Flying over the lush landscape of northern Kenya en route to Juba, the capital of the then autonomous region and now the world’s youngest country, South Sudan, I decided that cars and buses were in and planes and helicopters were out. That decision led me to being stranded on a dirt road surrounded only by low hills, high grass and a few scattered trees. The rented car had already broken down twice in an hour, and the driver seemed unable to identify the problem. Mundri, my destination, was still another 120 kilometres away. I was reluctantly considering jumping on the next bus back to Juba to start all over again, when a convoy of southern Sudanese soldiers passed by. Two Land Cruiser pick-ups filled to the brim with camouflaged, weapon-toting, war-weary soldiers pulled up alongside us. To my surprise the driver of the first Land Cruiser jumped out and offered to help fix the car. Taking the opportunity to stretch their legs, the entire contingent disembarked and we were surrounded by a platoon of soldiers offering opinions on what was wrong with the car. The consensus was that the fuel pump was busted, but since it couldn’t be fixed there was little that could be done. As the order was given to mount up, the commanding officer asked me where I was headed.
‘Mundri,’ I replied.
‘You can join us if you like,’ he said, pointing to the back of the second pick-up. I jumped at the opportunity to get moving again. As we drove off there was little conversation; the soldiers’ English was limited and my knowledge of their dialect non-existent. Without much to discuss I began to think about what had brought me there, the only distraction being a machine-gun muzzle, gently nudging my back.
In mid 2010 I had decided to pack my bags and head back to the places I’d worked as a humanitarian aid worker during the past decade. The idea started to take shape when I was still working in Baghdad. Despite one of the largest aid efforts in history there was relatively little of substance to show. Claims of success were rampant, but they rested on self-congratulatory reports and some very well-worn anecdotes. I had begun asking myself, with less confidence each time, whether any change would, or even could, result from our efforts. A year after finishing my Iraq contract I decided to find out for myself by returning to visit the people and the projects I had been involved with in Iraq, East Timor and the southern states of a then united Sudan.
The view rushing past me as we made our way to Mundri was a blur of lush savannah: high grass, low shrubbery and a mix of sinewy and bulbous African trees. Southern Sudan doesn’t have the dense jungles that most people probably imagine when they hear the name ‘Africa’; instead it looks like prime, but long untended, farm land. There is a lot of talk, mostly half-joking, that the country could become the world’s largest organic farm. The soil is as it has always been, unblemished by pesticides, insecticides or commercial fertilisers, though admittedly littered with unexploded ordnance. Over the past several decades, wars had made farming a risky endeavour. But even this didn’t explain the limited scope of the ‘farms’ that we were passing. Most were subsistence size; small patches that could hardly feed a young family. Why weren’t the returning young, able-bodied Sudanese clearing land by the acre, planting seeds and reaping the benefits of a lush and fertile land?
One answer is that people who have lived most of their lives adapting to the vagaries of conflict don’t tend to plan for the future. Why plant more than you need if you won’t be there to harvest the fruits of your labour? Even after the conflict is over, how many years of stability does it take for people to feel comfortable enough to plan their future?
The convoy passed small hamlets, leaving a long trail of dust in our wake. Children ran out of clusters of thatched huts waving at the passing vehicles before dropping out of sight. Other than the road we were travelling on, there was little to distinguish today’s southern Sudan from what explorers, missionaries and colonialists saw a century or more ago. In the book The Heart of Africa: Three Years Travels and Adventures in the Unexplored Regions of Central Africa from 1868 to 1871, Georg Schweinfurth describes the same area just as I saw it on that day: ‘No regular towns or villages exist throughout the … country. The huts, grouped into little hamlets, are scattered about the cultivated districts, which are separated from one another by large tracts of wilderness many miles in extent.’ A half-century of wars had preserved the land as it was in the mid-nineteenth century, a pleasure for me as I passed through the countryside, an existential and practical challenge for the people who were just beginning to dream of new possibilities.
The drive took longer than I had hoped. The first hour was bliss, watching the scenery passing by from an open-top vehicle. By the second hour the cramped quarters and dust from the lead vehicle made the journey tedious. With the third my muscles were sore and as the fourth passed it was simply painful.
By the time we made it to Mundri night had long since fallen. With no street lamps to guide my way, I fumbled with my pack in the dark and walked towards the first group of people I came across and asked them where I could spend the night. A finger pointed across the road to what is considered a restaurant in rural Sudan. There, Sapan, the owner, greeted me with a wide smile that gleamed under the fluorescent lighting and put me immediately at ease.
