Of the hundreds of visits I’ve made in developing countries, one that stands out in my mind is my visit to the southern part of Sudan many years ago when I worked for another NGO.
Sudan was in a civil war for more than 20 years; my visit turned out to be during the war’s first decade. Fighting for its independence from the north, the southern part of the country was in shambles. The economy was at a standstill; the agriculture sector, the engine of economic activity in this lush agricultural area, was not functioning. Farmers were afraid to grow more than they could eat because groups involved in the conflict would raid their villages for any excess food they could find—killing people and raping women in the process.
Keeping people alive was a huge focus of the international aid community, and Operation Lifeline Sudan was established in northern Kenya for just that purpose. Food, medical supplies, educational materials and the like were continually ferried across the border, and many NGOs were active in helping the long-term survival of a people.
Worried about a lost generation of children, I focused on education. Before visiting the country I learned that one obstacle to getting kids into school was they had no clothes to wear – literally. Many imported materials, like cloth, were just not available. Due to the fighting, shop shelves were bare.
But even as an aid worker, I couldn’t get my head around children being completely naked.
I would not have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes. When I arrived in Sudan, not only did I discover bare shelves but shuttered shops. With nothing remaining to sale, shops had ceased to exist. I saw both adults and children wearing sticks and bark for clothes, like you might imagine in the Stone Age or in a Fred Flintstone cartoon.
But it wasn’t funny. Some people did have very old, torn clothes but many children and families, trying desperately to hide in the shadows, could easily be seen wearing their stick clothes. Our programmatic response for this problem, I think, was ingenious. We opened barter shops. Farmers could barter their excess crops for all kinds of material goods we brought in—cloth, bicycles, lanterns, sewing machines, water containers. Farmers were no longer afraid to grow excess food because they could quickly unload it. School uniforms were made, and kids had clothes to wear to school.
Why bring this story up now? Sudan is in the news again. The civil war ended seven years ago and South Sudan became an independent nation in July 2011. But all is not peaceful between Sudan and its newly independent southern neighbor. Some fear outbreaks of fighting will escalate into a new war—this time between two nations. That would be devastating.
ChildFund currently works in two countries—Liberia and Sierra Leone—also trying to recover from decades of fighting. When countries are torn down to their bones, it takes an incredible effort—and many years—to rebuild them.
The children of South Sudan need peace now, or I’m afraid we’re going to see them wearing sticks again.
Courtesy: trust.org/AlertNet/Refugees International