Home Grown – Returning Refugees Build Communities in Southern Sudan

How do you return home to a place you don’t remember? How do you feed your family, when the only agricultural know-how exists in the memories of a few elders? How do you rebuild a life when the future seems so uncertain?

These questions are some of the challenges facing the southern Sudanese refugees who are returning from camps in Uganda, Kenya and Khartoum. For many of these people, though, “returning” may feel more like being twice displaced. Bused in from camps – where they at least had meager food rations, a steady supply of water and limited access to health care and education – returning families were transported back to southern Sudan with three months of food rations and a few tools and kitchen utensils. People were forced to build entire communities from scratch, with little except their own energy and labor, and whatever possessions they had managed to acquire in their lives as refugees.

One such community is Panyakwor, a part of the southern town of Torit, about 80 miles southeast of Juba. In under a year, with the return of refugees and internally displaced people, the population of Panyakwor swelled from a few hundred to 20,000. People started building wherever the buses set them down, organizing neighborhoods of rudimentary shelters and setting up schools in the shade of trees. Now there is a building for the school, and the government has opened up a small health post, but significant challenges still remain. Among these is the food supply.

In refugee camps, rations were provided by camp authorities or organizations operating in the area. Crowded conditions made agriculture and livestock-rearing impractical. As a result, after years or even decades of living in the camps, the only working knowledge of farming existed in the memories of the elderly. New to agriculture, the people in Panyakwor needed training to make farming a sustainable source of food.

In support of these efforts, Episcopal Relief & Development has been partnering with the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) and its relief and development arm, SUDRA (the Sudanese Development and Relief Agency), in operating a model farm on 10 hectares of a proposed 100-hectare farm in Panyakwor. There, local farmers are receiving basic training in planting, weeding and mulching. Two side-by-side plots demonstrate how crops grow when the seeds are planted in rows, ensuring optimal water and light for each plant, compared to the traditional practice of just scattering seed. The farm hired 30 people to prepare the land and receive training, but then the 30 laborers in turn hired family members and neighbors to help with the task. In the end, the original 30 shared their wages with those who had helped, and everyone received training that would help them in their own family gardens.

“Moving back to Panyakwor meant starting over, without even a basic safety net,” said Janette O’Neill, Program Officer for Episcopal Relief & Development. “The farm operated by the Church has been a lifeline. The progress [here in Panyakwor] is a testament to the resilience of the Sudanese.”

On January 9, 2011, southern Sudan will participate in a referendum that will conclude the five-year Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which was signed in 2005 after nearly five decades of civil war. It is widely expected to result in the creation of a new, independent nation in southern Sudan. Sudan, the largest of the African states, is bordered by nine other countries and sits at the intersection between Africa and the Arab Middle East. Because of Sudan’s demographics and unique geographical placement, the outcome of the referendum and the aftermath of the vote could have wide regional implications.

O’Neill offered further reflections about current events in Sudan:

Sitting around the fire in the evening the conversation was all about the referendum and the future of the new Sudan – there is only one topic of conversation these days! Of course there are concerns and fervent prayers for peace, but there is a sense of optimism and a sense that the government of the new country will help bring them adequate health and education. They know the future will be tough. But when you look forward from a fireside in a community that has been home to your family for decades, then they know they have really become stakeholders in the future. As I listened to the conversation my eyes were fixed on the children playing around us – fixing a kite, chasing a hoop with sticks. Despite all the changes in their short lives, they play the same universal games of children everywhere. The future they deserve is the future we all want for our children, security, basic needs met and education that will give them choices in life.