My room for the night was a hut in the back yard. At less than five dollars a night I couldn’t complain. It had lights powered by Sapan’s generator but no switch to turn them off. The thatched roof was home to a few bugs, spiders and other assorted creatures, but there was a mosquito net covering the bed, which separated my zone from theirs. I left them in peace, hoping they would extend the same courtesy to me. There were two communal latrines out the back and a pair of shower cubicles, hot water was boiling over a fire in a 44-gallon drum. It was good enough for the next few nights.
I know from experience that when you’re in developing countries plans don’t amount to much. You can start the day with a schedule, but the continual obstacles, including anything from a flooded river to newly identified unexploded ordnance, will wear down even the strictest of time keepers. Further conspirators against planning are the potholed roads, which are made inaccessible by only a few hours of rain, delaying a planned visit by days or even weeks. So I came to rely on serendipity rather than planning.
I decided to begin the day by trying to chase down one of the several local community groups we had supported nearly five years earlier. It was through them that micro-loans were disbursed, youths trained and business groups established. The program we had run in this isolated corner of southern Sudan was a multimillion-dollar project aimed at improving livelihoods and local governance. In addition to the community-focused components of the program, we were also helping to empower local governments by building county administration buildings for officials who were otherwise running their affairs from beneath mango trees or in huts. It was a tough challenge considering the logistics: driving to the site from the nearest sizable airport took at least eight hours during the dry season, many more during the wet. Construction materials had to be purchased and transported from Uganda as there was no market for such supplies in the local area. Skilled workers were in short supply, as people had only recently started to return from the safety of the bush or the displaced persons camps, so we had to train apprentices or bring them in from other areas, which created its own problems when other ethnicities appeared to be favoured over the locals.
Armed with a copy of the project’s final report I set out looking for the New Sudan Women’s Federation (NSWF). The urban centre of Mundri has, I was told, about 10,000 inhabitants, and is less than an hour’s walk from one end to the other, yet no-one I asked had heard of the organisation. I talked to shop owners, a war veterans association and officials at the local administration offices. It was becoming disconcerting. Had the group folded? Were they a pop-up group that appeared when funds were available and disappeared when they ran dry? Just as I began to worry that I wasn’t going to find anyone who could help me, I ran into a team from Oxfam. They didn’t know NSWF, but they did know of the Mundri Women’s Association. Good enough for me, as I was sure they would know the whereabouts of their competitors.
Sure enough, the women at the association knew of the federation, but they told me that the director, Susan Pormeli, whom we had worked with, had given birth two days ago. She wouldn’t be at the offices but most likely at home.
‘Do you want me to take you to her home?’ asked Esta, a program officer with the association.
I wasn’t quite sure about the etiquette, let alone her health, but I decided to follow my new guide’s lead. Navigating around small gardens and mango trees, the road eventually came to an end in a small, beautifully tended clearing surrounded by a group of adobe brick huts and small gardens—the African equivalent of a suburban cul-de-sac. I politely stayed back, admiring the way dirt surfaces can be kept so clean and tidy, while Esta went looking for Susan.
Dressed in a red sleeveless top and a flowing orange patterned sarong, Susan welcomed me to her home, kindly offering a wooden chair in the shade of a mango tree. I had heard of how tough Sudanese women were but the thought of giving birth two days earlier and then having the energy to entertain a stranger’s questions was impressive. When I was living in Wau, another town in Sudan, I was told of a pregnant woman who had made for the privacy of the walled vacant block beside my house, where she gave birth before continuing along her way. I wasn’t quite sure if this was a true story but I couldn’t imagine that my staff would have made it up.
I could see that Susan wasn’t chirpy, but she was determined to meet me and carry out her duty to represent her organisation. I decided to continue, but first I asked about her newborn, her fourth child, whom she had named Jacinta. ‘She is well but she will be the last one,’ Susan assured me with a certainty in her voice that made me believe her.
The NSWF was established in 2002, becoming a major partner of our operations five years later. They were organisers and managers of the small group-lending micro-finance program that we had initiated, as well as activists fighting sexual and gender-based violence. I was eager to hear how the latter program had panned out, as it was notoriously difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of projects aimed at reducing gender-based violence.
