The Lowana family were following a well trodden route; only they had left it too late. Hunger was forcing them to leave their village to seek asylum in the closest neighboring country, having hung on for as long as they could. In the end, they only left after they had buried their first born child.
For over a year, other families in the drought-impacted regions of South Sudan had been leaving. Selling their remaining cattle and walking off their farms, leaving behind their villages, their children’s schools, even other family members, and making their way, any way they could, to the nearest border. For the Lowanas, that meant a 300 mile trek to the border town of Nimule, the crossing point into Uganda. The trip would take them one day of footing — as they call the long days spent walking here — two bus rides, and two, maybe three, nights sleeping outdoors. When they reached the border the plan was simply to walk into Uganda, ask directions to the refugee processing center, and plead for help.
In mid-June of this year the family set off from the village with all their remaining belongings inside a small black backpack that their father Kompeo carried. The bag was about the size of those under which a high-school student in a developed nation might struggle, hunched over turtle-like shuffling between classes, frequently complaining about the weight. Only theirs is half full, and a large part of it is taken up with an empty blue plastic water jug. Their mother, Regina, carried on her head a tightly rolled grass mat that would be family bed and, snuggly wrapped to her back, the family’ youngest member, the six-month old Anetta. The five-year old daughter Election carried a plastic bottle of water, often mimicking her mother’s carrying position, and their three-year old son Angelo walked with nothing. He had no shoes or pants for that matter either.
When Kompeo and Regina finally decided to leave their village, Kompeo’s had raised the necessary money by making reed brushes that he sold in a nearby market town. ‘Nearby,’ I learned latter, turned out to be a commute of four hours of footing each way. Many had gone before him, so it wasn’t hard to research the best routes, find out the going prices for transport, and even locate a family member near the border who would help them slip into Uganda.
They left as soon as Kompeo had accumulated exactly as much as he had heard they would need for transport. As they had no buffer, and some uncertainties about their exact route, they were prepared for a day or two without food on their trip. Over the last two years the family had grown accustomed to going without meals; no body is ever comfortable with it, but many here are resigned to the reality of it.
At the beginning of July, South Sudan would be trying to celebrate its 5th birthday but, given the rapidly deterioration of the economic conditions, all official celebrations had already been cancelled. In 2010, the country gained its independence after enduring Africa’s longest running civil war, which won the people the right to vote for their succession from the Republic of Sudan. The following year, Kompeo and Regina proudly voted, as evidenced in the name of the daughter born in that year. In their first and only experience of going to the ballet box they joined the 98.83% of the country who voted in favor of independence.
Since then, the weather gods have not been kind to the young nation. It hasn’t helped that conflict re-erupted before the young nation could turn three. Rural inhabitants were hit the hardest as cattle raiding is one of the main manifestations of conflict here, a complex system of inter-tribal score-settling, an indiscriminate means of retribution. For the agriculturalists, conflict interrupts planting seasons, depletes seed stock, and cuts the paths the market for finished product.
Then there is the impact of climate change: one can question who and what is responsible for it, but there is little doubt conditions have changed across the sub-saharan region.
Then, on top of all of this, the rains have not come for the last two years. The ocean warming currents of El Niño have magnifying the usual fluctuation in the weather and the result is 40% of the nation is, according to UN reports, somewhere between “suffering from food shortages” and “at risk of starvation.” As we travelled from the far north to the very South of the country we saw evidence of a shortage of everything from flour to fertilizer, cooking oil to engine oil, from diesel to clean water. No doubt, if we had looked, there would have been a shortage of the ingredients for birthday cake.
We met the Lowana family at the bus station in the southern town of Torit. The were sitting under an corrugated steel awning outside a shop that sold electrical supplies; wires, sockets, and bulbs. They had been there since the day before, were about half-way into their journey, and not going anywhere fast.
The money they had saved would have been sufficient when they first started planning their trip. However in just the last month the price had increased by 50% and they couldn’t afford the bus fare to go on. Worse, they didn’t have enough money for the return trip to their village. As they sat listlessly at the bus station, they were only going further backwards: each small meal that Kompeo bought his family from the nearby tea shops was further cutting into their remaining capital.
