Turning 5 in South Sudan

(Originally published by UNICEF and the World Economic Forum)

Turning five with South Sudan 

by Peter Holmes á Court & Alissa Everett

On 9 July 2016 South Sudan will turn five and so will tens of thousands of children in the country who for much of their lives have known only violence, fear and upheaval.

After more than two years of civil war, what is it like to be a child in South Sudan today? Nearly one million have been forced from their homes by violence; some 400,000 have left school because of the fighting and more than a third of all children are malnourished. These are the stories of six of South Sudan’s five year olds.

Gatchang Moet, age 5, from Bentiu town, photographed with his family in the Bentiu POC, South Sudan. © UNICEF/Alissa Everett
“I want to be a driver of an airplane” he answered without delay, standing in the center of the room that he shares with eight members of his family. Moments before his sister had brought home a ninth resident, a newborn girl, and he had just finished gently stroking the head of his first cousin. Gatchang was born on a particularly hot day and can never remember a time when he lived without conflict. “What does he want to have when he grows up,” I asked through our translator. Before he could answer, his grandfather spoke up and said “Peace. South Sudan needs Peace for him to grow. We put him in school so that he knows something about the world and can use it when he grows.” I asked Gatchang again, but the grandfather again responded, “We are on the corner,” he said, and using the vocabulary of the news reports that were playing on the small radio nearby added, “and we need the international community to help us come back from crisis.” One more time I asked young Gatchang and this time he smiled warmly and said something under his breath. Our translator leant in and got him to repeat it a few time, finally concluding, “He said he wants what his parents want: peace.” Bentiu POC, South Sudan


Madadr Tuok, age 5, from Bentiu, studies at the Lich Primary School in the Bentiu POC, South Sudan. © UNICEF/Alissa Everett
“My mother helps me with my buttons every day before school” he said as he proudly stood up to show us his small suit. “I carry my own stool to school each day. It is just an old can my mother had sued. It is not high. If I sit at the front, I can see the teacher.” His teacher is the energetic 18-year old Tabitha Imano, and every bit of her enthusiasm is needed to contain a class that today was over 130 students. “Today’s not too bad” she says, “sometimes it can get over 200.” The Lich Primary school inside the Bentiu Protection of Civilians camp contains up to 6000 students on its busiest days, all squeezed in to a series of reed sided, canvas-roofed rooms. Order is maintained, the Principal tells us, by asking all children to wear clean clothes each day or face having to go home. In Class 1, Madadr joins his classmates singing and chanting, repeating Tabitha’s lesson energetically. The hardest part Tabitha says is the lack of organization and the noise, “but” she adds “they are learning, all of them. Slowly.” Bentiu POC, South Sudan.


Sabri John, age 5, from Magwi, South Sudan, washes his boots outside the house that his mother is renting in Torit, South Sudan. © UNICEF/Alissa Everett
“My boots came from Juba” Sabri said, proud that his boots had come from the capital of South Sudan, a city he said he had never been to. “But my mother’s sister works there in a hospital.” Sabri has two newborn sibling and a ten year old brother who Sabri smilingly says “I sometimes fight with.” His big sister is the only family member working at the moment. Hadia, 13, collects cassava bark that is used to the make the local wine. She works from 8 am to 8pm, six and a half days a week in return for her meals and 10 South Sudanese pounds a day. After the recent devaluation of the local currency this is equivalent to about $0.30 US. Rose speaks well while juggling the twins who are both breast feeding simultaneous. “Since my husband left me to go and marry another woman, there is no money for school. But when the babies are older I plan to go back to work, and Sabri will go to school. I want him to have an education like my sister. He could do anything. You can see, he is a good boy.” Torit, South Sudan


Aber Beatrice, age 5, with her mother Ida, photographed in the restaurant that Ida owns in Magri, South Sudan. “Can you write your name?” Aber asked, “and hers, and hers,” making sure I wrote down all our names. Then she gave me her mother’s telephone number, which she wanted to show me she could recall from memory. “I can write my own name, and my mother’s” and then proceeded to put them in my note book. Born in South Sudan just before independence, her family had returned from exile in Uganda where her father had met her mother. Ida spoke with the type of confidence we had discovered in Aber, and an even brighter smile when she spoke of Ida’s future. From the income of the small family restaurant Ida sends Aber to school, and hopes she will even go to university overseas once she has finished high school. “I want to be a doctor” Aber says, and then adds “to help the people here in Magri. We have a doctor in Magri. His name is David. He is a very nice man.” Magri, South Sudan. © UNICEF/Alissa Everett


Susan Andua, age 5, plays in the village, outside of her home in Nimule, South Sudan. “I asked her that too!” Susan’s mother Florence said with a laugh as she continued to press the laundry with a small charcoal-heated iron. The bubbly Susan had just said she wanted to be a pilot when she grew up and I wanted to know why. Her mother explained: “One day she asked her teacher what makes those planes in the sky go, and her teacher said it was humans, people who go to school a lot. My daughter decided she wanted to be a pilot, and she would go to school a lot.” However, Susan was not at school this week as she has an eye problem that stops her going to school at the moment. “It hurts, but my mother took me to see the clinic.” She writes confidently for her age on her own chalkboard, a small piece of chalk borrowed from a neighbor. After writing her age, she continued writing to 10. “When I don’t go to school I help my mother with the maize, and in the house. But mostly I like my chalkboard and doing my homework. Oh, and football.” As so many girls get married young in South Sudan I asked Florence at what age she thought Susan should get married. “25 or 26” she said immediately, “to let her finish school and university and get a better job.” Nimule, South Sudan. © UNICEF/Alissa Everett


Election Lowata, age 5, from Lomolo Village, South Sudan, plays at the child friendly space in the UNHCR Transit Center, Adjumani, Uganda.     © UNICEF/Alissa Everett.  “Never. I have never been on a slide before. But I like it” she said before darting away to joining the end of the queue to take another turn. Born in the year her country took its first democratic steps, her parents proudly named her Election. Now, in the year in which she and her country turn 5, Election and her family have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring Uganda. After two years of below average rainfall, and persistent cattle raiding by rival tribes, the family ran out of options. For over a year they were forced to live off food foraged from the forest. While the children grew gradually weaker, their father refused to leave until it was too late: Election’s oldest sister died two months earlier from a combination of malnutrition and something poisonous she ate in the forest. Today was the first day after her arrival in the Transit Center and after a breakfast she walked to the UNICEF/Save the Children run Child Friendly Space. In a morning of firsts, she tried the slide, attempted the swing, and attended a classroom, even putting up her hand to answer a question. While she didn’t really understand that that meant you needed to know the answer, she still got 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 be back?” I asked her father Kompeo. “I think every day,” he replied with the first smile he had shown all week. Adjumani, Uganda.