Susan was particularly proud of their work in this sector. ‘We worked with community elders to develop a code of conduct that the community signed. It was then put where all could see, sometimes on a mango tree or wall,’ she told me in a melodic voice that I associate with east African women. ‘Some participants started to realise that violence against their women was not good. Some of the men even came and asked that we do the training again.’
‘Do you remember what was included in the code?’ I asked.
‘Sure, I helped develop it,’ she explained, outlining the details. I later found a copy of the code, which reflected her recollections:
Code of Conduct
This code of conduct serves as a guide to prevention and response to gender based violence in communities of Amadi, Mundri, Kotobi and Lozoh payams. It refers to the way the community leaders and members should behave in order to combat gender based violence right from the grassroots levels. It is a moral code and doesn’t have force of law.
Be a role model to the community members by practicing non violent behaviors or things that contribute to violence such as excessive drinking.
Inform members of the community to be aware of the dangers and consequences of gender based violence using all possible means including community meetings.
1. Enlighten community members to give their children, boys and girls equal opportunity and treat them in the same manner, overloading girl children with domestic chores impedes the development and causes a high rate of female school drop outs.
Discourage growing, selling and smoking of opium (bangi) and excessive drinking in the community. The influence of these substances makes people to be violent
Ensure widow inheritance is done with full consensus of the two parties, man and woman
Discourage the practice of paying high dowry as this is one of the contributing factors to domestic violence. In addition it is preventing young people from getting married on time
2. Handle cases of gender based violence sensitively. Ensure reported cases of gender based violence are treated with respect, confidentiality and ensure the security of the survivor when needed
Encourage community members to report cases of gender based violence to the police, chief or administrator. Such cases include forced early marriage, domestic violence, forced wife inheritance, rape etc.
3. Follow up on reported cases to ensure all possible appropriate actions are taken. This includes making sure the survivor receives all the possible required assistance; the perpetrators are punished, and the punishment is equivalent to the damage
Encourage women members of the community to participate in income generating and other empowerment activities to reduce the dependency of women and lead life with security and dignity.
‘Did it change the behaviour of men in the community?’ I asked, referring to the code.
‘Most men would listen, other than the drunks. They thought we wanted to spoil their wives.’
‘What about now, are they still using the code, are you still training communities?’
‘The old chiefs have gone,’ she replied in a deadpan sort of way. ‘There is a new administration so the code of conduct hasn’t been in use since 2008. When your funding stopped, activities stopped since we didn’t have money to transport trainers into the rural areas and there was no money to provide food during the workshops.’
I was disappointed that we hadn’t implemented a follow-up program. Gender-based violence in South Sudan is a major problem that will only grow worse as demobilised soldiers return home without a job but with access to cheap grog. The project had hit the right spot, tackling the right issues and making the all-important first entry into a community, but then apparently nothing, no follow-up, no expanded programming.
I saw that Susan wasn’t feeling well but stoically she brushed it off, saying that she only had a slight headache.
‘I just have one more question and then I’d better move on. What type of activities does your organisation currently do?’
Susan responded weakly, whether out of embarrassment or exhaustion I wasn’t quite sure. ‘We don’t do much now. We get funding from headquarters for legal training of paralegals and some adult literacy. But we are waiting for a new donor to continue our activities.’
Nine years earlier, arriving in the town of Wau, I had my first taste of what lay ahead. As the cargo plane touched down, we taxied past the carcasses of crashed or trashed aeroplanes that littered the side of the dirt runway. Some, like the one I flew in, had bullet holes that eventually got the better of them. Others, such as the one that lay at the end of the runway, had overshot the landing and struck landmines, permanently disabling them. At the time I was twenty-six years old, entering a war zone, knowing no-one, with no training and admittedly clueless about the risks. A middle-aged local man named Charles, who was the accountant in the local office of the organisation I was working for and would later become an Australian citizen, became my trusted guide and friend.
My home had a meagre generator that ran for an hour or two during the day and barely powered the computers, a ceiling fan and a deep freezer that struggled to chill its contents. Otherwise there was city electricity for a few hours a week—a cause for celebration when it came on. The sole source of water was a well at the Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) compound, from which they would kindly refill the water tank sitting on top of my open-air shower. The kitchen was a fire in the back yard, the toilet was a hole in an outhouse and the furniture amounted to two worn couches, a small coffee table, two steel-frame beds and some cupboards on a bare cement floor. Due to the security situation there was a curfew from 7 pm to 7 am.