Mankind has always been on the move. Human’s probably started to walk across the globe about a hundred thousand years ago and, when they finally got to the last uninhabited landmass of New Zealand, it was only 700 years ago. The driving force behind our spreading out from Africa to cover all of the planet has always been families moving because the conditions didn’t suit; either it was too dangerous or there was not enough resources where they were.
In this sense the Lowana’s flight is an ancient ritual. Indeed, the town of Torit is not far from the edge of the Great Rift Valley, out of which most anthropologists believe the first humans started their ‘footing’ across the continents. We are, in a sense, all just people who began our trip earlier than the Lowanas.
While this family’s journey might have started like those of all our ancestors, theirs was being undertaking in a very different world, a highly structured, inter-connected world, with lines drawn all over the map. Today the rules for movement and right of passage are set out in great detail by international agreements, regulated by international law. Small families like this have always moved — a father, mother, and their children, carrying what they can — but today their voyage is buffeted by global trade winds and international mega-trends that dwarf their little family.
We were traveling the length of South Sudan with the assistance of UNICEF and I here specifically to work on a story about the families that were fleeing due to hunger. Our information was that Torit served as a junction where families came from small villages in all directions to join the buses that ran to the border.
In short, I want to follow a family, to understand their journey. But for that, I needed them to keep moving.
With the help of our translator I approached Kompeo and sat with him to explain why I was there. He was wearing camouflaged-patterned cargo pants, on the leg of which was large label that resembled a well known American brand. On inspection it read “APFRGROWELB & FITCH”, indicating that it was a low quality counterfeit, almost certainly Chinese-made, produced for markets that wouldn’t notice nonsensical lettering. His shirt was very bright orange, almost fluorescent, the logos on the breast pocket of which indicating that it had once been a ‘high-vis’ safety shirt issued to employees of an Australian construction company. Such is the effectiveness of the global economy, and specifically the flows of used clothing into Africa, that it is often easier, and at times quicker, for a pair of counterfeit American-branded shorts and used Australian safety wear to make their way to a tiny village in the middle of South Sudan than it is for their wearer to leave the village and get his family to safety.
When I learned of the shortfall in the fare for the bus, I tried to do the math to convert it into a currency I could understand. Because of the frequent gyrations of the local currency some establishments here will only take US currency. Because of the prevalence of counterfeiting, many vendors will only take never-used 100 dollar US bills; crisp, hologrammed, with absolutely no marks of any sorts. And because we were going to be on the road here for two weeks, I had over two grand in the freshest of 100s in my wallet.
My first instinct was to personally bridge the gap. Sliding a hand carefully into the deep pockets of my own cargo pants, I fingered a note free without having to pull out my wallet, and began to move it subtly to the pocket on the other side. In retrospect, as the only white man in a market full of languid onlookers, I was kidding myself that my moves were fooling anyone.
The head of our UNICEF mission, Marianna, had been standing a discrete distance away, observing from the shade of a nearby tree, but she now approached me with great urgency.
She’s not from these parts, her electric blond hair makes her an unlikely figure, but her Ukrainian accent worked perfectly to underline her message: under no circumstances was I make any payments to the family and if I was to do so the mission would be called off and I would be deposited at the airport back in the capital of Juba by nightfall.
I explained that I was not just doing it for the story: I had spent time with the family, understood their plight, and couldn’t just sit there and do nothing while they slowly expired in what was now their second day wilting in midday sun.
This didn’t help calm the person sent here to keep us out of trouble. To give money could be seen as a bribe, in itself a contravention of the code of conduct that she reminded me I had just signed. Worse, it could be used against the organization if we were seen to be financially encouraging families to leave the country. South Sudan is barely held together, and the people rely on the sutures and structures provided by the international community for their peace. Each UN organisation operates here at the absolute discretion of the government. Any controversy would mean UNICEF resources distracted from the enormous humanitarian responsibility, or might give a Government minister the excuse to expel the people who sometimes report the inconvenient truths.
I discretely put the note back in my wallet, and as I did so realized that I had done the math wrong. What stood between this family and safety was a factor of 10 less: they only wanted for $10.
