South Sudan, 1973–75: reconstructing the country in its one short period of peace

... In which the Department of Social Welfare of the new Regional Administration of South Sudan ' in the short period of peace between the First and Second Anyanya Wars builds facilities for young people in four towns — working with diaspora youth who come back to rebuild their country.

South Sudan has been the site of so much civil strife, war, hunger, warring Generals and violence, over so many years, that many people forget that there was a period of peace between one war and another — roughly from 1972 to 1977 - and that many humanitarian and development organisations found the opportunity to be useful and to help, optimistically, to rebuild the country. I was approached by one such organisation to work there.

Almost as soon as the Sudan became independent from British rule in 1955, the South demanded liberation and secession from the North. The fighting that ensued coalesced around the Anyanya rebels in the South, fighting the army of the Sudanese government. It is often called the First Anyanya War and ended in 1972 when the Addis Ababa Agreement established the South Sudanese Autonomous Region, which would run itself through a separate legislative and executive body, with the soldiers of the Anyanya incorporated into the Sudanese Army and Police Force. The peace came about because of, on the one hand, a very costly war for both the Northern Sudanese government and the Southern population, and, on the other, forceful mediation by the All Africa Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches. The peace, on paper, lasted a decade until 1982, but in reality had collapsed by the late Seventies as fighting between both sides increased — to be called the Second Anyanya War.

From 1972 onwards, aid agencies started pouring into South Sudan. Its governance was formed from a difficult mixture of the old British-influenced colonial administration, the Northern Islamic administrative institutions, Muslim commercial and trading institutions with economic control of many aspects of the country, the Anyanya army and its structures of the people who had stayed and fought, and the intellectuals who had left the country during the fighting but now came back again to set up a new government. It took some time for these disparate groups to coalesce around a government structure, and government posts were duly filled, but unfortunately underpinned with the same tribal rivalry between Nuer, Shilluk, Dinka and others that has bedevilled South Sudan ever since.

An aid organisation that now no longer exists, the International Union for Child Welfare (IUCW) in Geneva, was invited by the Sudanese government to assist with reconstruction work in South Sudan, particularly with reference to vagrant children. It recruited two Brits — first Beryl Knotts (a professionally trained social worker with experience in Brazil, Peru and, most recently, Biafra), who then recruited me. We were advisers to the Social Welfare Department to mount a programme to try to resettle and rehabilitate young people affected by the war. The programme would do this by reinvigorating a Department of Social Welfare within the Ministry of Health” of the new Regional Administration of South Sudan, and training the staff of this new Department for its programmes. The IUCW two-year foreign-funded project picked up the initial costs of this, on the understanding that the costs from Year 3 onwards were to be absorbed by the Department.

There was every likelihood that the people of South Sudan, faced with a flood of people from the humanitarian aid trade, many of whom came with a charitable mentality often derived from their church background, would become dependent on handouts and develop a relief mindset. A Sudanese Special Fund was set up to interview incoming aid agencies, and they liked the IUCW plans. We were strongly in favour of working to instil a more independent, selfhelp approach, while appreciating that the new Ministry of Health (and the even newer Department of Social Welfare) had few resources of its own in the short term and would need external help. Our approach was to recruit South Sudanese social workers returning from the diaspora and help the Department to train them. The first task was to design and then apply a survey of their home areas. Based on the results of this, IUCW and the Department of Social Welfare staff went to work to build multipurpose community development centres in the major towns of the South (Juba, Wau, Malakal, Aweil) and to design programmes there for rehabilitating the young people who were their priority. There were very many vagrant children in the towns of the South who had run there for shelter from the civil wars. They found ways of fitting into extended families, clan relations and tribal affiliations — often with great difficulty since everyone was in dire straits and could not easily accommodate extra relations.

