Always the victor, never the victim — the story of Emmanuel Taban

Dr Emmanuel Taban with his autobiography which was published last year

By Gerda Potgieter — originally published in Devoted Magazine

If there is one story that inspired me, it is the story of Emmanuel Taban who, at the tender age of 15, travelled all the way from South Sudan to South Africa, which he reached at the age of 16. Without education and resources, he had to overcome many challenges to eventually realise his dream of becoming a doctor.

They say one man’s loss is another man’s gain and South Sudan’s loss brought South Africa a great deal of luck in Dr Emmanuel Taban. The pandemic put the spotlight on Dr Emmanuel, and he has become well-known for his pioneering work in discovering a way to treat very ill, hypoxemic patients (those suffering from low oxygen levels in their blood).

Dr Emmanuel was the first doctor in the world to perform a life-saving therapeutic bronchoscopy on such patients. In layman’s terms, it means he used a novel, life-saving technique and extracted mucus from the lungs. Because of his work in the field, the London-based magazine, New African, named him one of the 100 Most Influential Africans of 2020. 

Growing up in war-torn Sudan

Emmanuel was born in 1977 in a humble mud house in a small dusty village in South Sudan. He was raised by a single mother and had a relatively happy childhood until the second Sudanese civil war (one of the longest civil wars in history) broke out. 

While most of us take education for granted, he instinctively knew from a young age that getting an education would be the only way that he would escape the life in which he was trapped (that of extreme poverty). But, sadly, his schooling was interrupted during his early childhood because of poverty and the war the family had to flee from. 

His family, which consisted of his single mum and six children, moved to Juba. As a 14-year-old, he was abducted and tortured in the notorious White House by Sudanese troops (1994). He was then forced to take up the Muslim faith to save his life, but in reality, he remained a Christian, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, his Saviour. He eventually escaped and wanted to go home but took the wrong turn and ended up in Eritrea. He then decided to leave war-torn Sudan and began his journey as a war refugee with no money or passport – only his dedication, good spirits, and positive attitude.

Journey to South Africa

His distressing journey, sometimes by bus but mostly on foot, ended in South Africa, where he started rebuilding a life for himself. “Looking back now”, said Emmanuel, “I can imagine a thousand things that could have gone wrong at any moment and left me dead by the side of the road, riddled with bullets or mauled by wild claws and teeth. But in those early days of the journey, nothing seemed to go wrong. I felt elated by the sudden freedom to follow whatever path I chose. At times, it felt like God was laying out a platform for me to walk along, removing all the dangers and allowing me to travel safely.” 

The journey from Sudan to South Africa was a cruel one. A Coke bottle with the words “Made in South Africa” motivated him to end his epic journey in South Africa to follow his dreams of resuming his education. It took him 18 months from start to finish. He was robbed, cheated, and abandoned by his blood family, but he was also sometimes helped along the way by strangers. More importantly, he kept on keeping on, no matter how challenging the circumstances.

One could easily mistake Emmanuel’s journey for a normal one. The grand scale of it can never be put into words describing the reality he must have experienced. It is hard to believe that any young and inexperienced young boy could travel thousands of miles through rough Africa with all its dangers and hardships. 

The road distance between Sudan and South Africa is approximately 6 753km. It would be challenging to travel this distance by car or bus, not to mention on foot. But he did it. Giving up along the way was never an option, and shortcuts were also not what he was looking for. At 16, he already had a dream to follow, wanted a better life, and would not stop until he reached his goal.

Once in South Africa, Emmanuel finished his schooling with the help of Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus in Johannesburg. Afterwards, he completed a medical degree at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (previously Medunsa). He received bursaries to continue his postgraduate studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and became a pulmonologist through hard work and dedication. He now holds three medical degrees and is one of only 10 black lung specialists in South Africa. 

A positive outlook on life

Emmanuel has an attitude as strong as iron and a positive outlook on life. I asked him if he wasn’t afraid of animals that could hurt or kill him along the way. His answer? “I am never afraid of animals, but I am very afraid of human beings. Animals will not hurt you, but human beings will. This is what I have learned in South Sudan.” He said, “I am grateful to those few who reached out and helped me during my journey, but I am even more grateful to the missionaries who took me in and allowed me to finish my schooling. This was the solid foundation I needed to further my studies and become a valuable and contributing member of this country I now call home.”  

Giving up is not in this great man’s vocabulary, and this characteristic, together with his outstanding skills, led him to discover the procedure that helped his patients. On top of it all, he still finds the time to reach out to disadvantaged families by providing free medical care to patients in his private practice in Mpumalanga.

Happy endings

Emmanuel’s epic journey to triumph has many happy endings. Not only did he realise his dream, but he also met the love of his life in a library while they were both studying. Today, he is happily married to Motheo, a physiotherapist, and the couple has three beautiful children. 

While writing his story, I realised that the missionaries who helped Emmanuel also saw him clearly. They saw his potential and assisted him, and provided opportunities for him to become the best version of himself. And indeed, he did! The bottom line of Emmanuel’s success is his positive attitude and belief in keeping on, even if he feels he no longer can. His willingness to grab an opportunity and work hard at succeeding has made all the difference!  

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  1. To whom it may concern: I’ve read about this man’s testimony and had been trying to get hold of his book – neither the library, nor CUM books could help me.
    Where can I get hold of this book? I really want to buy it and read it.
    May God bless you richly during this Christ-mas time, and come back in 2023, rested and refreshed, to continue with this great Gateway News channel.