I felt only slightly foolish until our photographer approach me. She is a very experienced conflict zone photographer, and she couldn’t believe my actions. She’s also my wife which meant she wasn’t being paid to be as polite as our host. If Marianna could see me from 50 meters away, Alissa said, did I not realize that every other set of eyes in the town square would have seen? How quickly did I think the story would circulate of the white guy and his ham-fisted money shuffling? I had just made it clear my trousers are a source of 100 bills which not only endangers us, but worse, she said, the family. I had almost nonchalantly passed Kompeo the equivalent of six months salary, immediately putting his life at risk.
Most places here the UNICEF logo is well received, the UN agencies associated with humanitarian relief and safe zones. The people here know their country is being helped by the international community and in conversation they are are often openly thankful for it. But drawing attention to yourself is never good in times of need. The family might look like they been given something, and others might want a share of that. Some might want to take it all. And when you haven’t in fact got the thing that people think you have, the double bind can be deadly.
Conflict in South Sudan might have started the problems here, and drought has multiplied them, but Kompeo’s money issues were a result of the very modern phenomena of hyper-inflation. Official measures put the inflation rate at just a little under 20%, but for the staples that the rural poor depend upon, the real rate at which prices have been increasing is over 1000%.
Beneath South Sudan lie some of the biggest confirmed oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa. Not that this means much when the deposits are left underground; a combination of falling oil prices and investors who have driven away by the consistent insecurity. The local Pound has devalued by more than 90% since independence. The supply lines for food distribution to many parts of the country are cut or underwater, meaning some deliveries are only possible by helicopter or parachute drops. But what explains hyper inflation is never just supply and demand but human behavior. In the local markets, vendors are holding back produce in expectation of higher prices next week. Buyers who are panicked about potential shortages are hoarding for a version of the same reasons. Human behavior both shrinks supply and escalates demand.
After my mistake with the money, I was pulled off the frontline and our translator given the job of talking to Kompeo. I went to buy some morning tea from the lady selling sweet tea and fried dough from a stand under a nearby tree. The “donut” that she sold me was hard, not at all sweet, and about the size of the things marketed in the US as “donut holes.” She told me that the price for grain had doubled in the last month, and risen four fold since the start of the year. Annualized, I thought but did not say, that’s an inflation rate well over 1000%. And that would be OK, she said, if there was any to buy; there had not been any flour in the market for over a week.
I could resist myself, bribes policy or not, damn the heartless UN policy, I had to get the family something to eat. I bought four more of the small donuts and delivered one each to Kompeo, Regina and the older two children, forgetting that I probably should have got extra for the breastfeeding mother. Young Angelo and Election, who had been sleeping face down since we arrived, quickly woke and began to eat without comment. Angelo quickly finished his and then began to pull at his mother’s little fried ring of flour. Even though she was eating for two, the tugs of the pot-bellied Angelo were too strong for her weakened will and she let hers slip out of her hand into his.
We had found other families who planned to move out, who we also agreed to follow, and my giving of food had not got me in any great trouble. I sat to talk with Kompeo while Alissa made some portraits of the family. So as to not draw overdue attention to them, she took photos of many other people in the bus station.
Despite my translator’s best attempts, not all the details of the family’s departure were clear. I backed off as I kept sensing the type of silence that is often wrapped around personal tragedy. What right, after all, did I have to ask? Since my arrival their situation had not improved in any substantial way. With every hour the children were getting weaker. The prospect of defeat was rising. While the parents were sitting motionless they were getting further from a solution. And here I was, asking questions about their plight. I may as well have been asking a wounded solider what it felt like to be shot. And besides, I suspect that Kompeo had neither the strength to tell me what he really felt.
Kompeo was able to tell me how little they had left behind. His cattle had been depleted after raid-upon-raid by a rival tribe. His few remaining cows would hopefully be tended to by a cousin. He hoped his hut would remain for them if they ever returned, but it was now empty as they had sold what they could, bartered off any final possessions. The only other thing they had left behind was the grave of their eldest daughter. I didn’t ask where it was, but tradition here often sees families bury their loved ones in graves in their front yard. The shallow graves are covered in hardened mud and then with daily sweeping across the site site the memory of the family member becomes part of the pavement.