Recruiting social workers from the returned diaspora was an amazing experience. Over the 18 years of the civil war, many South Sudanese families had been broken up, and many younger people and their families had escaped into neighbouring countries where they had received education according to the very many different systems and structures of those countries. All were ver)' enthusiastic to come back to live and work in the South, feeling themselves truly South Sudanese, but forming one professional development organisation out of so many strands was complex. We had well-trained and committed people not only from a variety of tribes but also from a variety of academic and social backgrounds and languages - from North Sudan and Arabic, from Ethiopia and Amharic, from Kenya and English/Swahili, from Uganda and many different languages, from DRC Congo and French, and even some returning from the Central African Republic and French. On top of this they all had their own tribal identity and tribal languages. They same from Shilluk, Dinka, Nuer, Anouak, Bari and a variety of smaller tribes, and, further, on top of this was a layer of the inherited colonial religious affiliations — Roman Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian - based on the specific missions that had been in South Sudan earlier.

This variety referred not just to the would-be social workers but also to our counterparts in the government. The main government officials with whom we worked were Anouak (from Ethiopia), Shilluk (who had stayed in the South), Bari (who had also stayed in the South — and a priest) and Nuer (returned from a PhD in Germany), while our Minister was Dinka (and had returned from an extended PhD in the UK). According to the inherited bureaucracy of the colonial service, staff had to have seniority based on their academic qualifications (our returnee from Germany had a PhD but it was in atomic physics); according to the dispensation of the new government, tribal affiliations had to be balanced among the staff; and according to Beryl and myself, we needed people with relevant practical experience and commitment. It was complex, as mentioned above, and a lot was not evident to us but decided within South Sudanese negotiations.

As soon as possible Beryl and I tried to ascertain not only the backgrounds and affiliations of the potential staff but whether they saw their future in the South in terms of peace and social development with young people. Most did, but one person we recruited was of another persuasion. As soon as possible he used his position to collect ivory in the south-west, take it over the border into Congo, swap it for guns and give them to the Anyanya. He never came back to become a social worker. For some people the war continued.

Many, however, were sound and committed to the work. They had personal experience of what so many young people had gone through, great empathy with their situation, a great delight in being back in their own country and being able to contribute to its rehabilitation. They also were happy to have a job and a salary, and were not infected with the corruption that soon became part of the senior levels of government exposed to too much aid money. We were also delighted to find so many competent and temperamentally suited women wanting to join. Nepotism was a much more difficult topic: every South Sudanese seemed to feel it was his duty to try to get advantages for his or her fellow tribesmen and women - not surprising after 17 years of war.

Our first task was to create the infrastructure within which we could work. We decided this would be multipurpose community development centres that could be used for vocational training, different kinds of classes, individual counselling and a variety of group meetings. Neither our budget, nor our inclination, nor local availability suggested hiring building contractors to put these up for us, and so we decided to go the selfhelp route. We bought modular metal frameworks from Nairobi and erected them on sites provided to us by the local municipalities (where such institutions existed) or simply in places that local communities agreed we could use. We put on the corrugated iron roofs, made the blocks, built the external and internal walls, fitted the windows, and plastered everything necessary. The meaning of “we” in this context was an essential element in our approach. The ideas were explained in the local communities whose members were asked to volunteer their labour; the social workers were instructed and trained in basic building techniques; and we recruited a British volunteer builder with experience in Latin America to help supervise construction.

Asking social workers educated in Nairobi and Kampala, for instance, to make concrete blocks, lay them and plaster them was very different from their expectations, but with our example, and with the mentality that we tried to inculcate — that this was what communities had to do for themselves because no one else would do it for them — social workers became successful builders and community organisers and got the collaboration of members of the urban population. Our sites were not in any way settled or traditional communities, but were often made up of displaced people who were desperately trying to find a home for themselves and their families in the new dispensation of peace and the cessation of fighting. As we discovered, it was difficult to do community organising when there is no real community'.

