South Sudan Is a Tough Place—Ellen Ratner Is Even Tougher
The TV and radio personality—sister of Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner—is trying to save the country a goat at a time
During the weeks leading up to the rainy season, the weather in Juba, the low-rise and mud-hut capital of the recently established nation of South Sudan, starts to turn on anyone who isn’t prepared for it. Mornings begin breezy, tropical, and pleasant, then undergo an abrupt transformation into wet heat.
One Monday this past March, a group of about 10 Americans—doctors; medical students; construction experts; and two journalists, including me—gathered at the entrance to a riverside camp just at the moment of inflection. A few of us had already been sweating through our shirts for the previous hour. The group’s leader, a 62-year-old woman in black sunglasses, was the only one it didn’t seem to affect. But nothing stops Ellen Ratner, especially not this morning—not the gathering heat, or the jet lag of her charges, or the lateness of a couple of stragglers. “When I say 9 a.m., I mean 9 a.m.,” she bellowed at 9:01. “I’m the beast of Africa!”
Ratner is many things: political journalist, radio personality, self-help author. In New York, she is probably less well-known than her brother, the developer Bruce Ratner, but in the rest of the country, Ellen is a celebrity—a voice heard on 400 radio stations, a regular Fox News contributor, and a frequent guest speaker. An early pioneer of LGBT rights, she and her wife, Cholene Espinoza, are often referred to as a lesbian “supercouple”; before becoming a journalist, she had a significant career as an addiction-recovery therapist.
All of which is to say Ratner could be spending her time and money in simpler and less intense places than South Sudan, one of the poorest places on earth. Since winning independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war, the country has been riven with crisis and conflict. One million people—about a 10th of the population—have been displaced by escalating violence, after fighting between rival ethnic cadres of the army in Juba this past December rapidly mutated into civil war.
Ratner first visited the area in 2006 and says she has been back about 20 times since then. “I’m happier here than any place else on earth,” she declared, standing at a dusty clay-brick compound in the poverty-stricken flatlands of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, a place where vultures crowd the treetops, and tiny, colorful spiders dart across the sandy earth. And later, as a twin-propeller Caravan touched down at Juba airport, after four days in the bush: “God, I love South Sudan. I just love this place.”
Her trips, these days, are organized to benefit Goats for the Old Goat, an aid organization she founded in 2011, when she turned 60—becoming “an old goat”—to donate animals to former slaves and rural villagers, with the goal of alleviating hunger and stimulating local economies. (The same year, Ratner and her brother helped bring a former child slave who had been blinded by his captors to the United States for treatment.) The group has given away thousands of she-goats and also sells “survivor hearts,” Swarovski crystal necklaces made by women who witnessed acts of violence during the decades of war with the North. In April, Ratner brought a live goat wearing an Easter bonnet on “Fox & Friends” to promote her cause and agreed to sing a song to the befuddled creature. “I love you, I love you,” Ratner crooned. “You’ll be the nicest goat in the Easter par-aaaade!”
It is a testament to Ratner’s almost total unselfconsciousness. Whether on national television in the United States or directing a traffic jam in the streets of Juba—“No one else is doing it,” she reasoned after jumping into one particularly trying midday snag—she remains confident and unflagging. While it’s clear that the troubles plaguing South Sudan are far beyond the ability of one American woman to fix—even one with a personality as forceful as Ratner’s—it seems like almost cosmic justice that Ratner’s long and varied journey in life has taken her to one of the most difficult places on the planet. They’re two challenges that are practically made for one another.
Even in South Sudan, Ratner wears bright suits, styles her obsidian-black hair in a neat coif, and wears conspicuous makeup. On that first day of the March trip, she directed her charges into a fleet of waiting Land Cruisers, which sped past piles of burning garbage, wandering street dogs, and soldiers killing time behind concrete barriers—their ubiquity an indication that South Sudan is a country at war. Eventually the SUVs veered into Juba’s ministries complex, a shaded, walled-off reservation of office buildings clad in bleak 1970s concrete and peopled with men in gaudy suit jackets that shimmered in the intensifying sun.
Our destination was a conference room decorated with oversized chairs and glaring linoleum tiles. Ratner and the group had a meeting with Dr. Riek Gai Kok, the health minister of a fracturing nation, to discuss a student exchange and distance-learning program between Juba University’s Medical College and St. George’s University, in Grenada, where Ratner’s wife is currently a medical student. (The university’s American research funding arm, the Windward Islands Research & Education Foundation, also serves as Goats’ parent organization.) The minister described South Sudan’s steep health challenges—its poor mental-health infrastructure, the prevalence of tropical diseases. Juba has three obstetricians, he explained, despite an estimated population of over 2 million; the mentally ill are thrown in prisons or are left to fend for themselves on the street.
Ratner is a commanding presence: fluent, but never over-familiar; diplomatic, but quick; friendly without seeming to lose her sense of authority; changeable, but always in control. She has a tendency to flash an earlobe-to-earlobe grin, or to punctuate her statements by throwing her hands up, closing her eyes, and jerking the side of a closed mouth. She never holds either expression for more than a split-second. Difficulty is not something that deters her; already, 11 students have arrived in Grenada for pre-med work and might begin receiving their doctorates in as few as five years, according to Calum Macpherson, dean of St. George’s graduate studies program and a vice provost of its international development program. “You all have resources we don’t have access to,” Ratner told the minister. “Let’s make St. George’s and Juba University the star of Africa in how to train doctors!”
Shortly after the meeting at the health ministry, the group boarded a chartered Cessna Caravan at the Juba airport and flew over an oceanlike vastness of flat, undulating drylands—a landscape of veinlike gullies and crisscrossing dirt tracks, thinly inhabited stretches of topographical nothingness. The plane landed on a dirt runway outside of Aweil, the capital of the impoverished and sun-blasted border state of Northern Bahr El Ghazal and a hour’s drive from the market town of Wanjok, where Goats maintains its base of operations at a mud-brick compound. Ratner spent the next four days checking up on Goats’ various projects in and around Wanjok. Ratner’s organization has built a basketball court, funded the production of wheelchairs for polio victims, and trained 40 “heart women,” whom Ratner now pays to make the Swarovski necklaces that she sells on Goats’ website. Ratner also provides various forms of assistance for young returned slaves who were formerly held captive in the north.
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