Baby Face, with a Price

Baby Face, with a Price

Discovering MSH blog series graphicOver the next couple of months, as MSH celebrates it's 40th anniversary, reporter John Donnelly and photographer Dominic Chavez will be traveling to several countries to report on MSH’s work in the field. The stories will go into a book due out in the fall on MSH’s 40 years in global health. This blog entry is a post from the road, to give a flavor of their experiences with MSH staff.

Dr. John P. Rumunu, MSH’s Chief of Party in South Sudan. © Dominic Chavez


If South Sudan proclaims its independence on July 9, as expected, one of its first duties as the world’s newest state will be to begin to issue passports to its 8.2 million citizens. One distinguishing factor of these passports is that the date of births are likely to be pretty monotonous: Most people, it turns out, will be 1/1s---born on January 1. Dr. John P. Rumunu, MSH’s chief of party in South Sudan, and I were sitting in the Ministry of Health the other day waiting for a meeting with a senior official, and he patiently explained why---and how---it didn’t work in his favor many years ago. “Most people either don’t have a birth certificate, or they lost it during the civil war,” he said. “You need a birth certificate as a requirement to get a national identity card.” Rumunu knew the day he was born---Sept. 12, 1963. He knew because his mother---“one of the few lucky people who went to school in her day,” he said---had written down the date in a notebook. But when Rumunu went to get a passport in 1991 in Khartoum, the Sudanese authorities doubted that he was born on that day. They accused him of making himself just old enough to avoid a year of civil service. “They looked at my face, and said, ‘No, you must be born in 1965, and you must serve a year of compulsory medical service,’" Rumunu said. “It was my baby face. I look young.” Baby Face Rumunu was officially born on 1/1/1965, and he served a year of service in a hospital in Darfur. The assistant to the senior official in the Ministry of Health walked into the reception room. I told him we were talking about birth dates and asked him the day he was born. He didn’t hesitate, “January 1, 1973,” he said. Rumunu laughed. “See,” he said. “I told you so.”

John Donnelly is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., specializing in global health and environmental subjects. From 1999 to early 2008, he was a reporter with The Boston Globe. He worked for five years in the Washington bureau of The Globe, covering foreign policy, with a special focus on global health issues. From 2003 to mid-2006, he opened and ran the Globe’s first-ever Africa bureau. Based in South Africa, he traveled widely around the continent, focusing on a wide range of health issues.

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