For the last year, they had been forced to live off food foraged from the forest, a diet of starchy roots and unfamiliar tree fruits. While the children gradually grew weaker, their father was determined to remain. The impetus to leave the village, the final tragic straw, turns out to have been the death of his daughter. His nine year old had died two months earlier from, he said, something poisonous she ate in the forest. The distant look on his face now became easier to understand; he’d gambled with the seasonal conditions, the cost was the loss of his eldest.
This part of South Sudan doesn’t look dusty or dry, there are no vultures circling or sun bleached deserts. In fact it looks fertile. The trees are tall, the grasses long. The rivers run, or at least trickle. But the corn is short, and the ears sprout lower than they should, starting to brown-off before the stalk is half its normal height. Why are there people starving, I keep asking, when I can see water, and other things growing?
To start with, even if they knew how to plant crops, there are no seeds. And before I start to judge them for not knowing how to live off the land, I have to remember these people are pastoralists and know little about farming. In that sense, I come from people who rely on shops, we are store-ists, all my life my food has been harvested from well-stocked aisles. Blow up my supermarket, deny me a corner store, and I would not have lasted as long as this family.
When people talk of the migrant crisis, as they do in Europe, illegal immigrants in the US, or queue-jumpers as they say in Australia, they often speculate on how quickly people are prepared to leave their homes. The suspicion is never far away that “these people” have just picked up and moved at the slightest inconvenience. A family relocation done like some change the TV station because of an ad break. But this is not what I have found listening to refugee families around the world, far from it. They love the villages you would never visit, they miss the towns you’d drive rapidly through, they want to live in a nation that most would never consider safe enough to visit. This family named one daughter after the plebicide in which they voted to form their nation, and they refused to leave until their eldest child had died in their arm. Only then, with reluctance, did they leave for Uganda hoping to be granted refugee status.
Tragically, as I learn on this trip, moving because you are starving is not a human right. To be a refugee in the technical sense you have to be fleeing persecution or facing certain death. This definition fitted well for when the regulations were drawn up — just after the second world war — but on this continent where the scale is much larger, it makes no sense. Sudan, before it was broken into two, was about the size of 15 countries of Western Europe.
Around midday of the family’s third day, we got news that the Lowanas had secured seats on a bus to the border. Perhaps they had found the “good samaritan” they had said they were looking for. Or perhaps the driver had spare seats and had extracted a promise of future payment. I know deals like this are struck, and the repayment terms never less than usury rates of interest. I could get a straight answer, but some deal had been done, and the family were on their way, two seats in the middle row of a clapped-out minivan, the three children spread across their parent’s laps.
There was a chance that Kompeo had not told me the truth, or the whole truth. Perhaps he had misrepresented his situation as he was hoping I would pay. And why wouldn’t he? I know if I was watching my children slip away before me I would not let the truth stand between me and helping them. Here, on the margins of life and death, is a place where the truth is not even close to the most important element. This town is a cross-roads, the lines are between war and peace, starvation and survival, and what is said is often what is needed to be said. It is less a matter of the truth being bent than it not being clear what the truth is, who’s truth is it. Did he have enough money after all? What is “enough” when one note in my wallet was ten times the amount that was needed? What is enough money when prices accelerate away from the buyer quicker than they can gather the paper notes?
I am not sure how he got the money for the ride. What will a father do to get his family on a bus to safety? What does a man think when he looks into the eyes of his wife and sees the pain of a mother who wished he had decided to move earlier? Even every inch of his being said Kompeo was a defeated soul, but perhaps he still had a trick up his sleeve. I am excited by the idea that perhaps he had deceived me, and this fills me with happiness. There will be many more challenges ahead for Kompeo and if he has the strength to pull off a minor scam, then perhaps he’s got the guile to help his family make it.
I won’t ever know, and of course it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they have a seat, and the bus is moving. We get our things together, load our waiting, air-conditioned 4-wheel drive, and from a safe distance, start to follow them because they are finally moving out of town towards Nimule.
Or at least they do for an hour until the road is blocked.