Our social workers, apart from being asked to get involved in tasks that had never appeared in their curricula, were employed, were receiving salaries, and had definite and worthwhile work to do whose purpose they could understand. We were concerned that the flood of aid agencies and relief supplies did not subvert this. South Sudan became flooded with aid agencies’ Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers taking foreigners and fieldworkers all over the place expensively and unsustainably. We wanted to show that this was not the only way to work. We bought our field staff very small motor scooters (we may have overplayed the idea of smallness) with which they could visit the communities where they worked. Only one of these motor scooters was ever stolen (by the same man who collected ivory to exchange for guns), but they generally were not suitable for bush conditions. They were also a bit small for the large women social workers as they skidded round muddy corners, but the important principle to be inculcated was that the social workers were not privileged beyond the aspirations of the people among whom they worked.

The foreign advisers lived by the same standards of low aspirations. We built ourselves, in a very short time, a very comfortable local-type thatched rondavel with electricity, water connections and a flush toilet. This compared favourably with the UN staff, who waited for months before they could start work because they did not have the Western concrete block-built housing the UN demanded for them.

There were many diseases in South Sudan — bad for foreigners, but not good for locals either. Not infrequently our counterparts were stricken with malaria. Although they had more resistance than foreigners had, we often met our co-workers with yellow eyes, high temperatures and a marked lack of energy.

Once our multipurpose centres were set up, we moved on to the activities in them. There was counselling, family tracing, linking children to services that they needed, and liaising with the Ministry of Justice, the Police Force and the Probation Service over delinquent children. There were classes for mothers on nutrition and basic education, and from my side there were attempts to provide children with skills and tools with which they could earn a living. Apart from blacksmiths making frightening spear and arrow heads with especially vicious curls and curves so that they could not be withdrawn from flesh once they entered it and a few woodcarvers making neck rests to keep warriors’ hair off the ground when they slept, there were few artisans in South Sudan, apart from farmers, cattle herders and warriors - and little “modem” production. By the same token there were few shops that stocked any kind of artisanal tools. For young children to be able to construct furniture for sale, they needed saws, hammers, braces and bits and adzes (in the absence of planes), plus tape measures, straight edges and T-squares. I was able to purchase the rudiments of these (e.g. saw blades) from local suppliers, and classes had to start by making their own tools.

It was always a problem to decide on the level of technology we should teach - should we give them modern toolkits and set up ways in which they could save or make money to buy them for themselves? Or should we consciously and intentionally help them to make inexpensive but out-of-date tools so that at least they could start production, leading to an income for themselves?

One aspect of our work in South Sudan where I was ignorant was mental trauma and illness. If I had been working there now, this would have persuaded me of a different approach, and had I appreciated more about this I would have modified my way of working. One of the administrative staff at the Ministry of Health attached to our work was very introverted, frequently incapable because drunk, and often did not come to work at all. When I asked about him, I was told by one of our programme staff that he had experienced terrible horrors during the civil war and that we should not expect anything more of him. This staff member, who was a priest, gave me a powerful talk about what people, including himself, had witnessed, and warned me to remember this background to all the people we worked with. Many of the men in the local communities were ex-Anyanya fighters, sometimes with very vivid bullet wounds and scars, but also mental trauma that could not be seen.

Not surprisingly, life was not very peaceful at this time, although a peace was officially declared between North and South. There was one short outbreak of violence in Juba while I was there, inspired by political disputes over the water of the Nile going through the proposed Jonglei Canal and to Egypt - and one of our official government counterparts was arrested and imprisoned. This resulted in a very heightened state of alert in all the foreign aid agencies, and their people started to make elaborate security precautions preparatory' to possible evacuation. I was dismayed to find from experienced aid workers that protection and evacuation were available only for foreigners — if the shit hit the fan, foreigners would be rescued but not local co-workers. It never came to that, but this made me reflect on the aspects of loyalty and trust we aid workers expected of our coworkers, but which we were not prepared to reciprocate.

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