Hope amid chaos in South Sudan
Our head of programmes, Emma, visits our school feeding programme in South Sudan – where war and famine are driving families from their homes.
I last visited South Sudan in 2013. It was relatively peaceful then, as I arrived a few weeks before conflict broke out at Juba Airport. Now, passing through the country’s capital on the way to our school feeding programme, I see that everything is in full emergency mode – there are helicopters and lots of other aid organisations at work.
Here in Rumbek, the hot dusty centre of South Sudan, children learn in makeshift classrooms beneath the trees. It is home to 16,000 children enrolled in our school feeding programme.
Many of the children have arrived here from more dangerous and desperate parts of the country. Mary’s Meals has seen enrolment increase greatly in the schools where we feed, as internally displaced families flee their homes, mainly due to conflict. Now with famine declared in nearby Unity state, we are seeing many more arrive.
It’s hard to imagine a situation far worse than what I’m witnessing. The children are mostly quiet, other than crying and persistent coughing; lots of them are sick and distressed from hunger. I have visited many of Mary’s Meals’ school feeding programmes in other countries, where there is always a great need for nourishment – but I haven’t seen malnutrition like this.
Even mealtimes – which in other countries spark a burst of energy in the children, seeing them playfully teasing, jumping around and pulling silly faces are a peaceful, concentrated time here in Rumbek.
It’s an incredibly hostile environment and feels completely isolated. In this desperate situation, it’s obvious that it’s hard for children to participate in education. I worry about the huge numbers of children that must be dying here. You can see the need all around.
In a war-torn country without food, how do you attract children into school? The team we work with in South Sudan – our partner, the Diocese of Rumbek – are absolute heroes. It’s not easy or safe to travel and deliver food at the moment. You, our supporters, and those working on the ground, are the reason it all works.
The people in South Sudan have a huge appreciation for Mary’s Meals. Last year, when conflict on delivery routes and an impassable bridge meant we couldn’t deliver our food by road, we quickly took the decision to fly the food in by plane. The schools and teachers were so delighted that we could get the food there for the start of the school term. They know Mary’s Meals’ is a low-cost charity, so that decision would not be taken lightly. I think they felt a lot of solidarity in that moment.
I’m struck by how amazing it is that we’re able to still reach these children amid the chaos. It is working; the food gets here, it’s kept safe, it’s prepared every day by wonderful volunteers… and the children are coming to eat it. That gives me hope.