When the harvest struggles and the lean season arrives, PIN helps South Sudanese with cash for work
“Where have you been?” demanded a voice from atop a dirt mound. It was 28-year old Angelina Abuk Mon, hands fastened on her hips, and lips bright with the color ‘Amiable Smirk.’ “To see my family,” I replied. “I am back now.” She nodded her head.
A small girl sat at Angelina’s feet, dangling her legs over the dirt’s edge. In a quick moment, the child slid down the dirt mound and Angelina was not amused.
“Eh, look what you did!” she jabbed her toe at the site of the misdemeanor. The girl had crumbled a part of the dyke Angelina built that day. No comment from the little one, but she had learned the lesson: one’s labor is one’s source of pride.
This was Gorayen, a village on the east bank of the Lol River, which weaves through Northern Bahr el Ghazal (NBeG) in South Sudan. Here, People in Need (PIN) supports 40 households in Farmer Field Schools and 15 households in Pastoralist Field Schools. The schools are the core of Resilient Agriculture for Improved Nutrition (RAIN), a project implemented by PIN and funded by the European Commission. The program assists 1600 households cultivate nutrition-rich crops, care for their livestock, and improve food security and livelihood conditions across NBeG.
However, once the clouds begin to hint the start of the rainy season in May, farmers pause their gardening and pastoralists bring their livestock back home to graze. The momentary lull signals that it is time for cultivation—planting king sorghum, and if families have the resources, groundnuts, sesame, maize, or rice.
Households rely on the harvest of these staple crops as the principal source of food for the next year. But history has shown that the single annual harvest is not enough. During such long lean seasons, typically from May to September, PIN provides households selected from those already supported through farming and pastoralist programming with a supplemental activity, Cash for Assets (CfA). This summer, in Gorayen and 15 other villages across NBeG, the picks and spades of 500 households churned the ground building dykes. While the work generated simple assets it also produces a source of income. Households received 40 South Sudanese Pounds (SSP) for each day of work. At the end of the dyke’s completion, each household made 1200 SSP total, at least 90% of which they spent on food.
Women, men, and entire families are hungry for work
For 30 days, the 19 men and 15 women of Gorayen’s CfA group took turns working morning and afternoon shifts. When Angelina and the other women were on their shift, they dotted the work site with their flaming-colored dresses. Everyone is responsible for digging a ditch 2 meters long and 0.3 meters deep, and a dyke 1 meter high each day.
33-year old Peter Piol Deng, who has lived in Gorayen all his life, knows how the waters of the wet season help or hurt. Just enough will get the crops growing, but too much, unfettered, will wash away entire fields, and with it, many meals. This year, he cleared 8 feddans (3.4 hectares) of land to cultivate sorghum and maize.
“Yes, the dyke protects our crops from flooding,” Peter explained. “But not just that. PIN does not teach us how to build dykes. We know how to build dykes. With PIN’s help, we also get money. This we use to buy food and other things to take care of the family, when the situation is bad, like now.”
While Angelina will insist that both men and women possess the same strength to do the work, others like Francis Piol Chan, the chairperson of the Gorayen CfA group, finds that the labor can be intense, so men are better suited.
While Angelina and Francis may politely disagree on whose muscles are capable of accomplishing what, it is undeniable that the division of labor is gendered. Women and men traditionally have their separate domains of work—for example, most PIN-supported farmers are women, while the PIN-supported pastoralists are men. However, in the case of building the dyke, families will collaborate. Husbands will substitute wives, wives will replace husbands, fellow sisters and brothers will step in. Whole households labor over the asset, or they at least stand by and observe.
Women, men, and entire families are hungry for work, however perhaps less so for the community asset, but more so for the other profit: a source of income.
One’s labor is one’s source of living
Cash Transfer programs such as CfA have been critical this year in South Sudan, and particularly across NBeG, a region known for its annual long lean season. This is a time when most households have depleted the food stock from last year’s harvest and resort to coping strategies such as skipping meals, to sending children to beg at the market.
