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Building Sudan on the Run

They were running, running. In the morning light, the only sounds were heavy breathing and the rhythmic flap-flap-flap of worn-down sandals as the tribesmen clicked through the scrub atop the hard baked Sudanese laterite. Some giggled as they followed the white man. “Why is this crazy khawaja using up all our energy? Why run unless someone is chasing you?” But they kept running.

Glen Geelhoed
Glen Geelhoed, M.D.

Glenn Geelhoed, M.D. — surgeon, medical missionary, marathoner, proselytizer of peace — has indeed been called crazy. His latest plan — to unite the warring tribes of South Sudan around a marathon team to compete in the London Olympic Games this summer — was seen by some as wishfulness bordering on fantasy.

But Geelhoed, or Doc G as he’s known in the bush, has defied doubts and exceeded expectations before. Indeed, he’s made a career of it, spending more than 40 years leading medical missions to the most poverty-stricken, desperately under-served regions of the world. In addition to ministering to the poorest of the poor, he’s trained generations of young doctors while establishing clinics in remote locations from Southern Sudan to the Philippines to Haiti.

Geelhoed holds the unique distinction of being the only five-time GW alumnus, earning advanced degrees from four of the university’s 10 schools. He came to GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences in 1975, and now holds professorships in Surgery, International Medical Education, and Microbiology and Tropical Medicine. But his OR is the world. He’s received the American College of Surgeons’ 2009 Volunteerism Award for International Outreach, the 2008 Safari Club’s International Humanitarian Service Award, and, in 2005, was inducted into the Medical Mission Hall of Fame.

But the latest mission? Let’s just say it’s made Geelhoed acutely familiar with the old Yiddish saying, “Man makes plans, and God laughs.” Still, progress has been made and the dream lives on. There’s another saying Geelhoed prefers: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Glenn Geelhoed greets patients waiting outside a rural clinic
Glenn Geelhoed, M.D., greets patients waiting outside a rural clinic.

The former colony of Sudan gained independence from the British in 1956, but has known little peace since; two civil wars have killed millions and displaced millions more. In 1983, the military regime attempted to impose Islamic law, triggering a separatist rebellion in the south of the country, home to a third of the population who hold Christian or animist beliefs. War raged for more than 20 years until a peace agreement was signed in 2005. But the Comprehensive Peace Accord did not quell the strife and the missions led by Geelhoed, who first came to South Sudan in 2005, have been marked by conflict, including cattle and bride raids, kidnappings, and murders.

In January 2011, South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence and a new state was formally declared on July 9. Interethnic clashes among the Dinka people (about three million), the Nuer people (about two million), and the Murles (about 400,000) persist, however, thanks to problems like the high rates of infertility among Murle women that motivate their tribe to capture Dinka brides.

Having run more than 100 marathons, with at least one on every continent on the globe, Geelhoed can rightly be called an addict. His lean, compact physique and the sharp planes of his face accentuate his deep-set eyes. Given the endorphin rush that produces a sense of well-being, Geelhoed, who recently turned 70 and who runs wherever he travels, thought that running might serve as a path toward peace and the restoration of health care for an impoverished population. Perhaps sport could be a mechanism to defuse ethnic rivalries, he mused.

Glenn Geelhoed, treats a Murle woman just returning from exile
Glenn Geelhoed, M.D., treats a Murle woman just returning from exile.

As part of a ceasefire agreement he brokered among the warring tribes in early 2010, Geelhoed pledged to deliver a 40-foot shipping container of medical equipment and a team of professionals to outfit clinics and train medics to treat the Murle and Dinka people and hopefully address the infertility issue. But the ceasefire didn’t hold. “Why should I talk to you about malaria and TB when your biggest health problem is hostility?” a disappointed Geelhoed told the tribes. “I’m not going to redevelop your health care until hostilities cease.” New pledges of peace were renewed. When he returned in January 2011 with the promised supplies, Geelhoed said they would only be distributed if the tribes worked together. As an additional carrot, he promised to rebuild the Lakurnyang Missionary Hospital in Pibor in Jonglei State in the eastern part of the country.

Meanwhile, Geelhoed continued running. Sometimes, tribesmen joined him. Maybe this could be a natural way to commemorate the Jan. 9 vote approving a new state, he thought, successfully implementing a “Jonglei Freedom Run” in Pibor. More than 400 tribesman ran some 15 kilometers through the dusty scrub, vying for the honor of beating the khawaja. Every African who finished received a medal in the shape of a whistle and 10 Sudanese pounds, or about $5.

This idea has legs, Geelhoed thought. His next step was planning a “Jonglei Independence Run,” uniting the tribes in a ceremonial jaunt in January 2012 on the anniversary of the vote for secession. Through a connection with famed American marathoner Bill Rodgers, Geelhoed’s plan came to the attention of the organizers of the Los Angeles Marathon. In return for exclusive rights to publicize the Sudanese connection, marathon officials agreed to pay expenses for the winning male and female runners from each tribe in the Independence Run to race in the L.A. Marathon on March 18, 2012. Geelhoed leapt at the deal. Further discussion yielded a promise to help train the same runners to potentially compete as a South Sudan Olympic Marathon Team at the London Olympics.

Murle people outside Lakurnyand Clinic waiting to receive treatment
Murle people outside the Lakurnyand Clinic waiting to receive treatment.

So, what happens? God laughs. Returning to South Sudan last December to prepare for the run, bearing 750 L.A. Marathon t-shirts, medals, and spare running shoes, Geelhoed found that hostilities had resumed between the Nuer and the Murle tribes, leaving scores dead. Some Dinka leaders, sensing better odds of going to the United States, wanted to go ahead with the run anyway. No way, said Geelhoed, in his direct, Dutch manner. “I came here for the benefit of all,” he said. “So the race is off, no trip to LaLa Land and maybe no Olympics.” The tribesmen suggested an alternate plan to hold the run this July on the first anniversary of the new state, but the rainy season would flood the racecourse. “There will be no race until it’s an all-tribes race,” Geelhoed declared.

For Geelhoed, who’s worked in Africa for four decades, this is merely a bump in the road. “The most likely scenario is I return to South Sudan in July and the tribes agree to run in the dry season beginning in November and then the winners train in Kenya,” he said. “Then all we have to do is create a National Olympic Committee and prepare for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by training on a measured course.”

Mafi mushkila (no problem), as the tribes say.

Geelhoed is convinced that sport can bridge ethnic divides, pointing to the unifying effect of rugby in South Africa and basketball in the Middle East. For him, this is one more mission, and a necessary step on the journey to ending hostilities and restoring health care. “I go out there and see what’s possible,” he said. “Some of the missionaries said they can’t believe I’ve gotten this far. You can go a long way when you’re not concerned with who gets the credit, and my goal is not to leave fingerprints. This is up to them.”