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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

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(Fox News)
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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.

Ratner has spent much of her life leading and organizing. For the first half of her career, she was a successful and even influential addiction-recovery therapist—she ran the psychiatric day treatment program at the South Shore Medical Center in Quincy, Mass., one of New England’s largest outpatient mental-health clinics. In the mid-1980s she co-founded the Pride Institute, the country’s first gay- and lesbian-focused drug and alcohol treatment clinic. Pride, which is still in operation, was a pioneering effort in a time when the unique needs and experiences of gay communities were poorly understood by both the medical establishment and American culture at large, recalls Dr. Gerald Schulman, another one of the institute’s co-founders. “Gays either wouldn’t go to a mainstream treatment program, of they would go and not talk about their sexual orientation,” recalled Schulman. “They needed a gay-affirming culture, but that couldn’t happen in a mainstream treatment center.” Schulman described Ratner as “a force.” “There was no stopping her when she got started,” he told me.

Ratner’s background as a therapist and activist propelled her to the presidency of the National Gay and Lesbian Health Foundation at the crest of the AIDS crisis, in the late 1980s. But she told me she stopped practicing after a former patient sued her. “One ex-patient,” she told me when we me at her Washington office in March, after returning from South Sudan. “That’s all you need. Enough to drive you crazy. And I said you know what? Who needs to do this?”

In 1990, she published a book, The Other Side of the Family: A Book for Recovery From Abuse, Incest, and Neglect. It landed her on Oprah Winfrey’s show, and that in turn opened the door to a career in broadcasting. Ratner is now the Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent of Talk Radio News Service, which syndicates content nationwide, and has been a Fox contributor since its inception, in 1997. She unhesitatingly told me she would “crawl through glass for Roger Ailes.” After Gawker lobbed allegations of systemic homophobia at the network last month, Ratner—who describes herself as a liberal—quickly leapt to Ailes’ defense. She and Espinoza—who was a U2 spy plane pilot, Gulf War veteran, and award-winning combat reporter before embarking on her medical degree at St. George’s, and who participated in the March trip—met in a Fox News makeup room.

Ratner first encountered the victims of Sudan’s civil wars two decades ago, on a trip to Eritrea with former Rep. Tony Hall, an Ohio Democrat, to visit camps housing refugees from Sudan’s destructive north-south conflict. When she first visited present-day South Sudan in 2006, shortly after the signing of the 2005 peace agreement that set the stage for the country’s independence in 2011, she met people who told her their stories of being abducted and enslaved by northern Sudanese. “Something spoke to me,” she told me during an interview at the dust-choked compound in Wanjok. Specifically, she said, she felt responsible for helping victims of an atrocity that brought the Holocaust to mind for her—much as she watched her parents help European Jews after World War II. Ratner’s father, Harry, was born in Bialystok and immigrated to the United States in 1920, ultimately settling in Cleveland. After the Holocaust, he sponsored visas for scores of Jewish refugees and helped them find housing and employment when they arrived. “Survivors would be in our house all day on Sundays,” Ratner recalled. She remembers the women who worked at her local bakery having numbers tattooed on their arms. “The whole thing just seemed very familiar,” she told me of her first postwar trips to South Sudan, “and it seemed like I should be here.”

But Ratner, who says she is a spiritualist, also claims a more mystical link. As she puts it, spiritualists believe “that the phenomena of nature, both physical and spiritual, are an expression of infinite intelligence,” and that a connection to that “infinite intelligence” allows an individual to commune with a spiritual realm that exists in harmony with the physical world. She is friends with the medium Anne Gehman—the two published a book called Self-Empowerment: Nine Things the 19th Century Can Teach Us About Living in the 21st in 2011, the year Ratner founded Goats—and it was Gehman, she says, who confirmed her belief in her metaphysical link to South Sudan. “Anne saw somebody connected to me about, oh about maybe two years ago,” Ratner told me. “She described the facial markings and a tall person with a staff. This summer I was in Iceland. We called on one of our mediums there. And she saw the same person. One of my spirit guides must be a Dinka master, a Dinka chief.” The Dinka are the largest ethnic group in Wanjok and one of the principal communities in South Sudan.

***

Ratner does a little bit of everything for Goats. At times during the trip, she seemed to fill the role of program officer, evaluator, and accountant. Goats is a low-overhead operation, with little in the way of staff or infrastructure; it has two part-time staff in Wanjok, both of whom are also employees of Christian Solidarity International, an evangelical human-rights organization Ratner had been involved with before launching Goats. (The two groups have no formal ties, according to CSI Director John Eibner, who described Ratner in an email as an “independent, voluntary supporter of CSI’s work in South Sudan.”) Because Goats is a part of the Windward Islands Research & Education Foundation for tax purposes, its annual budget isn’t clear from IRS filings, and representatives declined to offer details.

The point of Goats, as far as Ratner is concerned, is not to build another large institutional aid organization. Rather, it is purpose-built for immediate donor gratification: Buy a person a goat and help them live. For Ratner, it really is that simple. Few words seem as odious to her as “needs assessment.” NGOs will typically conduct surveys in their intended areas of operation, in order to determine the needs of the people they are trying to help and to design programs best fitted to local social, political, and economic dynamics. Ratner doesn’t believe in doing that. “Anybody with two eyes and two ears can do a needs assessment,” she claimed. “This is not rocket science. Women are eating every other day. They have post-traumatic stress.” She made a sound like a blade slicing through air, as if to declare there was no need for any further discussion of the matter. “Shhh! No needs assessment.”

In many ways, this sense of certainty builds off of her work in the gay community in the 1970s and 1980s. “We didn’t assess what was needed, we just acted,” she told me. “They were taking away our rights, they were going into the bars, they were arresting people, that’s what Stonewall was about, and we wanted to stop it. We didn’t think about gay rights and what was going to be in legislation—we didn’t think that way back then. We just acted. And it worked. And that’s what I do here.”

