Voices of humanity: getting food to people in need in South Sudan with WFP

Women working in a vegetable garden in Aweil, South Sudan, where they are growing eggplant, tomatoes, okra and other vegetables to sell and use for their own family meals. Story and images: WFP/Alexandra Murdoch

In South Sudan, conflict has had such a huge impact on people’s everyday lives that, when speaking to people there, it is difficult to separate the conflict from everyday conversation.

Since fighting broke out in parts of the country in 2013, over two million people have been forced from their homes. But in many areas that are peaceful, people face other challenges because they are still trying to rebuild their lives following the war for independence that lasted between 1983 and 2005.

Around five million people in South Sudan– nearly half of the population — are at risk of food shortages and hunger over the coming months. The ongoing conflict, combined with erratic rainfall, a collapsing economy and high food prices is making life incredibly difficult for many people.

Together with other partners, the UK is supporting the World Food Programme (WFP) — through the Building Resilience through Asset Creation and Enhancement programme (BRACE) — to provide emergency food rations across the country and to help people who are trying to rebuild their lives.

In the midst of violence, devastation and despair, resilience and strength can also be found in every community, in every corner of the country, where civilians are desperately trying to overcome years of conflict and create a better future.

These are some of their stories.

Picture: WFP/Alexandra Murdoch

Akeen returned to Aweil, South Sudan, in 2011 — the year South Sudan celebrated its independence. He, like many others, had been displaced for over 20 years because of the war. Some were only children when they were forced to flee the conflict and barely remember the homes they left behind. On their return, many of their communities had been destroyed, and they had to start over from scratch.

With the support of UK aid, the WFP and their partners are helping communities get back on their feet. As well as providing tools, seeds and training so that communities can successfully grow crops, WFP gives food or cash in exchange for the work Akeen and others invest in harvesting the land.

Having started out with 26 metric tonnes of seeds, Akeen’s community has so far produced 108 metric tonnes of groundnut and 153 90kg bags of sesame.

Agricultural production takes long-term investment if it is to reach a sustainable level, and one of the UK objectives at the World Humanitarian Summit is to promote a smarter approach to long term crises, going beyond immediate life-saving relief and addressing longer term development needs, with a particular focus on helping people like Akeen who have been forced to flee their homes.

“We have a small animal here in South Sudan called a mouk. It is an animal that springs off with its front two legs,” said Akeen.

“You have given us our front two legs and now we are ready to run.”

Picture: WFP/Alexandra Murdoch

Yar is one of 71,000 people living in a camp for displaced persons in Mingkaman, South Sudan. She, along with the others she lives alongside, have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the ongoing conflict in their country.

“I am one of only two women among the 72 traders in this market! It’s empowering — if more women could be supported in this way, we would no longer have to ask men or charities for money any more.

“I left my home in Bor when the conflict started in 2013. Soldiers were attacking and killing people in my community so I bought my children here to stay safe.

“I have five children — four girls and a boy. My eldest daughter helps me on the market stall sometimes. My husband is a soldier and I have not seen him since we left.

“When we arrived in this town, we had very little. I was able to buy small items like onions, salt and sugar with the money I had saved from my business at home. I then sold the items by the riverside and used whatever I earnt to help us get by.

“When the World Food Programme told me that I could be part of a project where people living on the camp could use vouchers to buy my items, I registered for a market stall and here I am. Over the years I have been able to buy more stock using the money I earn and my business has grown.

“I used the money I earned to enrol my eldest in school. I do not know how to read and write myself but my dream for my children is for them to get an education.

“Education for the next generation is so important — it will allow them to change our country. It will change their mind-set and allow them to think positively and stop this conflict. We need it for peace.”

UK aid is supporting the World Food Programme to provide food for people in need across South Sudan.

At Mingkaman camp, instead of food distributions, people are given cash and vouchers to use at the local market. As well as the freedom of choice that this offers, the initiative supports the local economy and has given people like Yar, the chance to support themselves and their families.

