South Sudan: 'This is the Last Chance We Have': A report from the front lines of famine

Children hunting rodents for food. Mothers boiling coconut skins to eat. Life in famine is a life of desperation.

More than 20 million people face starvation across the Horn of Africa, Nigeria and Yemen. But nowhere is the situation more dire than South Sudan, where the world’s only official famine has taken root.

This emergency is a grave humanitarian crisis — but it also threatens to get worse. Without humanitarian access, an additional 1 million people will be on the brink of starvation in the next three months.

What does famine look like on the ground? What is it like being an aid worker here? How is Mercy Corps helping? Read more in this Q&A with Deepmala Mahla, Mercy Corps’ country director for South Sudan.

Describe the situation on the ground — what do you see when you visit these places?

The on-the-ground situation is deeply saddening. In many areas it’s a very common sight to see burnt or damaged houses or burnt fields. Many of the sources of safe water like boreholes seem to be damaged.

I came here in 2015, and what I see now — the desperation and sadness in the eyes of people and the faces of children — seems to be much deeper. It’s very common to see children who are malnourished or stunted. In many of the areas in South Sudan at the moment the temperature is very high and unfortunately I often see people in the community without shoes or proper clothes.

Because Mercy Corps has a very strong relationship with the community — in many places we live with them — it’s common for us to enter the houses. What’s in the kitchen and on the stove is heartbreaking. Last week, after what I saw in someone’s house I almost had tears in my eyes. It was a small pot, and they were cooking coconut skin, salt, and water. That is all they had to eat.

Most of the field sites we can only reach by plane. You fly for a couple hours and you look out the window and you don’t see any roads at all.

How is Mercy Corps responding to this crisis?

Mercy Corps is in the front and center of the response to save lives. We are working very hard to provide immediate response through providing access to safe water. This happens by drilling boreholes, purifying and testing water, or teaching communities to purify their water. We’re working on sanitation, which means cleaning and construction and desludging of latrines. We also make shower panels where women can take a bath in privacy.

We work a lot on hygiene promotion, which means hygiene clubs where children or women come and learn the importance of simple things that can be life changing — especially when the rainy season is approaching now and we're getting more and more worried.

I take great pride in saying most of our work is in areas with the highest needs in the most inaccessible parts of the country.

We also bring education to people, especially the most vulnerable, through temporary learning sites in schools that have been damaged. We train teachers and engage the communities. We work with families to encourage families to send their children to school, especially girls, and not take them out.

A very important part of our work is related to helping rebuild people’s lives through linking them to livelihoods, especially in Unity State, which is affected by famine. We are distributing seeds — crop seeds and vegetable seeds. The crop seeds take several months, but the vegetables can be grown in 3-4 months, so people get food faster.

We're distributing fishing kits and helping farmers increase their yields and produce by teaching them simple methods and techniques. We work with groups of women and children and also help communities do small businesses like set up a tea shop or a restaurant. In all of our work, whether education or livelihoods or hygiene, we integrate protection of children and women. All our volunteers and staff are trained to see the signs of trauma and refer them to other agencies.

When the needs are so immediate, how do people respond to interventions that are more long-term?

The situation is desperate. In one village, our team went there and were talking to the community and assessing the highest needs, and it was very difficult to talk to women about anything other than food. You talk about water or sanitation, but they would say, “We have not eaten for three days.”

The communities are firstly most interested in something immediate. The seeds, tools, and fishing equipment they love and they feel very, very happy. The most satisfying sentence I’ve heard is, “Mercy Corps, you are living up to your name. You are bringing mercy.”

They love the seeds and tools, but the challenge we face is many times they are often not able to keep the seeds for the next farming season because they eat all the food straight away.

When it comes to education, many communities take interest only when they feel relative security. They always say, “I will send my child when I think I can send my child alone to the school and let him be away for a couple of hours.”

