Earlier this year, famine was declared in South Sudan — compounding the effects of the ongoing conflict, and pushing 1.9 million people to flee the country.
In March, I went to South Sudan with the NGO, Tearfund, to document the crisis. I’d been warned about what to expect from a number of photographers. Some had taken me to one side, telling me in hushed tones that famine is one of the hardest things to witness, and cautioned that I should mentally prepare for what I was about to see. Others warned me not to be ‘disappointed’ if I didn’t see the emaciated bodies and scenes from the well-documented famines from the end of the last century. ‘These days it’s more complex, hunger is harder to see, the effects are hidden away.’
In some ways, they were both half right. We spent days in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, where large families huddled together in row upon row of hot white tenting, eking out the little supplies they had, stuck in a limbo of dependency, waiting for something to change. Hopefully for the better.
One day, we met a mother who had resorted to feeding her family of eight with boiled cassava leaves because her husband hadn’t received his wages for three months.
We saw villages erupt from a calm and sleepy afternoon into co-ordinated frenzy as an antelope strayed into their territory. “It is clearly a gift from God,” one 13-year-old boy told me, shyly holding the leg of the antelope by his side.
Another morning, there was a food distribution—made necessary by the extremity of the situation and yet a tough place to hold on to one’s dignity when you’re in a crowd waiting for a handout. Perhaps half expecting to see some personification of helplessness, I was somewhat surprised when people came to the distribution dressed well. Clearly in need of help, they certainly didn’t fit western stereotypes of the ‘helpless’ and were ready to make their critique known if they saw any fault in the process.
It was after a long day out under the scorching heat that we came to sit under the shade of a tree to listen in on a conversation between a community group and the partner organisation that had helped them previously with food. One-by-one, we introduced ourselves by name and then quickly got down to business. The community was very grateful for the food and aid they’d received — but this was about making things better, and they had things to say.
I took the opportunity to set up a makeshift studio and take portraits of some of the people there. Despite being forced into an undignified situation — forced dislocations, loss of family and friends and homes, bearing witness to the most hideous violence, surviving on aid rations and wild plants (and this doesn’t even begin to describe it) — the subjects radiated dignity.
Speaking to people that afternoon, they surprised us again by talking proudly about South Sudan. But this pride wasn’t the sort of triumphant nationalism that mindlessly believes in the superiority of their own territory. This pride was more akin to hope.
Not a rose-tinted, glazed-eyes kind of hope. But a tough, trial-by-fire kind of hope. A hope that believes that change is possible, that they, the people of South Sudan, deserve better than what they’ve somehow been able to endure.
As they spoke that day, and throughout the rest of the trip, I was humbled by how people didn’t seem to disown the terrible state of affairs they’d been dealt, instead saying ‘This place is ours, it will get better, we won’t leave unless we have to.’
Last week, while the country should have been marking its sixth year, the official birthday celebrations were called off. There didn’t seem to be much to celebrate. Yet while there may have been no parties, I can guarantee that the people still stood proud.
The following portraits show some of the people we met that day.
“This is my home. This is my country, whether in good times or bad.”
Athieng, 80, in Juba.
“I am South Sudanese and I am a grateful person, regardless of what happens. I am thankful to the church for providing food in July. I’m hoping for more support, but I will still be thankful if it doesn’t come.”
Edmond is blind and cannot work as he relies on being led by someone else at all times. He cannot remember his age but comes from Mundri in the south of the country.
“I was born in South Sudan and that makes me proud. God chose for me to be born here.”
Angelina, 21, holding her 18-month-old son Jumma.
“After independence in 2011, I was so proud to be repatriated back to South Sudan as this is my home country.”
Talitha, 54, travelled 1900 km from Khartoum in Sudan to return to her place of birth in South Sudan.
“I am proud to be South Sudanese but because of the conflict, life is now very difficult.”
Mabior had lost his spouse and left his home in Eastern Equatoria to get to the capital.
“I am still proud to be South Sudanese despite everything I have gone through and having to flee to Juba.”
Cynthia, 58, lost family members during conflict in Kajo Keji, in the south of the country. She fled the area in search of safety and a kind neighbour helped her to make the journey to the capital in February this year.
“I have hope in God and encouragement from the church. I am very thankful for the food support I am receiving through Tearfund’s partner so now I can cook some food.”
Tabia, who is from Juba, explained she is proud to be South Sudanese because her faith gives her hope for her country.
“I am proud to be born South Sudanese because I have grown crops here — such as sorghum — and I also brought up my children here.”
Octogenarian Millicent, from Eastern Equatoria, said her connection to her country was about people rather than geography.
‘I returned from Khartoum after independence in 2011 and am proud to be back in my homeland of Torit.’
Achuil, 65, comes from a town called Torit, near the capital, which has a population of approximately 33,000. He said he felt proud to come back to his hometown from Sudan.
Charities, including Tearfund, are urgently trying to help as six million people face extreme hunger by working with partners such as the Africa Inland Church (AIC) to distribute food. Through the AIC Tearfund have organised life-saving distributions in places like Konyo Konyo camp for Internally Displaced People, handing out provisions including sacks of maize flour, bottles of oil, bags of beans and salt.
Find out more about Tearfund’s East Africa Crisis Appeal.