South Sudan: On a mission of safe hygiene

Sandra Bulling
The borehole in Uror county South Sudan © CARE/Josh Estey

Nicholas Kweri folds the large banner together, grabs an empty bucket and his gumboots. A quick discussion with his team, and then he leaves the CARE compound in Yuai, Uror county in South Sudan. With large strides he marches through the swamp on the way to his next mission: a hygiene promotion session for people displaced by the conflict.

“When the fighting broke out in December last year, many people fled their homes,” Nicholas explains. “Here in Uror, there are around 70,000 displaced people and some of them come from very far. They live with host families or they set up their own huts. Most of them could not bring any of their possessions, they just ran away frightened.” Cholera outbreaks in several parts of the country where displaced people are sheltered have already claimed more than 70 lives and over 4,000 people are infected.

After a 10 minute walk, Nicholas and his team arrive at a derelict barrack surrounded by nothing but grass and bushes. Half a dozen cattle graze in front of it close to a borehole where several girls fetch water. “This is one of the boreholes CARE drilled here more than a year ago”, Nicholas says while stopping and attaching the large CARE banner which informs people about the upcoming session.

Martha Nyachel and others gather for the CARE hygiene session © CARE / Josh Estey

Martha Nyachel and others gather for the CARE hygiene session

Eleven families live in the shabby barrack, all of them fled their hometown due to the conflict. They come from as far as Malakal, the capital of the neighbouring Upper Nile state. The women, men and children living here come outside to welcome the CARE team. They quietly sit down in a large circle, awaiting Nicholas’ greeting.

“Male!” Nicholas starts with the local salutation. “We are here today to inform you how you can protect yourselves from water and sanitation related diseases. Dirty water makes you and your children sick, they will become malnourished and won’t stay healthy. Dirty water and unsafe hygiene will spread diseases,” he continues. A group of old men with large wood sticks in their hand nod intently.

CARE's Nicholas Kweri with a hygiene information poster © CARE / Josh Estey

CARE's Nicholas Kweri with a hygiene information poster

After listening for about 10 minutes, 46-year-old Yom Deng begs a comment, describing the circumstance the families live under. “We are 11 families here and we have only one latrine and one borehole. We share this house, we share all food. We don’t have soap, we don’t have mats for sleeping. The children sleep on the floor, which becomes muddy when it rains. We don’t have enough jerry cans to transport the water from the borehole, nor do we have sufficient cooking utensils or plates for eating. Some people came with their cattle, so we have a little bit of milk, but not enough for everyone.”

Yom Deng and his cow which is bled to provide food for the community © CARE / Josh Estey

Yom Deng and his cow which is bled to provide food for the community

Yom Deng leads Nicholas’ team down the mud path to a thin white cow, and points to a bloody spot on its neck. “When we don’t have enough food, we drain blood from the cow’s neck, just enough so the cow stays healthy. We cook the blood until it becomes solid and then we cut it into little pieces and share it. Our life is very, very dire right now.” The situation Yom Deng and the other displaced families face is one they share with many across the country: close to 4 million people in South Sudan are at risk of starvation and over 230,000 children are already severely malnourished.

Until now, the women of the group have sat quietly without saying a word. Some had fled as widows, their husbands killed during the fighting. Martha Nyachel, 30 years old is one of the women, who now have to provide for her children on her own.

Martha is three months pregnant. She guides Nicholas into the dark barrack. The light inside is diffused by the dust. A small group of goats are flocked in one corner. A few straw mats lie on the earthen floor, with children dozing anxiously. Hundreds of flies buzz through the hot air. Martha shows her room, which holds nothing but a ragged mat. “I sometimes beg others to give me grains as I have nothing to eat. I have no cattle. If I don’t get any food, my children and I eat fruits and leaves. Sometimes we eat once a day, sometimes not at all.”

The conflict left Martha traumatised and hurt. “A soldier rammed his knife into my face. It still hurts. It took us 10 days to walk here all the way from Malakal. We were hiding in the grass. We were so scared that we did not dare to come out and only walked when no one could see us.” Unfortunately, this is not the only form of violence women like Martha can experience. “Women are responsible for fetching water. Often, they face harassment or assaults, because men know that they will gather at the borehole,” Nicholas explains. He therefore talks to the men to explain this dangerous situation, encouraging them to help protect the women living in this barrack.

Meanwhile outside, the CARE team finishes the information discussion. They inform people that they can also use ash if they have no soap. “Ash has enough minerals that kill the germs,” Nicholas’s colleague tells the group. “In the coming days, CARE will distribute hygiene kits, including soap and female sanitary supplies,” he adds.

Martha washing her hands © CARE / Josh Estey

Martha washing her hands

Martha Nyachel shows a smile. “We are very glad that CARE came today and listened to us. We learned from you, that makes us happy.” And Yom Deng adds: “No other NGO ever came to visit, we never got any assistance. That’s why we are thankful CARE is helping and informing us.”

At last, Nicholas folds the banner again and says his farewell to the group. The team then sets off again through the marshland on its journey through Uror. A journey to promote safe hygiene to those who had to leave everything behind.

Sandra Bulling's picture

Sandra Bulling is Media and Communications Coordinator for CARE International