Today the road for the families fleeing hunger is, ironically, blocked by food. A three-truck convoy carrying grain, each truck less equipped for these roads than the next, is stuck on the route ahead. One has engine problems, one has a total of nine blown tires and one has lost its load, 40 tonnes of grain pushed into heavy sacks have slumped down across the road. The bags of sorghum flour are white and each carries the American flag and the stamp of USAID across each one. Suddenly we are amongst gross abundance, which seems like some sort of mirage and to my eyes. In the heat of the day sun the white bulges of each bag become the bellies of fat men, each one protruding from under a stars-and-stripes t-shirt.
Traffic may be stopped, but we are warned that this situation is anything but stationary. With a 120 tonnes of food in easy-to-carry sacks just sitting here, word will be traveling fast: there is the equivalent of twenty thousand dollars of liquid wealth flopped across the road. The three drivers know this better than anyone else, and they are urgently negotiating with 25 members of a local village to re-stack the truck for them. The villagers hold firm on their asking price and break off the negotiations. The drivers fold quickly. They know that the villagers will certainly be employed today, either by them, or the first gang to arrive with AK-47s.
When the road becomes passable the family presses on to the town of Magri, where we have stopped for our lunch. We found a cafe that serves eggs wrapped in a chapati, run by a colorful Ugandan woman who married a local man. He had been a refugee in Uganda at the time and she moved with him back to South Sudan. Its a busy town, the intersection of a number of routes. The buses that leave Torid all come through here, and while most keep going, the Lowana’s hit one more obstacle: the axle of their bus has begun to drag on the ground. They negotiate a credit from their driver, transfer to another bus, and they are soon back on their way.
After Magri the road turns south and improves dramatically and there is no doubt now that the family is on their way. They should arrive in Limule late that night where they plan to meet a distant cousin, Massimo, who has offered to give them a roof for the night. He will then walk with them to the border the next day. We too are keen to meet the cousin, a retired soldier from the South People’s Liberation Army, as we hear he has provided this service for many others. We have learned a little about the Lowana’s and their dearth of good fortunate, so we might have guessed that the man who is charged with walking them across the border has only one leg.
Massimo, it turns out, is more than qualified to help on this final part of their trip: in the last month alone he was walked 22 families into Uganda.
I am fascinated with how he feels about the task he is now taking on. Having fought for 21 years giving, literally, half his life, and one of his legs, to create South Sudan, only to spend his retirement on rough hewn crutches, walking people out of the country.
But there is no question that needs answering as far as Massimo is concerned. Of course you fight for your country when it is a held captive. And, if you step on a land mine, as he did, then you are amongst the most fortunate if you only lose a leg. And when a family is starving, and their village makes them effectively your family members, then you do whatever is necessary to help them.
Walking to a different country did not appear an issue. The borders were, after all, drawn by Europeans who delineated the continent to suit them. When the Lowana’s reach the border, they will cross over a thin tributary of the White Nile into Uganda. In one sense they will be crossing from one nation to another, in another they are just moving between areas inhabited by people who are genetically identified as Nilotic people. This entire quarter of Africa, now divided into a dozen countries, was once free of borders and check-points and served as the genetic mixing bowl for a well-adapted people who moved whenever conditions forced them to.
The next morning the family woke early and began the one hour of footing to the refugee processing camp on the other side of the border. They have agreed to let us follow them from a distance but in the confusion at the crossing, we somehow lost them. From the Ugandan side, we looked back and, thanks to his distinctively bright shirt, we could see Kompeo leading his family over the steel bridge.
“No photos!” the Ugandan police shouted.
“Unless you can take the photo without us”, and then they helpfully repositioned themselves to allow our photographer to document the walk to safety that they were proudly guarding. The only place to get the shot of them crossing the bridge was from an angled bank of lose stones and Alissa asked me to hold her by the top of her pants so she could get the shot without ending up in the drain below.
Together my wife and I have begun a long term project to document refugee movements on every inhabited continents. The biggest challenges are not geographical but that many nations prevent photographers and writers from visiting their refugee centers. Yet here in Uganda, in what is by any standards a pretty rough border town, the authorities were moving to allow us to get this image.