As the sun set and birds filled the sky, making their final preparations for the evening, I usually headed straight for a foldout chair in the walled patch of dirt that resembled a back yard. When there was enough sunlight left in the day I’d read or write, leaving the kerosene lantern and the BBC World Service to fill the time in the evening.
Thankfully the month of October sits astride the end of the wet season and the beginning of the dry in southern Sudan. On my return visit, the weather wasn’t scorching hot nor was there a daily deluge of rain. I had reunited with Charles and we decided to walk across town, past two sets of new traffic lights, the first in the whole of South Sudan, across the bridge spanning the Jur River and into the largest internally displaced persons camp in Wau, the Eastern Bank Camp.
In 1998 the eastern bank of the Jur River, until then a thinly forested area of mango trees just above the flood plain, became a refuge for tens of thousands of people seeking food and safety from the conflict. Earlier that year, a long festering division within the rebel movement pitted a largely Nuer breakaway force against a predominantly Dinka army, a division defined by the same tribalism that frames the current internal political conflict that began in late 2013. These divisions combined with an unusually long dry season, which ended abruptly with floods that caused a food shortage and mass displacement. Over a period of several months people drifted in, leaving behind their failing crops and war-ravaged villages. Humanitarian organisations quickly came to their aid and began mobilising resources and personnel.
As we walked across the bridge, Charles pointed down to a site alongside the river where the first missionary outpost in the region was established nearly a hundred years ago. In a sense it was the first international aid mission to the region, a precursor to the new secular ‘religion’ that has followed in its footsteps, proselytising democracy and the free market.
There was no method to the madness in the Eastern Bank. Plots varied in size, some surrounded by tended gardens while others were lost among the overgrowth. One green thumb ingeniously lined a garden bed with discarded soft drink cans. The paths, some wide enough for vehicles but most suitable only for walking, weaved around the camp in a spaghetti logic. Most of the huts were mud adobe with thatched roofs. Gone were the tents that I could remember. Sadly, most of the infrastructure had also gone. I couldn’t see any latrines, most of the water pumps were broken and all of the drainage ditches that are crucial in keeping the imminent rains from turning into stagnant pools attractive to mosquitoes were blocked or covered. Even the health clinic that we built in 1999, a six-room brick structure painted white, was a shadow of what it had been.
‘We haven’t received any money to maintain the building,’ the young medical assistant told us. ‘The roof leaks, drugs are low, we don’t have a technician for the lab and we’ve run out of malaria-testing kits.’
We found Chief Angelo Uraya Dut sitting under a mango tree on a plastic chair. The chief’s silver beard and faded red baseball cap were all that set him apart from the other men around him, who were dressed in a similar style. The chief wore a short-sleeved shirt that at one time could have been some bright colour but was now a well-worn off-white; his pants were in the same state while on his feet he wore a pair of thongs. As we approached he was huddled in a meeting with another chief, while four other men lounged about in the small dirt clearing. One of these men, Abraham Tom, recognised Charles. It turned out they had worked together. Their meeting was fortuitous as Charles was an Acholi and Chief Angelo a Dinka, which meant that they didn’t speak the same language despite living in the same country.
It was midday and the sun was well hidden behind the thick foliage of the mango tree. A breeze blew across the cool waters of the Jur River, making the site a comfortable place to meet. We shook hands, made our introductions, took up the plastic chairs being offered and then I began by asking the chief about the international aid community.
‘No, the NGOs have gone because there is no emergency. But now is the time we need help, now we need support because we are here to stay. We need support to help begin new lives,’ came the response.
‘What about the government?’
‘The government claims it has no budget,’ the chief said without a hint of anger or disappointment. ‘But a lot needs to be done. Even there are no latrines, people shit all around with no care for health.’
‘So why don’t people build their own latrines?’ As I said this, my mind flashed back to a conversation I had nine years ago with a group of chiefs on the same topic in the same place. They wanted us to build latrines. I wanted them to do some of the work themselves. They said there weren’t any men around as they were all fighting. I said that every person in front of me in that meeting was a man and they needed to start helping themselves as we weren’t going to be there forever.
I wanted to understand why people weren’t helping themselves, so I continued to the chief, ‘I’ve built latrines using wooden logs, food ration sacks and dirt for the slab. The grass here in the camp can be woven to make the walls. You could do all that for free.’