In the three years since Goats launched, Ratner has branched out into other projects, like the “survivor heart necklaces.” The “heart women,” as Ratner describes them, are also paid a few dollars a week to do yogic breathing exercises that Ratner herself has used, as a way of helping overcome their PTSD. “The answer was right under my nose,” she explained when we went to visit them in Wanjok, telling me that she had been recommended the breathing method by a therapeutic colleague and had written about it in Self-Empowerment.

The women sat nearby with their eyes closed, listening to low notes emanating from a thick, Himalayan bell. I asked Ratner if there was anyone monitoring the efficacy of the breathing method. “Me,” she said, “when I come here.” There’s evidence that it works: An analysis of some of the “heart women” in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy found that over an 18-week period they had improved 66 percent on a visual analogue mood survey and 71 percent on a visual analogue PTSD survey. Though armed only with that one-off study on only one aspect of her work, she’s comfortable that her interventions in Wanjok are having an impact and that her organization’s resources are being used wisely. “I don’t think about a needs assessment and all that crap,” she told me. “Who needs to think? A lot of people think. Let them stay in academia. Right now, we just have to act.”

***

Ratner has a tendency to break off conversations to chase after wandering goats or sheep that catch her eye. “I used to kiss the livestock,” she joked, “until I found out about Rift Valley Fever.” She’ll sing love songs to the birds and livestock—just as she did during her Fox promo. She seems to have somewhat less patience with humans.

South Sudan is noticeably short on sanitation infrastructure, the result of national-level dysfunction and decades of conflict, both of which succeeded in supplanted garbage collection as a popular concern. Ratner jokingly calls herself the Minister of Garbage. In Wanjok, she talked wistfully about holding nationwide service days, where the children of South Sudan could have the day off from school and dedicate themselves to picking up trash. She was distressed by the poor condition of a basketball court she had funded, coupled with constant requests for additional money from the local man she was paying to run the town’s youth basketball program. Both the messiness and the attempted shakedown might have reflected the hard circumstances of people struggling to make it in a failing state, but Ratner seemed to feel they also revealed a certain deficit of character. “There’s junk all over and nobody’s cleaned it up, and they’re always hitting me up for more and more money,” she told me on our second-to-last day in Wanjok. “Well, you know what? Have some responsibility and pride of ownership.”

At times, her expressions of impatience take the form of outbursts that are best described as performance. During our trip, we made a stop at the Comboni Primary School, a local Catholic school Ratner supports. Members of our group quizzed the headmaster on the school’s needs. The children wore clean uniforms and could take notes in English, remarkable for a country where the literacy rate pushes the high teens. But like just about everyone else in Wanjok, students and faculty were suffering from the escalating civil war—the school had taken in scores of students displaced by the fighting and had recently reduced its classroom hours. It’s a place where a little donor money could have immediate impact—exactly the kind of situation where Ratner’s ability to connect wealthy American donors directly with those in need could bear obvious fruit. “I’m going to give you a magic wand,” Ratner told the headmaster, a north-south war veteran named Benjamin Lawal, who had left an education master’s program in Khartoum to fight for the south. “You hold on to this magic wand. And you tell me, what are the top five things you need in this school?” Within minutes, there were plans to bring in students from Columbia University’s Teachers College, to fund teacher-training programs, and pay students’ government exam fees.

But as we left, someone from the group noticed a teacher herding students into a classroom with the help of light flicks from a bundle of sticks. “Who’s hitting the kids?” Ratner demanded. She was pointed toward a smiling teacher with a small clump of branches in her hand. “No, no, no, no, no!” Ratner yelled. “You don’t hit children in a school.” The teacher seemed bewildered. “It’s small,” she replied. “It’s not a stick.” Ratner grabbed the bundle of branches, and snapped one over her knee. “No. No! No!,” Ratner erupted, punctuating each “no” by striking the ground with half of a snapped twig.

Seconds later, Ratner spotted the headmaster. “I don’t want these kids touched, not even with a stick lightly. You understand that?” she asked. “Children are bored,” the headmaster responded. “And when the children are bored, they make noise.” Ratner launched into a tirade about the evils of corporal punishment in Catholic schools in the United States. “They used to hit the kids on the wrists, and all the kids were traumatized until their 20s, 30s, 40s,” Ratner said. “You cannot touch a child, you understand that?”

“What is wrong with that?” another teacher asked.

“What is wrong with that?” Ratner repeated, radiating indignity. “The kids will be traumatized for the rest of their lives! You’ve done too much hitting in this country!” She continued to lecture. “No touching the children. Not a tap, nothing,” Ratner said. “It will traumatize them for life in a traumatized community.”

Back in the Land Cruiser, Ratner immediately snapped back into tour guide mode. “That’s all an act,” she told me. “I mean, I do an act for a living. That’s what I do. I’m a talk show host.” The anger was real, she said, but it was “controlled real.”

It flies in the face of what some development experts believe about best practices in the field—“It’s not really our place to go in and try and change all those things and make them look like us,” Kate Almquist-Knopf, a former USAID mission director for South Sudan, told me of cultural tendencies unpalatable to American value systems. But Ratner made it clear she didn’t care about the substance or even the optics of a group of outsiders publicly dressing down the teachers and the school headmaster in front of their young students, who watched the scene unfold from their nearby classrooms. “All the NGOs around here, have they stopped anybody from beating the kids?” she asked. “No, because they don’t come here in a surprise visit. They come here, they send their little staffs and set things up and everything’s beautiful. I don’t believe in beauty,” she said, with the determination of someone who believes herself to be unstoppable. “I believe in finding out what’s really going on.”

***

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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