[Note: Please read my previous blog post in order to more fully understand the following series]
February to May in South Sudan = not a drop of rain = limited access to water, far too much dust, dried up farms, malnourished cows (& more importantly, people) and extremely uncomfortably hot temperatures.
The dry season in South Sudan may be extreme, but the country is rich in resources. In fact, South Sudan has more natural river sources than Kenya (a land still suffering hunger seasons of its own). According to the World Bank, “South Sudan has vast and largely untapped natural resources and opportunities abound for visible improvements in the quality of peoples’ lives.”
With so much water available for cultivation, even in the most water-depraved seasons –
Why are so many people going hungry?
As far back as history reveals, the South Sudanese people have been agro-pastoral. This means they are both farmers and keepers of livestock (whereas some communities, for example those WC works with in parts of Kenya, are primarily pastoralists). Although farming has always been more successful in certain areas of the country than others (mainly due to climatic reasons), the majority of the population has always supplemented a significant portion of their income from their crop yields.
Prior to a horrendous civil war that rocked, and ultimately split, Sudan for over 20 years, the hunger season was less of an identified issue. The Sudanese people had naturally adapted their methods of farming to survive the heat and lack of rain. Because life was generally peaceful, committing to farming one’s land was easily sustainable.
The war in Sudan killed roughly 2 million people and displaced more than 4 million. It depleted the country of a shared nationhood and any sort of infrastructure.
South Sudan remains greatly impoverished, with over half of the population living below the poverty line.
Two years post-independence, returnees continue to arrive in South Sudan every day. The war robbed an innocent people of their lives, homes, land, and physical and mental capacity to see beyond surviving until the next day.
Amid the chaos of the war, the Sudanese ability to successfully farm year round was tragically lost.
Hiding in the bush, fleeing outside of the country, and living in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, the war left the people of southern Sudan no opportunity to practice long-term cultivation. Rather than relying on natural self-sufficiency, most were forced into a life of dependency.
During, and post, the war, food and water were provided in the form of handouts and aid. Survival was determined by the work and assistance of someone else. Over time relying on relief, as it was often the only option, transformed into a pattern of life. Most tragically, it became deeply engraved in the Sudanese cultural mentality.
For 25 years babies were born and people, of a variety of ages, died never knowing how to provide for themselves.
You can see where this is going, right?
When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, people slowly began to return to their native lands and re-establish their families and livelihoods. Having gone years without practicing large-scale farming, most of the younger generation never having farmed at all, life did not exactly pick up where it had left off.
Majority illiterate (according to World Bank, 73%), dependent, and completely traumatized, the people of the soon-to-be South Sudan courageously began to steady their wavering feet. Given the length of the conflict, most had to re-learn what it looked like to navigate through life without war.
25 years sans passing down agricultural techniques, the following dry seasons brought large populations of people to their knees. Countless vulnerable families were not able to yield enough crops during harvest to last them through the droughts.
Those whose harvest proved successful often found themselves selling critical portions of their crops to pay for unexpected finances: a sick child, a school fee, a wedding, a diseased cow. Oftentimes, proper crop storage was not established and a family’s entire harvest was discovered to be eaten by critters or entirely ruined by the ever-intense weather.
If you take the elements of an extreme environment and add it to the thousands of families beginning life anew, unsuccessful farming and storage can prove detrimental.
It’s now been over two years since South Sudan was declared an independent nation, two years since general peace has overcome the land. The impact of the hunger season is slowly lessening, but it still permeates life in a big way.
Currently, one of World Concern’s most prominent projects in South Sudan entails training, equipping, and empowering families for dry season farming. To promote building and learning in community, the training is initially done in groups on a shared plot of land, Apart from these organized groups, very few South Sudanese practice dry season farming.
I met Mary on a Tuesday at noon – the most wonderful time of day in South Sudan [read ‘not so wonderful and ridiculously hot’]. Towering over my mere 5’4″ frame, the 6’+ woman gracefully sauntered over to shake my hand, barely a bead of sweat to be found on her beautiful and intricately scarred face. Smiling all the while, Mary, a mother of eight, told me about her life as a farmer in Lietnhom.
Despite being a fairly experienced farmer herself, she has often been unable to harvest enough crops to feed all eight of her children. As soon as Mary heard about the opportunity to learn how to farm during the dry season, she couldn’t imagine passing up the opportunity. She was one of the first to commit to joining the WC gardening group in her community and is now one of the group leaders.
Mary works with other local farmers to make sure that the shared garden is watered twice a day and the crops are properly cared for. From what she has learned from WC staff, Mary now teaches those in her community about cleaning crops and making healthy manure.
The Lietnhom garden is one of the only successful dry season gardens in the surrounding area. The farmers involved have even harvested enough crops to take some home and sell those that remain in the local market!
Still smiling, Mary told me, “I have learned many things from World Concern. I am very happy with you. I think my children will be very well now that I work here.”
While in the field, it was apparent that World Concern staff is committed to mobilizing vulnerable communities to generate widespread awareness about dry season farming and its significant benefits:
1. Year round food.
2. A year round source of income.
[And let me tell you, the communities are excited. South Sudanese people are anxious to be a part of rebuilding the new nation and re-establishing their livelihoods. The energy of the people is tangible and contagious.]
49-year-old Atak is clearly excited about dry season farming, “First of all, I need to give appreciation to World Concern and for all of the work they have done.”
A husband to three wives and father to fourteen children, Atak works hard to care for his family. Previously a merchant, selling clothes in the Akon market, he was barely scraping by. After training with World Concern staff, and being provided with starter tools and seeds, Atak left his shop and committed full-time to life as a farmer.
“This work is better than the old work. The onion, no one will leave the onion, but people will go without buying the clothes for ten days to a month. But if my pumpkin or okra are ready, someone will come and buy them.”
Atak now has enough money to feed his family and enough crops to last them through the year, “My children are healthy because this work is good…they cannot go hungry.” In fact, he has made enough money to purchase his own generator to more efficiently pump water to all of his crops.
Self-sufficient and empowered, Atak proudly tells me, “I don’t need to ask World Concern to bring me seeds ever again.”
“Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails, and the field produces no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, Yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” -Habakkuk 3:17