Picture: WFP/Alexandra Murdoch

Lazaraz also returned to Aweil, South Sudan, when the country gained independence in 2011. Having spent over 20 years displaced during the Sudan war, he, like so many others, came back to nothing.

“During the war in the 1990s, my livestock was taken and my house was burnt down but I still count myself lucky because some people had their wives and children abducted. For me, I just had to start again,” he says.

“We have struggled for a very long time but now there is peace in this area, we can rebuild our lives.

“Having enough food for my family worries me all the time. It’s a huge responsibility because even if I only have 10 SSP (20p), I have to make sure I feed everyone.

“The support from the World Food Programme has been so helpful because with the first two months’ money, I could feed my family, and then with the money I raised from the groundnut I produced, I was able to treat my children when they fell ill with malaria. Without that groundnut I don’t know what I would have done — it was my only source of money.

“We are using part of the food we grow to feed ourselves, and the other part to sell for money. In one more year, I will be able to establish myself.

“Please tell the people of the UK that this has given us hope. Your support has allowed us to cultivate our farm. We have been taught new skills, we’ve worked so hard and we have seen results. We were so happy when we cultivated this huge area. It is a great achievement.”

With the support of UK aid and other donors, the World Food Programme is helping Lazaraz and his community to harvest land that was previously just open bush-land.

Lazaraz and other members of the project identified what would be most beneficial for them — and cultivating the farmland will give them security for the future.

As well as providing tools, seeds and training so that communities can successfully grow crops, WFP gives food or cash in exchange for the work Lazaraz and others invest.

There are currently 90 people, including Lazaraz, who work on the 180 acres of farmland.

Picture: WFP/Alexandra Murdoch

Close friends Alima and Amal have been proud participants in a road building initiative in their home town of Aweil, South Sudan. They also returned to the country in 2011, having sought refuge in neighbouring Sudan during the war for independence.

“We were told not to come home because we would suffer but we knew we had to come back. We promised each other we would work hard,” says Amal.

Amal: “The small amount we have, we share. Life would have been very different without the World Food Programme. On arrival, they helped feed our children and later, the road-building project allowed us to earn money and provide for our families.

“If it hadn’t been for this, we would be living a very difficult life — maybe we would even be considering whether to make the journey back, but it is unsafe.

“Our lives as women are difficult. Children won’t run to their father when they are sick or hungry — it is the mother that hears their pain. It hurts you inside. You will do anything for your child.

“If we could change one thing, we would tell them to stop fighting — we don’t want fighting any longer.”

Alina: “I left when I was a girl in 1988. What I knew from my past life is that my parents grew up in a wealthy home with livestock and cattle. People were happy. But we had to run. We spent years not knowing when peace would come and now we have returned to other challenges.

“I feel like slowly our lives are improving. Becoming independent has felt like a process. I have been able to get a bigger house, and to pay an exam fee for my daughter. We believe in the future, that we will be like the people we left behind in Sudan.

“We are very proud of the road we built. It is not something to be used for only one day or one week — it will remain there for our children.

“Our children will say ‘our mother built this road’ and our names will remain in history.”

With support from UK aid and other partners, the World Food Programme has been working with Alima and Amal’s community to establish what they most needed.

The overwhelming consensus was that a road from their village to the nearest town would give people desperately needed access to healthcare, schools and the market.

In return for helping to build the road, participants were given food or cash so that they can start to rebuild their own lives while rebuilding their community.

Picture: WFP/Alexandra Murdoch

“Without WFP, these people would not eat — it’s such an achievement when someone is no longer hungry — you have saved one person in the middle of this conflict,” says Dimanche Amba, a WFP Field Monitoring Assistant in Mingkaman camp.

Dimanche is one of many WFP staff members working to respond to the food needs of those caught up in the South Sudan conflict. There are nearly 30,000 South Sudanese civilians sheltering in UN peacekeeping camps in the capital, Juba.

“It is my job to check the food is reaching everyone, especially the older members of the camp who struggle to go and pick up their own rations.

