It is the beginning of the dry season and Jonglei is re-emerging from the the mantle of water that has cloaked its surface for six months. Large parts of the state are still flooded, but in some localities the waters are subsiding. Next month we may be able to cross the river and visit the project locations for the first time since May.
Yet this evening it is raining in Yuai. I love the smell before rain. It is the smell of fresh starts and possibilities. There are thunderclouds rolling across the sky and thick forks of lightning dashing themselves against the earth. Raindrops are drumming against the tin roof, fireflies are circling and there are frogs hopping across the floor of my office. Everything is new.
I have arrived at an opportune moment, in the pause before the resumption of activities, evaluations and funding proposals. This is an ideal time to get to know my teammates, to get a good overview of the project and the sectors in which we the work, and to find my feet.
Taking advantage of the comparative calm I am taking things slowly at first, allowing myself the time and space to let it all to sink in. I have had briefings with the project managers and we have identified areas for me to get involved in, from evaluation of the damage done by the flooding through needs assessments and planning for next year, while from Thursday I shall be handling all of the project’s finance functions for a month. There is a lot to learn, things that I have wanted to get involved in for a long time – useful, practical, how-to-run-a-project type things. After an extended period of reading about and reporting on the projects from a distance it is a relief to be in the field at last.
On the other side of the compound, I have unpacked my bags and settled into my room – and contrary to expectations it is in fact a room, albeit one made out of mud and cow dung, rather than the tukuls (mud huts) we had in our previous base. I have done my best to make it feel like home. I have lined the sills in front of the mesh windows with mementoes, and I spent a good chunk of my first weekend carrying out improvised home improvements, plastering the cracks with mud and The Irish Times to keep the locusts out. Inside I have a plastic table and chair, and a bed with a mosquito net. There is an electric light, the primary function of which appears to be to attract a vast array of insects, and a socket which provides intermittent power in the evenings, when the generator is on. It is enough to get my laptop, with its constantly whirring fan, through an episode of Newsroom anyway, for which I am profoundly grateful.
The compound itself isn’t much to look at, maybe twenty five metres by twenty five metres, with one concrete building – the main office, containing the all-important safe room – and a variety of mud constructions and corrugated iron outhouses; all of which is surrounded by a four foot fence of iron sheeting. We have a combination of solar and generator power, while ablutions take the form of long drops and bucket showers.
There is, however, less of a sense of privation than one might expect. While certainly challenging – I found two scorpions in my room last night – overall my new living conditions are rudimentary but not unpleasant: as one recently-departed Jonglei veteran put it, “I feel like I’ve been camping for two years”. No, what is hardest is the mindset shift, the psychological distance. I am acutely aware of how far away I am from everything that’s familiar, and there have been a several moments where I have had to stifle a sense of rising panic. But these are already diminishing in frequency.
While I appreciate that this may not be the case come dry season and the concomitant intertribal tension and cattle raids, for now all seems calm and quiet. The night sky alone makes it all worthwhile. Uncorrupted by light pollution, the sense of infinite space above seems an accurate reflection of both the sense of possibility and the scale of the problems below.
For we are operating in a fragile and volatile environment, at the confluence of a series of recurrent crises that conspire to keep Jonglei in a state of chronic humanitarian need. The situation here is what we call a complex emergency – one borne not out of a sharp, isolated shock, such as an earthquake, coup or tsunami, but a combination of structural vulnerabilities that leave a legacy of conflict, hunger and disease.
Uror County stands at the nexus of three recurring emergencies: flooding, on an annual or biennial basis; drought, which alternates with the flooding; and intertribal conflict, the frequency and severity of which is traditionally exacerbated by drought. Combined with a massive shortfall in governmental basic service provision and an almost total lack of infrastructure, further limiting access to services and markets, and these cyclical crises combine to keep the people of this area in a state of severe under-development and near-perpetual humanitarian need. And as in many parts of the country, the situation is getting worse.
In July Oxfam released a report, Tackling the Food Deficit in the World’s Newest Country, that found that half of South Sudan’s 9.7 million population are facing food insecurity. Despite the scaling up of aid efforts, at the time of publication the situation had already reached emergency (pre-famine) levels in parts of five of South Sudan’s ten states, including Jonglei. Oxfam predicted that the “emergency classification means that people will lose their livelihoods with little chance of recovery; there will be a significant increase in severely acute malnourished children [the most serious level of malnutrition] and mortality rates”.
This analysis is borne out on the ground. WFP (UN World Food Programme) have recently completed an analysis of Uror and the initial findings are far from positive. The floods have had a severe impact on the Food Security outlook in the region, causing a shortfall in the annual harvest and destroying existing stocks. The implications of this are serious: WFP calculate that household food supplies won’t last beyond December. Considering that the hunger period traditionally doesn’t start until February or March, the expectation is that there will be a nutrition crisis next year. We are likely to be in humanitarian mode for some time yet.
Nevertheless, I want to be careful not to overload the negativity or to present a picture of a stereotypical helpless African village. No, while there are problems on the horizon Yuai is a place with a sense of energy and community that really is a pleasure to be a part of. But more of that in the next post. For now it is a privilege to be here, and I only hope our foreknowledge of the coming shortfalls will translate into successful proposals and donor support. As there was in Juba, there is a lot to do – but here it all seems much more tangible. I suspect that the adjustment period may have to come to an end rather soon.