irish Times
“A fresh spin on a familiar story about death, misery, life and survival. . . . This is not the first book to deal with aid work and the perils of war, but it is successful in bringing a blog-style conversation to the reader. Maskalyk's honest monologue depicts frustration, hunger, sickness and longing that any reader can empathize with. It also marks a path of self-discovery, as a young doctor comes to terms with what he wants in life, and a place changes him forever as a doctor and a human being.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)
“The prose in [Maskalyk’s blog] is carefully crafted, often poetic, always deliberate. . . .What matters here is what he does with it—making it the core of a bigger story, a moving reflection written back home after an experience he always knew would be life-changing. . . . You’re there, in the dust with him—and, when the rains come, in the sea of mud. You’re there in the makeshift shelters that act as operating theatre, consulting rooms and isolation unit. . . .Most stirringly, you’re with him as he watches the first of many babies die of malnutrition . . . [and] as he tells grieving relatives that it is not MSF’s job to help them with funeral arrangements.”
“Six Months in Sudan offers readers . . . an interesting story and hope of understanding such a complex situation. . . . The difference between those who write from the sidelines, and those who write from within is striking. Maskalyk takes the reader there, pulls them into his tukul (hut) and almost smothers with the realities of trying to help.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“Moving…. Honest and fluently written, Maskalyk’s book traces his rapport with his colleagues, his growing affection for his adopted town of Abyei and the readjustment he faces on returning to Canada. It is an absorbing insight into international medicine.”
“Haunting. . . . the kind of book that makes sense of the senseless and builds important connections between those who have seen and felt what he has, those who aspire to do this kind of work, those who want to support the dedicated humanitarian service of others and those who just want to understand.”
—Canadian Medical Association Journal
“Maskalyk's soft prose is beautiful and invites with the right intimate details. He offers a rare window on the inner life of an aid worker, on what it means to be a humanitarian around the hard edges of war, and on the certain drive to go on. Why? Because in his words, `hope not only meets despair in equal measure, it drowns it.’”
—James Orbinski, author of An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century
“This journey is beautifully told in sharp beats and lyrical notes. It is the voyage of a young doctor in a hard world and deep within his own heart.”
—Vincent Lam, author of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures
“Six Months in Sudan is a wrenchingly heartbreaking account of distant agonies almost too pointed to grasp. Learning about Maskalyk's work there is stirring, but the real miracle is this book paints a picture so precisely and vividly that it becomes impossible to look away. This is Maskalyk’s accomplishment, and his gift to the Sudanese and to us. The shame of our indifference retreats before his exhortation: ‘learn, and understand,’ and perhaps a more bearable future becomes possible for all of us.”
— Kevin Patterson, author of Consumption
“This is an extraordinary book, a piercingly authentic account of the fear, confusion and hope of a young doctor newly deployed to a humanitarian crisis wrapped around by a war. James Maskalyk's commitment to survival – his own as well as his patients' - illuminates this account of doctoring in the sort of desperate place where it couldn't matter more.”
— Jonathan Kaplan, author of The Dressing Station: A Surgeon’s Chronicle of War and Medicine
“In Six Months in Sudan, James Maskalyk tells of his extraordinary experiences working as a doctor for MSF, without a trace of vanity or self-congratulation. His book serves as a salutary reminder of what it means to be an excellent doctor, and a brave man. For anyone who is interested in a career in medicine, or in courage, this is a book to read.”
— Gabriel Weston, author of Direct Red: A Surgeon's View of Her Life-Or-Death Profession
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Top Customer Reviews
Dr. James Maskalyk was an young emergency room physician in Toronto, Canada and no stranger to medical missions when he decided to join Médicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
" I wanted to see who I was when everything was taken away, when all the insulation between the world and me was removed."
His six month assignment was to Sudan. Most of us think of Darfur when we hear Sudan. Maskalyk went to Abyei, a small town on the border between Southern and Northern Sudan. At the time he was there, the town was 'neutral', but surrounded by military from both sides. This book was born from a blog that Maskalyk started while in Sudan to communicate with family and friends. Upon his return to Canada, he found it difficult to assimilate back into his former life , to not look back at Sudan.
"I went to Sudan, and am writing about it again, because I believe that which separates action from inaction is the same thing that separates my friends from Sudan. It is not indifference. It is distance. May it all fall away."
Dr. Maskalyk has done a fantastic job in trying to minimize the distance and bring Sudan closer. I literally could not put this book down. It's one thing to read newspaper accounts of the tragedies happening halfway around the world, but this book put an intensely personal face on it. We are privy to Maskalyk's enthusiasm and hopes for making a immediate difference when he arrives. We are able to read of the sorrow, despair and toll the situation takes on him personally, as well as the cost of war on the people of Sudan. With our health care system in Canada, it is difficult to read of the many children dying from malnutrition and measles.Read more ›
What this book is not: Self indulgent. Pitying or pandering. Overly-analytical to the point where it becomes a book about all of the downfalls of the humanitarian industry instead of a personal account.
What it is: Entertaining (the author's dry wit and cynical humor balance perfectly with countless moments of deep emotion). Uniquely descriptive in a way that is not typical of many writers, but makes you feel like you are there with the author nonetheless. Funny, but in a way that does not diminish the seriousness of the situation that was occurring and continues to occur in Sudan. Personal. Realistic. Heartbreaking. Beautiful.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in humanitarianism or aid work, international development, travel, or health care. It will keep it's spot on my bookshelf longer than most other books I own! If the author is reading this: James. Please. Please write more. You have a keen talent for storytelling and wonderful stories to tell!
Most recent customer reviews
A very down to earth, real account of what it is like to work abroad in emergency medicine. Relatable, unreal!Published on Dec 15 2013 by Nelson Melgar
I feel as though I have been waiting for this book my entire adult life. Maskalyk answered so many questions for me about what type of person can do this work and wether they... Read morePublished on April 23 2012 by Penny McGuire
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