According to the UNHCR and OCHA’s Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report in April 2016, 4.3 million people across South Sudan are food insecure. In NBeG alone, 50% of the population experience food insecurity at the stage of Crisis, Emergency, and Humanitarian Catastrophe.
Larger national and regional forces that a single individual or family possesses no control over further exacerbate widespread hunger. 38-year old Marko Tong Tong, who owns a small agro-shop in nearby Wedwil, explained it quite simply. “Business over the last year has been absolutely terrible,” he said.
The same problems that have hurt Marko’s shop have also hurt communities: first, the record-breaking inflation of the national currency, and second, poor road conditions in NBeG that disrupt trade routes to Sudan, Uganda, and elsewhere in South Sudan.
Since December 2015, the inflation of the SSP has increased more than 200%. 1 malwa of sorghum (1.3 kilograms) that cost 20 SSP in December escalated as high as 270 SSP by July 2016. People from the village of Akochatong reported that they could not buy sorghum even if they had the money, since there was none available for purchase at the nearest market. Low supplies at the market have not only been a problem for local residents like those from Akochatong but also thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled to Aweil West County in June 2016.
The problem of food insecurity is not only a result of local household poverty and national economic crisis, but also the infrastructure of regional transportation networks, which Marko also lamented. The disruption of trade due to cycles of heavy rain turns dirt roads into impassable sludge. This keeps goods from getting to people who need them.
The result of these problems, compounded by the paralyzing symptoms of the long lean season and the political and economic aftershocks of the clashes in the capital city Juba from July 7 to 11, is the destruction of everyday life. In NBeG, the severity is acute, and has driven some families to no other alternative but to seek aid elsewhere. By April 2016, before the full force of the rainy season landed, 54,000 South Sudanese migrated north to Sudan. UNHCR and OCHA estimated another 100,000 would leave this summer. One truck after another went on the main road north, families in exodus. Leaving not because they were escaping organized terrorism, political persecution, or full-scale civil war, but because they were just trying to find work. Because after all, one’s labor is one’s source of living.
Humanitarianism straddling the line between development and relief
A walk along the length of the dyke in Gorayen from where Angelina stood were other women at work. One woman, done for the day, was hunched over a bush of akuor. Its bright green leaves, a wild food commonly foraged, can be separated from its delicate pink and white blossoms, soaked to reduce its bitter taste, boiled until it is softened, pounded into indistinguishable pieces, and then cooked over a low flame until it turns into a dark green paste. If it is available, a generous helping of groundnut paste will make it creamy. It will be paired with a pot of sorghum and fill a hungry belly.
The woman looked up from the bush of akuor and turned to me, “Will you pay me 40 SSP for picking these leaves?” she asked.
The question was meant in jest, but I sensed also frustration. The sad irony here is that her foraging is a productive form of work. It will bring relief to her family more quickly than the dyke, or even having 40 SSP placed in her hand. The reality is that the dyke and the cash are ultimately temporary in nature. In time, dykes will wear down, from weather or absentminded cows and children, and the money will be consumed. CfA is humanitarianism straddling the line between development and relief. This type of strategy is not ideal for building sustainability. But many INGOs in NBeG, including PIN, struggle with South Sudan’s political and economic deterioration and are forced to find strategies that serve both the purpose of long-term capacity building and immediate emergency aid.
The current situation shows that thousands of vulnerable families in South Sudan are in need of assistance that will help them help themselves, and bear results right away that they can see and believe. In these circumstances, the strategy of PIN and other INGOs will be to support the basic everyday needs of the South Sudanese to complement other forms of long-term development programs such as cash for assets activities.
Before I left Gorayen that day, Angelina shouted out.
“Look at my arms!” Up they went. On display were the products of her labors: defined biceps and triceps, toned from days of digging the land that stood between us.
I nodded my head.