With water, the communities really engage with us and help us maintain the boreholes. But the thing they want to discuss is food. I remember at one of the locations a farmer told me, “My dear, no farmer in the whole world will sow until he is sure he will be alive to reap.”

What is the most moving or heartbreaking thing that you've seen?

The southern part of Unity State is very big swampland, apparently the largest in Africa, called the Sudd. People live on small islands in these swamps.

Sometimes we see women — many times they are old — with children on their backs, and they are in knee- or chest-high water, but they have to go to the distribution site to get assistance. Sometimes when they are coming back they have their baby on their shoulder and the bag on their head.

My team describes that it’s common to see children searching for leaves or water lilies to eat. In some areas children are being sent to hunt rodents to eat as there is not much of anything left. But on the positive side, this is mango season, and there are lush green mango trees with ripe yellow mangoes. I shudder to think when the mango season will be over, what’s going to happen.

What do you want the world to know that is not being shown in the media?

There are not four famines in Africa. There is only one in the entire world, and it’s in South Sudan. And that’s after six years in the entire world.

South Sudan is a country that has been gifted abundantly by nature. The soil is very fertile here. The Nile runs across the country. The majority of the population is young and full of energy. There are bees and mangoes. Mango marmalade from South Sudan could very well be in a supermarket in Portland, if only there was peace.

So let’s not give up. South Sudan has immense possibilities. I have recently heard this narrative that famine is leading to conflict — but it’s the other way. Conflict leads to famine.

Get the quick facts about famine ▸

What are the greatest challenges of being a humanitarian aid worker in this context?

The biggest challenge and frustration — and my greatest hope — is just one thing: humanitarian access. What we need is absolute, swift, unimpeded access. Because I think this is the last chance we have. We have a very narrow window, because the situation is going to worsen in the coming months. If nothing happens by July, 1 million people will be on the brink of starvation.

Humanitarian access is our biggest challenge. With logistics, there are no roads, and half the parts of the country we can’t access because of the rainy season. Most places we access by airplane, and when the rainy season happens the dirt airstrips are so wet the plane cannot land. We work in many locations where only a small helicopter can land.

Some things are beyond frustrating to me, like constructing latrines and schools. Because conflict has been on for a while, the markets are dysfunctional or disrupted. The cost of doing business in this country is expensive. There is also a great risk to aid workers. South Sudan is the most dangerous country in the world for aid workers. Many have been attacked, and humanitarian facilities have been looted. That really affects the morale of team members.

What is the mood among your team members?

I can say without a shadow of doubt, that Mercy Corps South Sudan is an incredibly brave team. The only word that comes to mind to describe my team is heroism. Sheer heroism. There are times for security reasons I would advise my team not to take a certain trip to certain location, and they argue with me: “The community is waiting for me, I promised soap, there is risk of cholera, we have to go.” The amount of risk they are willing to take to save lives and help people is so encouraging. It can really make me hugely emotional.

There are moments the team feels frustrated. Last month, six aid workers were killed. That was the day I saw tears in the eyes of my team members. Killing aid members is a huge blow. It doesn’t matter which organization you work for, an aid worker is an aid worker — and a dead aid worker cannot help.

Most of my staff is South Sudanese, and when the situation gets worse they resolve stronger to help their people. My team talks all the time about the Mercy Corps value that we care deeply. The staff members are citizens of this country — they are affected by the brunt of the economic crisis and hyperinflation. Most of them have personal stories of how their family or relatives have been killed, attacked, or are missing. Many have set up their families in Uganda or neighboring countries for safety or security. I am incredibly humbled.

How you can help

There is enough food to feed everyone in South Sudan and around the world. But we need your help. Here's how you can get involved:

Donate today. Every single contribution helps us meet urgent food needs and help families around the world build a stronger, healthier future.

Sign the petition. Tell Congress not to cut international aid. Around the world, people are in need of lifesaving assistance — including those affected by famine. We must continue to support them.

Tell Congress not to cut international aid. Around the world, people are in need of lifesaving assistance — including those affected by famine. We must continue to support them.

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