Over the past few weeks, I have been ruminating on a place that most people don’t think about regularly, a nation that some may not even know exists: South Sudan. You may have heard our planet’s newest country mentioned on the news recently – the political strife, the ongoing fighting, the numerous refugees and the resultant widespread hunger and disease.
Born in July 2011 as a result of religious differences between the Arab Muslim north and the African Christian south, South Sudan has enjoyed a relatively peaceful secession. However, internal turmoil over the last few months between officers loyal to President Salva Kiir and disgruntled soldiers backing his ex-deputy Riek Machar has pushed the country into full civil war. Since December 2013, the escalation of armed conflict in South Sudan has resulted in the death of hundreds and the displacement of hundreds of thousands, bringing the country to the forefront of global news broadcasts.
At Stop Hunger Now, our volunteers package meals that are primarily used in school feeding programs. Over the past few years however, we’ve been diligently working on a special project to fit the uniqueness of South Sudan. In November 2011, Stop Hunger Now founder Ray Buchanan took a trip to the modest village of Old Fangak to assess the situation. The village used to be a main trading hub but after multiple floodings and rampant war, the economy — and the town with it — has withered. Residents find shelter in small mud huts and rarely receive access to any level of education.
After working in South Sudan for over 25 years, Dr. Jill Seaman, an American doctor from Idaho, took the role of the village’s resident physician. Although the town only has 1,000 residents, travelers come from all over the countryside to visit Jill’s clinic. Unfortunately, as Dr. Seaman states,
“There are times when I have been completely scared, when our village was attacked and burned to the ground and we were just lying on the ground there…I was completely panicked. But that isn’t the worst thing that’s happens. The worst thing that happens overseas is rationing care. And you ration care on a daily basis.”
In addition to directing the Primary Health Care Center, Dr. Seaman’s project includes a TB center, leprosy care, emergency obstetric and trauma care and manages referrals and transport to enable patients to access higher levels of care, even in neighboring countries. The clinic in Old Fangak is a vital hub amidst a crumbling health system after decades of war.
The educational system in South Sudan is in similar disarray. Dr. Buchanan observed teachers and students with virtually no books, no buildings, and no equipment operating under the trees. Very few teachers received a salary and most had not even completed a high school program. Girls were noticeably under-represented and there were no female teachers. Clearly there was a need for supporting education as well as the development of women — both necessities for sustainably pushing developing nations forward.
In my personal time outside of Stop Hunger Now, I regularly volunteer with RESULTS – an organization devoted to “long-term solutions to poverty by supporting programs that address its root causes”. This month, my local chapter researched various member countries of the Global Partnership for Education. Because of my ties with Stop Hunger Now’s Old Fangak project and heart for the people there, I chose to dig deeper into South Sudan.
These are the astonishing take-aways from my research:
- The level of school enrollment in South Sudan is the second lowest in the world, after Afghanistan, at 42.9% of all school-aged children.
- Only 38.8% of girls are enrolled in primary school – and only 1.9% enrolled in secondary.
- A mere 43% of primary school and 56.6% of secondary school teachers are trained.
- 1 in 3 children in the country are stunted due to malnutrition.
- South Sudan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
- Only 7.4 percent of the population has access to sanitation facilities.
- 51 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
So the questions we have to ask ourselves then are: How can a nation pull themselves out of poverty when over half of the population does not even receive a primary school education? How can young girls avoid child pregnancy, health deficiencies, and cursing their children to the same cycle of poverty if they don’t receive the education necessary to become independent? The simple answer is: they can’t.
As a result of his visit, Dr. Buchanan noted that supporting only one aspect of this fragile community would not affect lasting change. Therefore Stop Hunger Now proposes a holistic approach to alleviate both the immediate suffering and to provide strategic assistance that will have a long-term, sustainable benefits for this village deep in a nation emerging from decades of war. With violence still looming, this all-encompassing approach to spur transformational development will be key to the rebuilding process in South Sudan. But for a fighting chance to survive and be effective, these programs need support.
When Stop Hunger Now picked up the project, the plan was to deliver a fence for the medical clinic, a completed women’s center, a school, teacher training, and an agricultural program to make the village self-sustaining. We have succeeded in a lot of these goals and there are some plans still in progress — but after the recent fighting, our goals have shifted. This tiny village of Old Fangak in which we work has swelled from 1,000 to 10,000 people. Refugees fled from all over the country to a town that they heard was peaceful and home to a renowned medical clinic. Unfortunately, the town is relying on the same amount of resources as they were before to cover 10 times their original population. The town and its people are running out of food and medical resources; they are in need of urgent assistance.
The people of South Sudan are in desperate need, but they continue to allow refugees into their community. These refugees are staying indefinitely until the conflict subsides so we must work together to support and keep them alive. Old Fangak is a haven for these beautiful people, so let’s strengthen it and create a village of educated, healthy people who can lift each other up out of poverty and change the trajectory of their new nation for the better.