(originally published @ care.org, August 2014)
When I arrived in the South Sudanese capital Juba a few weeks ago, the yelling, pushing, papers, queues and uncertainty were overwhelming, but they were expected. I knew I was flying in to the heart of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. I knew that it would be difficult. But what’s struck me so far is not the difficulties or challenges, but the all-consuming feeling that time is ticking.
Before I departed, many had talked of ‘Africa time’; that time exists differently (well, slower) in this part of the world. If first impressions are anything to go by, large parts of Juba – certainly my CARE colleagues, and others that are working to support the international relief effort here – are running on the sort of time that those working against the clock exist on, where the outcome you’re working to avoid is so devastating that you do everything you can to escape it.
I’m used to fast-paced workplaces, where everyone wants everything an hour ago, where task lists never get shorter and staff are permanently stressed. But not like this. There’s stress, yes, but there’s a sense that any stress is secondary to the critical nature of the work. That every minute, hour and day that goes by is a minute, hour or day lost fighting an extraordinary battle. A battle where well over 10,000 men, women and children have already died, where around 3.5 million people are now facing urgent food shortages. A battle where hunger, malnutrition, physical and mental pain is the norm.
Despite the stress, there’s a unified energy in the CARE office here. United by the fact that this is critical, life-saving work. We’re working extensively across all three of the conflict-hit states, Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei. We’re working inside the UN’s Protection of Civilian camps – home to around 100,000 people across the country. We’re working outside the camps; where one million of those who’ve fled elsewhere – to the bush, to the fields and on the hard dirt floors of distant relatives and complete strangers – still live. And we’re delivering desperately needed food, supplies and medical and psychological support to people who have lived through horrific things and left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
I know many of my CARE colleagues have seen and experienced some awful things. They’re tired, exhausted from the sheer scale of the challenge. Most have been living away from their families for many, many months. Some have even lost loved ones in unspeakably awful attacks. Yet they keep going.
And so any complaints or whinges from me about being overwhelmed; they’re stupid and unreasonable. Because I can eat, and I’m safe. Millions of others around me in South Sudan, who’ve got the same goals in life as I do – a good life, a healthy family – can’t eat, and aren’t safe.
We owe it to them to do something about it.
Conflict broke out in South Sudan in December 2013. Since then, 1.5 million people have fled their homes, leaving everything behind and without being able to plant their crops. The massive displacement, insecurity and conflict could lead to a famine affecting up to 3.9 million people. There are already 675,000 moderately and 235,000 acutely malnourished children in South Sudan who could die without any support.