Need an ambulance? Just bray.

Maban County, SOUTH SUDAN — When Hassenat Abbas went into labor in the middle of the night, her friend knew exactly who to fetch: Umar.

Umar would carry 25-year-old Abbas safely from the refugee camp to Gentil Hospital, a Relief International facility that provides the only full-service, 24/7 health care in this rural pocket of South Sudan. A 30-minute journey by foot, Umar got Abbas to the delivery room in half that.

Umar is a donkey.

The donkey ambulance is faster than walking and more reliable than cars and trucks, which falter in the sucking mud brought by Maban County’s six-month rainy season. It’s also convenient.

“It comes right to the house of the patient and goes directly to the hospital,” says Umar’s driver, Sadik Absat. “It also moves smoothly — no bumps like for a vehicle.”

Gentil Hospital’s fleet of four donkey ambulances is among the many innovations Relief International has delivered since it took over the facility in January 2016. Gentil serves the nearly 150,000 people in Maban’s four refugee camps and the rural herdsman who live in the area with a malnutrition treatment department, a 24/7 referral system, in-patient services and a maternity ward. It boasts a fully equipped lab, a pharmacy and a doctor on call at all times.

Gentil provides the community’s only emergency life-saving nutrition and health support. 

“I came because I know that I will get special care and a safe delivery,” says Abbas, whose baby girl arrived soon after her journey with Umar. “The hospital has well qualified midwives.”

Staffed mostly by refugees and members of the host community, RI provides salaries, training and pharmaceuticals with generous funding from the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). Dedicated to creating strong partnerships with local communities, RI also works closely with ministry of health officials and tribal leaders.

Healthcare at Gentil and at other RI projects doesn’t stop with medication and bandages. RI’s signature approach, called The RI Way, champions integrated solutions. While a child is being treated for malnutrition, his or her mother might be in the hospital’s demonstration garden getting a lesson on gardening and nutritional diversity. Clean water is also part of the equation and hygiene programs are on the agenda.

The garden yields baskets of watermelon, papaya, cucumbers, kale, tomatoes, onions. All of the food finds its way into the meals served by the hospital to staff and patients during harvest season.

“The clinic is well organized,” Abbas says as she awaits discharge in the maternity ward. “It is a saving place.”