From here it is less than a kilometer walk to the UNHCR run processing center. Massimo is struggling to keep up now. Regina is striding forward, barely keeping up with her two children who trot ahead of her. They know they are in the home straight.
On arrival to the compound the family must pass through a security check. The man working the gate tells me he searches for guns and ammunition and signs of recent release from the military. Kompeo’s faux-brand camouflage pants are not a concern, and his thongs are not what the guard says are “military grade footwear.”
At any processing center like this, anywhere in the world, there are those who don’t make the cut. Here they include fleeing soldiers, the “double dippers,” and “the returnees,” people who have been refused processing who try again. For the chance at free rations, many Ugandans attempt to be enroll.
When anyone could be lying about their circumstances, there is a tendency to think that everyone actually is lying. Some countries are so afraid of a making a mistake on those they admit, that they keep all refugees waiting for months, sometimes years, as they conduct an impossible quest for certainty.
But there is no such presumption of guilt here. The family pass the almost perfunctory check at the gate, and there are in. By mid-afternoon they will have had a medical examination, been interviewed, finger printed and their children fed high-nutrition biscuits. By the end of day they will be in a Transit center waiting relocation into a temporary plot of land. A process that takes months in richer nations, gets done here in about 48 hours.
To put this in its full context: Uganda has a per capita GDP of about one-fiftieth of the most developed nations, and has taken tens of thousands of refugees this year. Currently they are accepting them at a pace of 100 families a day. Australia fights off as many refugees in a year that this one small center processes in six months. As a country, the US has accepted about as many refugees over the last five years as Uganda has in the last year.
Kompeo is no longer frowning, but not yet smiling. His boy is clutching half an ear of roasted corn. Angelo hold the bbq’d treat
with both hands and uses one finger to prize off kernel-after-single-kernel, remembering the taste of what, until 18 months ago, was the family staple. The six-month old is once again feeding and is quiet. Election is watching some girls play from a careful distance. Everyone in the center has taken shelter from the afternoon heat. That is except for Kompeo. He has become, perhaps he’s always been, a man who ends up in the sun when others have located the shade. He knows he may be close to safety, but I can tell he is not comfortable. So much that he has seen in recent years has been beyond his control, so often he’s been pushed by forces much greater than him — globalization, militarization, international regulations, spiraling inflation — and he isn’t ready to let his guard down now.
I ask him how he feels now he’s made the trip. “We are here now,” he says, and adds no more. It’s statement of fact that leaves no room for disappointment, that passes no judgement on the past, that keeps the focus right where it needs to be, right here.
The next morning we returned to the Transit Center to check in and say good bye to the family.
Election has made her way to the playground in the “child friendly area.” The family will remain in the center until they are moved to their own piece of land on which they will start to rebuild their lives. Uganda gives refugees a 20 meter by 20 meter plot, the material to build a simple house, the right to work, freedom of movement.
As natural as it was for Massimo to walk the family across the border, the Ugandans I met described the logic of helping these families. “They are starving,” one person observes, then asks “wouldn’t you give them some of your big land?”
After two meals in the camp, a dinner and a breakfast of bean soup and corn meal, Election is emboldened as she starts to explore, for the first time, a playground.
“Never! I have never been on a slide before” she says “but I like it,” before darting away to join the end of the queue to take another turn.
In a morning of firsts, she tried the slide, attempted the swing. While the physics of the later didn’t come naturally, she struggled most with the informal rules of the playground. The other kids quickly worked out that she no idea, and everyone started to push in front of her. She stood in a line that moved quickly, but she wasn’t making any progress until I stuck my hand in and blocked a pushy kid half her size.
She visited a school, sitting with a hundred other children and practiced the basic skills of education getting. Bravely she put up her hand to a question, even though she was not experienced enough to understand that you did that when you knew the answer. She probably did not even understand the question; but she still got to go to the front of the class and used the teacher’s pointer to try to identify the picture of a table.
“Do you think she will be back?” I asked her father. “I think, every day,” he replied, sharing the first smile he had shown us all week.
Peter Holmes à Court and Alissa Everett travelled to South Sudan with UNICEF and wish to thank the numerous UN agencies and other members of the international community who are making this and other parts of the rebuilding of South Sudan possible.