The fledgling state of South Sudan is vast. The flight from the capital Juba to the northern state of Unity State looks down on a marbled and streaked landscape of green vegetation that expands and recedes with the onset or offset of the annual rainy season.
This month, as the country celebrates its first year as an independent state, a great feeling of expectation lingers at the beginning of this all-important rainy season. Fields tilled with back-breaking effort and seeds carefully planted, which in turn gives way to the patience and hope that nature, uncontrollable and unpredictable, will deliver on its age-old promise of life-giving rain to nourish both crops and cattle. Growing food, and growing enough of it, is still one of the greatest challenges many South Sudanese face. One year after their independence, securing the basics of food and water is still a delicate, fragile and risky business.
For many in South Sudan's Unity State, the challenges of uncertain rainfall are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of difficulties they face to secure food and a stable existence for their families. Since independence, hundreds of thousands of refugees, displaced to the north during Sudan's long civil war, have returned to Unity State, many having left when they were just children. With increasing cross-border tensions between South Sudan and northern Sudan, unpredictable internal displacement from militia groups and cattle raiders, and the alarming increase of refugees pouring into the country from Sudan's South Kordofan region, it is hard to see the fleeting glimpses of hope that are so easily overshadowed by the grim realities that so many families daily live through.
In Abiemnom, about 15 kilometers from the South Sudan/Sudan border, we met Adan and her family. She fled the previous civil war north to Khartoum when she was just 13 years old. There she later married and began a family. She returned to South Sudan for the first time earlier in the year. With no land to plant crops or employment, she and her family must now rely on food rations from the World Food Program.
Adan, a recent returnee from the north to Abiemnom, South Sudan. Credit: Kate Magee/World Relief
Others like Akout, a mother of five, came to Abiemnom from Bentui, the capital of Unity State, to escape recent bombings in April, the fall out of violent clashes between South Sudan and Sudan over the control for oil fields along the contested northern border regions. She came to Abiemnom hoping to meet up with her brother, but when she arrived he had taken his family south. She and her husband decided to stay there for now and plant crops - they plan to harvest sorghum, maize, and beans. Her youngest child, part of World Relief's nutrition program, is now healthier and strong because of a daily regiment of high-protein feedings and screenings by their local healthcare workers. She hopes he will grow up, go through school, and support her when she is old.
Akout, a recent IDP now living in Abiemnom, South Sudan. Credit: Kate Magee/World Relief
Akout, Adan and thousands of others in Unity State continue to be displaced by cross-border fighting and less-publicized inter-communal violence and cattle raiding. Yet, in spite of this, there is something hopeful in their stories. These strong and resilient people have plans, and with these simple plans for the future, they have hope.
Akout and Adan's stories are just two examples of a people who have not given up planning for a better future, for themselves or their children. Where there had been some semblance of peace, homestead walls have been painted with drawings and colorful patterns. Instead of donated tarps and hastily constructed shacks, roofs were meticulously thatched with attention to aesthetic detail - small visual indicators of those who hope for a future where they can finally create for themselves a home - a life, uninterrupted.
World Relief health workers screen a child for malnourishment in Unity State, South Sudan. Credit: Kate Magee/World Relief
Why point out these seemingly small details when the dominate narrative of South Sudan today is one of grave humanitarian need, continuing internal and cross-border conflict, and political uncertainty? Because to paint the rich, complex story of South Sudan with broad, general brushstrokes would smear a dishonest and shallow reflection of a young country and a scattered people that need more of our attention, prayer, and support - not less of it. We must patiently work past what seems to be a hopeless web of corruption and conflict to see and empower the potential and ability of resilient individuals - mothers, fathers, teachers, healthcare workers - who are ready and willing to bring a new narrative of peace and hope to their communities.
Co-authored with Isaac Barnes.
Don Golden and Isaac Barnes are respectively church engagement and communications executives with Baltimore-based Christian aid agency World Relief. World Relief has had a presence in the North and South Sudan regions for more than 15 years, and works with local church partners to serve their communities through agricultural, healthcare and education initiatives. For more information, visit www.worldrelief.org.