“I also check how they are — many of the women I speak to are traumatised by the things that have happened to them. I just listen and try to provide guidance. They trust me and this puts me in a position to help them with what they have been through.

“We need the conflict to end. We need to feel safe and we need to build a generation of women that are educated — because once that happens, they will no longer be vulnerable.

“It is a difficult place to work. You need to be tough. Much of my work is done in high-risk areas and you see things that are not easy to see. In the beginning, many people at the camp didn’t trust me, some even became violent. I’ve been physically attacked in the past.

“But you have to empathise — these people are traumatised. Their mistrust comes from a place of fear. You have to put yourself in their shoes.

“I was born during the Sudan war and lived in a refugee camp in Uganda. I got assistance from WFP as I was growing up and I thought ‘one day I want to do this work. I want to help people the way I have been helped.’

“These are my own people — they are like me. I want to be here for them and I feel blessed that I am now in a position to help.”

With the support of UK aid, the World Food Programme and its partners currently provide food for those that are displaced by the conflict, offering rations of oil, sorghum, pulses, flour, salt and other necessities for those that are unable to return home.

Picture: WFP/ Alexandra Murdoch

“We left for the vegetable garden early this morning without eating breakfast,” says Abuk, looking at her daughter Alek.

“It is quite a walk but we need to get there early so that we can take any vegetables we have grown to the market — which gives us money to buy food for the rest of the day. We work on an empty stomach but we know we have to keep going because it will bring us money and food.

“In our environment you have no choice but to have your children work with you. Alek helps to care for the other children and also helps me tend to the vegetable garden.

“Alek dropped out of school because we couldn’t afford food, and definitely not a school uniform. So she works with me at the vegetable patch and helps to make a living. If I could afford to, I would send her to school but it costs around 100 SSP (£1) — where would I find that money?”

Alek picks at her nails shyly and won’t look up. “I would like to go to school because one day I would like to work in an office,” she says.

“The vegetables we grow are all we have to sell and we use the money to buy cheaper, bigger bulks of food”, Abuk continues.

“Five or ten South Sudanese Pounds (SSP) will buy us 2 or 5kg of maize. It isn’t enough though and we often go to bed hungry.

“Sometimes Alek askes me for more food and I have to tell her that there isn’t any. I always say ‘my child — we must carry on. Soon we will sell more food and you will eat until you are satisfied.’

“The support from WFP has meant we haven’t struggled as much as we would have. With their help, I am continuing to farm — vegetables are sold easily in the market and I can even use some to cook.

“One day, if I had enough money, I would start a small business, buy enough food for the family and send Alek to school.”

Abuk and Alek live in Aweil, South Sudan. It is a peaceful area of the country but faces its own challenges. Many people living in Aweil only returned from Sudan in 2011, when South Sudan gained independence.

However many had to start from scratch, which combined with a lack of resources, below average rainfall and rising market prices, has left the area with the highest rates of malnutrition in the country.

With the support of UK aid, the World Food Programme and their partners, women like Abuk have been given vegetable gardens and the seeds and tools to grow their own crops.

From pest prevention to timely planting, training has meant that there is now an abundance of fresh vegetables, which is used for cooking and for selling at the markets.

Picture: WFP/Alexandra Murdoch

The number and severity of humanitarian crises around the world is increasing, and the UK is taking a leading role in responding to this strain on the humanitarian system.

Britain demonstrated its leadership by co-hosting the successful Supporting Syria conference earlier this year. But UK aid is also working in many other conflict-torn countries; not least South Sudan, where over two million people have been forced from their homes.

Now the UK is going to the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul with four ambitious objectives: the transformation to a 21st century humanitarian system, a smarter approach to long-term crises, reducing suffering in times of war and putting gender equality at the heart of humanitarian action.

In South Sudan, in the midst of violence and devastation, UK support to WFP and other partners is already helping to put these principles into action.

Find out more by following #UKatWHS