By Tim Bierley –
Things can change quickly.
January in Akobo and searing heat has scorched the earth almost to dust. Surrounding the town, the dry husks of bushes rustle in the breeze and naked trees dig their claws in, braced for another four months of sun. The market is bustling though. Shop keepers poke at sizzling fried fish and dole out scoops of lentils. The whole town is dotted with neem trees, different bits of which are used for teeth cleaning, treating malaria or even as pesticides. They’re the last plants still holding on to their leaves, although with some of them practically uprooted, it looks like they’re crawling, parched, towards the Pibor River, which flows by Akobo’s side.
From a trading boat moored against the sloping river bank, porters with the World Food Programme (WFP) unload large bags of sorghum, rice, oil and beans. They’re just back from Gambella market, over the border in Ethiopia. There’s a food distribution happening today, and Oxfam, supported by WFP, will give out most of these sacks soon after. After decades of war and neglect in South Sudan, people across the country rely on distributions like this one.
The distributions aren’t all that is keeping people going though.
Among the many 25kg hessian sacks heading to the market atop women’s heads is flour, and Mary, leader of the town’s widows association will be stocking up later. With Oxfam’s support, the association that she is part of has just set up a bakery, from which they’re supplying bread to the town.
“Now people are going home less hungry,” she says.
Oxfam has also helped another women’s group to build a bread oven on the other side of the market, so there’s some friendly competition between the two. They’re both selling out though.
Both groups are going back to school too, catching up on an education denied to them by war. Literacy lessons are paying off already and Rebecca, a shop-keeper who had previously never been able to read a word, has just landed a job after making out the word ‘trader’ on an advert posted in town. Numeracy lessons are running alongside business training, and Mary is optimistic that the bakers will soon be running the business by themselves, and at a profit.
The women plan to team up with a group of vegetable growers – also working on an Oxfam project – to establish a restaurant from which to sell their produce.
Just around the corner from the widow’s bread oven, young men and women have set up a new hair salon, cutting, braiding and styling hair – mainly for weddings. Judging by the amount of celebratory gunfire blistering the sky each night, they’ll do good business.
Thousands of people are experiencing hunger, even now just a couple of months after the year’s main harvest; but people are optimistic. “Come back again in a few months,” says Mary. “You will see even more change: carpentry, a restaurant, more!”
August – eight months later and more than 20,000 people have sought refuge here after fighting ripped through the area in April. It should be planting season now – the spindly trees of January are covered in green leaves and the earth is now a wet, rich brown – but when the booms of artillery thundered across the land, many farmers fled. Those who stayed were too afraid to go to their farms. “You don’t go more than five minutes from your children if you think you might have to run,” said one. The delay in planting means this year’s main harvest will be poor, yet there are now 20,000 more mouths to feed.
Normal life was on hold for months but things are slowly changing. Like most of South Sudan, Akobo is in the middle of its seasonal rains, which usually mean a lull in fighting as roads clog up with mud and become impassable. In back gardens, maize crops sway in the wind and the traders’ boats are in town again; more food is arriving.
The seasons can’t renew all life though, no matter how resilient the people in Akobo are; and with a poor harvest expected in October it is not difficult to see a long, hard lean season ahead.
Akobo has the potential to thrive and grow, but just like every other place in South Sudan, it desperately needs lasting peace for that to happen.