I think Abraham tried to explain the point I was trying to make. It wasn’t that I was specifically asking the chief to build latrines but rather why they weren’t helping themselves.
Abraham responded this time, ‘The people are worried the government will evict them from their homes. The government has plans to give the Eastern Bank to their friends. So people are worried about working and spending money and then losing their homes. The better the property the more likely they think the government is to take it away. So they don’t do anything.’
There was nothing to say in response. The importance of property ownership made just as much sense in this camp as it did in the most prosperous city in the West. Renters are unlikely to maintain a property as well as an owner and squatters rarely invest a cent. It was the same underlying concern that limits the efforts returning farmers are prepared to make on their lands, as they worry about instability threatening their sweat equity.
‘So if the conditions are not good and you’re not getting any support from the government, why stay? Why don’t people go back to their villages?’ I asked.
‘Most of the people here are urban people; they fled from different towns and villages when the war came to them. They don’t have farms to go to. Many are widows. They have nowhere to go also,’ was the translated, consolidated response.
‘What about work?’ Returning to the theme that had occupied my thoughts as I’d walked through Wau the night before. ‘There are a lot of foreign businessmen setting up new businesses, have the men of this camp tried to find work with them?’
‘We don’t have relations with them.’
‘What about you guys, have you tried to find work with them?’ I asked the other young men gathered in our open-air meeting room.
They just shook their heads. No-one had tried to find work. No-one was digging their own latrines. No-one had even planted any vegetables in their gardens. This was in part the after-effects of war, the repercussions of corruption and foreign investment gone awry, but it was also the result of a dependency created by the aid community. We, too, were partly to blame because the system discourages senior managers from refusing additional funding as their success is measured against the amount of money they raise, not the outcomes they facilitate. And the donors are to blame too, because if their budgetary planning process has allocated a portion of funds to water and sanitation activities, but field personnel report that those specific activities are no longer required, they would simply find another NGO to give the money to, as altering course to fund new requirements that suit the people’s changing needs requires an immense amount of paperwork.
As I was looking towards Charles to indicate that it was time to leave, Chief Angelo asked, ‘Now you see with your own eyes that since you were here nothing has been done. What are you going to do for us?’
I remember assuming that international efforts would not falter, that ground gained would not be lost. Yet, just five years later in Mundri the leaders dealing with gender-based violence are no longer leading and the staff trained to be trainers are no longer training. In Wau the water pumps are broken, the medical clinic bare and the camp a dilapidated refuge of lost hope. It was a disappointing realisation, but one that should not have been so unexpected. The funds we had received in Wau were for emergency humanitarian support aimed at helping people survive through the war years, a task that had clearly been achieved. In Mundri, it was transitional funding that was supposed to precede and facilitate private investment and further government support. In this case while the gender-based violence-prevention program seemed to have faltered, the county administration building program was a success. Worse than the struggling projects, though, was the evident loss of hope and opportunity. There was a distinct lack of willingness on the part of individuals or families to risk investing effort into transforming their own lives. Regardless of how well foreign aid activities are planned and implemented, little will change without the people themselves feeling empowered.
Two months after I left the country, the people of southern Sudan woke to a day they had been dreaming of for decades, even generations. People queued peacefully outside village polling stations, along main streets and in schools and health centres. They were there to play their role as citizens in this newly established democracy and voice their opinion on the question of independence. The television cameras were there alongside print journalists from around the world, ready to record the moment for posterity.
As I watched the week of voting unfold, I wondered whether democracy would offer the infusion of hope that was so needed. The government will now be closer to the people and, for the first time in decades, of the people, but will it be for the people, or will it be for a small cadre of connected individuals? Elections can bring hope for a better future, but they can also bring despair through unfulfilled expectations. I wondered then what the fate would be for my friends in South Sudan.
Nearly three years later, in 2014, internal divisions led to a revival of tribal rivalries between the Nuer and the Dinka. An estimated 900,000 people have been displaced from their homes and possibly as many as 10,000 have died. Accusations of corruption and nepotism undermine the standing of political leaders. Those who invested in their future would now be ruing their enthusiasm. While the government remains firmly in power and the rebels entrenched in their ethnic homeland, small skirmishes and peace talks continue. The most important outcome the international community can bring now, with its peacekeepers and aid workers, is an ongoing commitment to stability and development that may seed a renewed sense of hope. One that will convince individuals to invest in their own future despite the many setbacks—convince them that this time, against all probability, it will be different.