A day in the life of humanitarian aid workers in South Sudan and what they miss the most
International Relations graduate Jakub Smutný has just completed his first international mission for People in Need (PiN). He returned from South Sudan where he was coordinating development aid in poor regions in the northwest of the country. Together with his American girlfriend of Cambodian-Vietnamese background Tara Tran they headed the local PiN project Sustainable Agriculture for Better Nutrition which the organisation successfully completed at the end of 2016. How did a boy from Liberec end up in South Sudan and how does he see the time he spent in this restless country? “Despite all the obstacles we faced every now and then it was well worth it”, Jakub says. Tara nods with a smile.
How did you come to work for People in Need?
Jakub: After I completed my studies I did an internship in Nepal through the European Commission and here I first encountered developmental aid work. I realised there and then that this is what I'd like to do in the future. I applied to the People in Need assessment centre and a few months later I flew to South Sudan. In May 2015 I started working as a support officer. After about 3 or 4 months I became project manager. Initially I flew to South Sudan by myself. Later Tara was able to join me as a volunteer. She joined me in January and we worked and lived together 24 hours a day.
Tara: I went to South Sudan not only to be with Jakub but I was also interested in going from a professional perspective. I didn't have any field training during my medical studies so I wanted to combine theory with practice right there in the field. At the time I had little experience with development aid. I met several people from PiN while working in Cambodia several years ago, that was before I met Jakub and before he himself started working there. So when I received an offer from PiN I immediately accepted.
What did your families say to you living in South Sudan?
Jakub: At first my parents were frightened that I was going to a place engulfed by civil war. When I convinced them that I will work in an area where there is no conflict and that they needn't worry, they started to support me. The first weeks were probably difficult for them as they were worried about me. After some time they saw that I was safe and happy so it was all good. I must say, from the outside things look a lot more complicated. Once you're on the ground you'll see that it is not that bad at all.
Tara: My parents weren't initially pleased either but didn't forbid me to go. I had to explain all the details to them ranging from the security situation to my actual job there. Then they wanted to speak to Jakub, who was already there, to make sure he is well.
Were you afraid of anything before leaving for your mission?
Jakub: Before leaving I skyped a lot with people who were there and asked mainly about security issues. I knew South Sudan is an unstable country, but I wanted to give it a chance and see what it is like to work on the ground. So all the challenges that come with the mission I accepted as part of the job.
Were you surprised by anything once you were there?
Jakub: I had to get used to seeing weapons all around me, for example. In the beginning I found that a bit strange. Luckily we didn't experience any gun fighting because PiN in South Sudan work in a relatively calm area. In my opinion, health and hygiene are the biggest challenge to deal with. For example it is difficult to find a qualified local doctor. I was lucky to meet another Czech there who worked for Doctors Without Borders at the time and she helped me on several occasions.
What was your working day in South Sudan like?
Jakub: We lived in a compound near Nyamlell. The movement of foreign nationals is very limited there for security reasons. For example, you cannot leave the compound after 7 pm. And if something dangerous was taking place in the area we couldn't leave even during the day. But we always knew that in advance because security was very good. When I first arrived I lived with a colleague. He then left and I was there by myself for about three months. Sometimes I met with expats from other organisations. Of course sometimes you're lonely and miss home. I would be on skype every single day then.
Tara: When I joined Jakub we were the only two foreigners in the compound. Other staff were locals and lived in town. During the week I regularly met with the women who have joined our project on improving the nutrition and hygiene of the poorest. Together we dealt with nutrition and meal preparation, food security, hygiene, child care and correct breast feeding.
What were your South Sudanese colleagues like to work with?
Jakub: Not everyone spoke English well, so occasionally we had some misunderstandings. I realised there how important communication is. You must always explain what exactly you want in order to avoid problems. On the other hand, it is very interesting to work with people from different cultural backgrounds every day. I learnt a lot from them.
Tara: I must say that it was interesting to find my own limits. Several times I wished I could speak the language of the Dink. I learnt a few words but that is not enough when you are dealing with a problem on the spot.
Jakub: There's a few colleagues that I will really miss.
What did you do in your spare time?
Jakub: You couldn't really travel. So most of the time we rested or skyped with friends and family.
Our neighbouring organisation had a tennis court which one of their staff made, so we also played tennis.
Did you have enough water, electricity and the like?
Tara: We didn't have any problems with water but the electricity supply was not reliable. I must admit that this experience completely changed my view on the amount of electricity we use every day. When I get home and open my fridge I am always so happy that it works and the light is on. Or you can have several appliances switched on at the same time and they all work.
Jakub: I know it's a bit of a cliché, but living is such circumstances you realise how lucky we are to have been born here and how rich in fact we are.
While in South Sudan, did you miss anything particular from home?
Tara: Fresh fruit and vegetables. Access to fresh produce around Nyamlell is very limited. For example the season for water melon is only in September, you can get mango only two months a year and there's no bananas at all. I also missed greenery and flowers. In February and March the temperature in South Sudan soars to over 50 degrees, so nothing is green in the dry season.
Jakub: Yes, mostly it was food. I also missed the freedom to just go out for a walk, meet with friends, go to a restaurant. However, despite the obstacles we had to face occasionally it was all worth it. When I look back at all that we have achieved there I have a good feeling.