Caroline Njoki is a Kenyan National working for Save the Children USA in South Sudan as a Regional Administrative and Finance Officer. Caroline is based in Pagak in Upper Nile Region and has been there since February 2005. She shares some of her experiences while in Sudan with the African Executive.
Q. Tell us about Save the Children?
A. Save the Children is the leading independent organization creating real and lasting change for children in need in the United States and around the world. It is a member of the International Save the Children Alliance, comprising 27 national Save the Children organizations working in more than 100 countries to ensure the well-being of children.
Q. What is your goal in Sudan?
A. Our goal as Save the Children US, South Sudan, is to improve health status of Southern Sudanese children, women and their families through increased utilization of primary health care services and adoption of key protective health practices.
Q. Are you located in other African Countries?
A. Yes. We are in Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Mali, Niger and Zimbabwe. We are also present in Asia, Central America, South Asia (currently battling with the Pakistan earthquake) and US Gulf coast.
Q. Compare Sudan and Kenya. What differences do you notice?
A. The 21 years of civil conflict in Sudan left lots of devastation especially in the South. There’s no infrastructure. The few tarmacked roads are no more. Stone Buildings were bombed and flattened to the ground and the vast majority of people now live in mud grass thatched houses. The majority of the people are not educated. Everyone, the children too was virtually a soldier during the war. Guns (AK 47) are still a common sight everywhere. Majority of the educated Sudanese escaped to other countries during the war along with their families, and are now trickling back after the peace declaration.
The weather in Sudan is rather harsh. The temperatures soar to 45 degrees and can get as low as 24 degrees. We experience a lot of dust storms which depending on the intensity blow away the grass thatch on our tukuls (huts) and flatten the grass fencing which the majority of the residents prefer to use. The one rainy season between May and September is also tricky. Our region has this black cotton soil, which is very sticky once soaked. This slows down our implementation activities as the vehicles cannot move and the planes cannot land since the airstrips are simply made (not corrugated). Hence, majority of the movement is now down on foot, unlike in Kenya where one will simply use the public transport vehicles to get to their destination.
Snakes, scorpions, mosquitoes and the black flies are rife in Sudan. These are especially a nuisance in the night. Since there’s no electricity one has to be careful about where they step. Majority of the times we prefer to put on mud boots in the evenings (even when it’s not raining) to avoid stepping on the snakes/scorpions.
The differences between Kenya and Sudan are too many, from the social services infrastructure, the culture (they are largely polygamous and after a woman conceives, the husband leaves her till she’s given birth and fully suckled the baby for approximately two years. In the meantime, the husband will have married another wife and the cycle continues) down to the physical composition of the people. The Sudanese are very tall, black and lean as opposed to the Kenyans.
Q. Any communication barrier?
A. Yes. Communication has been a problem since the majority cannot converse in English. However, there are a few with stilted English, mainly those who were refugees in Ethiopia, and are now coming back to their homes (we mainly encounter these since we are at the Ethiopia/Sudan border). We’ve been forced to learn some basic Arabic and Nuer/Dinka language to ease our communication. In return, we are also teaching them basic English and Swahili, especially our local staff.
Q. Were you affected in any way by Garang’s death?
A. It was a very tense period following his death announcement. All of a sudden it became unnaturally quiet as the Sudanese came to grips with the reality. We were ready for any eventualities as no one was sure of how they would react. All planes were banned from flying into South Sudan and all movement out of our camps cancelled. It was a wait and see scenario. Unfortunately, some major towns such as Khartoum and Juba suffered the brunt of his death as the Arabs present in these towns fought with the Southerners. Eventually, it all calmed down and operations went back to normal.
Q. What is the security like in South Sudan?
A. Since the signing of the cease-fire, security has been stable though landmines and Unexploded Ordinance (UXO’s) remain a security concern. Vehicles are fitted with protective blankets to minimize the risk of landmines and UXO’s. One is advised not to venture off beaten tracks for fear of stepping on a landmine. However, some regions continue to experience periodic security problems due to inter clan clashes. Other security issues include the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants and lack of strong law enforcement system. However, appropriate measures to ensure staff safety and security such as developing and training all staff on security and evacuation protocols are in place.
Q. Are there investors coming up in South Sudan?
A. Yes. In my region, a lot of Ethiopian investors are coming in though the roads are in a bad condition and keep hampering their progress.
Q. What impact does it have on development?
A. This has created job opportunities for quite a number of youthful Sudanese, as a trade route has been opened up between Pagak and an Ethiopian town called Gambella. NGO’s in Upper Nile now find it easier and cheaper to do their procurements from Ethiopia and transport the cargo by road as opposed to airlifting the same from Lokichoggio Kenya.
Q. Are there any set rules on the investors?
A. There are no set rules. The local authorities in the specific town or region set down their own rules, which differ from one place to another.
Q. What was the impact of the new vice president on the people of Southern Sudan?
A. He was accepted without much furore. I suppose after all the bloodshed, refugee status and internal displacements, the Sudanese will not want to go through that again.
Q. What challenges do you face?
A. There’s not much of social life here mostly because security is a focal concern and there are no social places to unwind in after work hours. You are lucky if there is a myriad of other NGO’s around you, as you can organize fun/sporting activities over the weekend/after work.
The rains here are also a challenge, as the whole place becomes one soggy mess with the mud and mud boots behaving like a magnet and iron fillings. Movement (even the slightest) is a nightmare as we end up carrying tons and tons of mud.
Q. What’s the future of Sudan?
A. Despite the signing of the peace agreement, the Southerners still want their own country (New Sudan) separate from the North. There is a lot of development potential for the country which the NGO’s (International/Local) and other countries especially Kenya and the USA are backing. With the new regulation from the new Sudan Government requiring that all NGO’s with operations or implementing programs in South Sudan and based in Nairobi move to the interim capital Rumbek or to Juba within the next two years, the development process in the South will speed up. Kenya Commercial Bank is also opening a branch in Rumbek, which is a big step forward with the investors coming in.