Sabitha’s Lebelek is a widow and mother to five children. The decades of war in South Sudan, and the brutal violence of 2013 and 2016, after the nation achieved its independence, have created thousands of widows and orphans. Her story is typical of so many who have lost their husbands. Her husband was a soldier, killed during the conflict of 2016.
Being left alone to survive and bring up children on your own in a developed country is difficult. Doing this in what is now one of the harshest environments on earth, such as South Sudan, is near to impossible. “When my husband was alive, we survived on his salary and we were able buy food,” she says. “But now I am alone and I have no food at all.”
She and her children are entirely vulnerable, on the brink of starvation and rely almost entirely on humanitarian aid. Not only can she not feed her children – Sabitha cannot feed herself – she is skin and bone and visibly malnourished herself.
Sabitha says she was born in Gumuruk and came to live in Pibor. She explains that her family tended cattle and used the livestock as money as is the culture of the pastoralists here, and has been for generations. Life has not been easy for her and hunger has always shadowed the family. When she was growing up, she says that they ate wild fruit and drank milk of the cattle. “We were always hungry. There was not enough food for us.”
When her husband was injured he received medical treatment in Juba. She travelled to the capital to visit him. Sabitha is now more widely travelled than other villagers, many of whom only ever travel within a few hours walking distance from their places of birth. When he died of his injuries, Sabitha returned to Pibor.
Her struggle is not confined to having enough food to stay alive. Collecting water is difficult and time-consuming. Sabitha says it takes an hour to walk to the river. She walks to the water source in the morning, at noon and in the evening. If people such as Sabitha in poor communities hours looking for water, there is no time for anything else, such as caring for the children and cultivating the land. Her life is suspended in time and simply cannot progress. To add to this, the water she collects is dirty and is sometimes contaminated, she has no choice but to use it. “Sometimes, the water makes my children sick,” she says.
The question about food is a difficult one. “We have no food at home. We go and look for wild fruit. If we do not find anything, we rely on humanitarian aid. There is nothing else for us,” she says.
Sabitha had that day brought her youngest child to the Pibor malnutrition clinic and the child qualified to go into the programme. Sabitha was given a take-home ration of Plumpy’Nut for one child. She was also trained on washing her hands and washing the child’s hands and face before eating. The sachet of paste also has to be folded over after use to prevent flies entering the foil packaging and contaminating it.
Her expression is one of quiet resignation. She knows that her child could have died. Perhaps she knows the whole family could die. Many thousands of others in her position also face breath-taking social, economic and emotional hardship. Help JAM to spread its reach in South Sudan and help us to continue to help those like Sabitha.