As the crisis in South Sudan deepens, the team visited the home of a family in the Pibor region who are nearing starvation. They say no other food is available to them other than wild fruit. The situation is heart-breaking – it takes three hours each way to walk to find the fruit-bearing trees, and they end up using calories they can ill afford to expend to find them. The family shows us a dish containing a few handfuls of the orange fruit, which is meant to sustain the family. The children’s mother, Thotoloch Aluthang, explains that she then resorts to cooking the pips into a pulp, so that they can squeeze out the remaining sustenance from them. They are brushing the edges of severe deprivation
Thotoloch had that day visited a JAM-supported malnutrition clinic near to Pibor and had received a take-home ration of Plumpy Nut for her youngest child, Lazach, who is a girl, aged two. She is one of the 250 000 malnourished children in the country – acute malnutrition remains a major public health emergency in South Sudan.
The team had wanted to follow up on a mother whom JAM had interviewed in a previous visit, but she, like thousands of others, had moved, no doubt in search of food. “This is what makes follow ups so difficult here, as people are on the move,” explains Evelyn Ambrose, JAM’s nutrition officer based in Pibor.
To visit Thoto’s hut, our vehicle had to cross the river near to their home, though it had been reduced to a tiny, muddy puddle. Another striking feature of the South Sudan landscape is that it is so relentlessly flat and dry. “You won’t find a rock from here to Sudan,” remarked a humanitarian worker during our stay. It was this parched and desolate landscape that scrolled past the vehicle’s window as we travelled along the rutted track.
We speak to Thoto in the shade of her hut, with her children flanked alongside her. The hut’s interior smelled of clay mixed with something slightly sweet and acidic, probably the smell of the fruit she shows us. The family’s belongings hung neatly from the struts that make up the ceiling of the grass roof. A few drops of water spill from the suspended plastic container – it was murky and did not smell good. The hut was tidy and swept, immaculate in its poverty.
Thoto says she was born in Atet, which is east of Bor. She did not go to school and does not know anyone who did. Questions about schooling seem to bewilder some in these deeply rural communities as schooling has yet to make its mark here and in many parts of rural South Sudan.
She does remember a better life – when she was growing up, she says her family grew and was sustained by maize. She says that they didn’t have any cattle, which might translate to being very poor. Hardship seems to be the only reason people move in her case her family moved because they felt “too much hunger” and arrived here, where there was thought to be more food. Thoto says she is 35 and she now has four children of her own, aged eight, four, three and Lazach. She says that her other children have not been in a malnutrition programme. With at least some therapeutic food to sustain her, Lazach now seems in a better position than her family. Thoto says she is very pleased about having received the food.
Not only is food scare – there is hardly any water. To access it – Thoto walks for an hour each way to the river, and she does this twice a day. The family is aware that the water is dirty and that is it hardly contributing to their health, but they have no choice but to drink it. In better times, they used chlorine to purify the water, which was given to them by an NGO or they buy it. When questioned about how they found the money for chlorine, they said that they used to sell water at the market, and used the proceeds to buy chlorine. We found a few torn chlorine sachets in the yard.
The children’s father came home after visiting another family in a neighbouring village, where he had stayed for a few days. When Lazach spotted her father in the doorway, she gurgled and panted with delight. The family might be facing a lean season, but their affection for one another is moving.