I woke at 5:30am, packed carefully, pulled on my rubber boots, and headed to the airport with our team. Minister Joseph Lual Acuil, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management and former WFP Programme Officer, all seven feet of him, was waiting for us on the red gravel of the airport runway. Minister Betty Achan Ogwaro, the dynamic Minister of Agriculture joined us as our small sleepy group climbed on board our United Nations Humanitarian Air Service Dash 8.
We headed northwest to the county of Aweil, 120 km from the border with Sudan. We landed and headed to War Adhot Farm, 30 minutes from the airport. I was struck by the greenery on either side of the red dirt road. Yet, when you look closely, you see that the grass and trees are often submerged in water. The rivers overflow their banks flooding the place. I am also surprised by the poor condition of the roads. Apart from the road directly to the airport, there was no tarmac. The red dirt tracks are riddled with deep holes that our cars try in vain to avoid.
We arrive, and I am grateful for my boots as my feet sink into the mud. I am led towards the sound of singing. The villagers emerge to greet us. As they surround me they tie a colourful South Sudanese patterned blue and white cloth, or lawa, around my left shoulder, and place a matching necklace around my neck . My Regional Director Stanlake Samkange was also presented with a red and black lawa, and a striking silver necklace.
We walk to the farm and here I meet Elizabeth, the only female head of the community based organisation Aweil Charity Community for Development (ACCD). Proudly, she explains how their small programme has 500 farmers, including 280 women and 220 men, working to cultivate sorghum, sesame, groundnuts and maize. WFP gives them some food, not a complete ration, but enough of an incentive to encourage them to work on their land. Sometimes it takes almost a year before you see a harvest. Elizabeth's farm is expected to benefit 3,500 people.
Will you grow enough to sell? I ask her. Yes she firmly replies.
What will you do with the extra money?
We will do the same, and grow more.
She goes on to tell me, There are no hospitals, or roads, and no transport.
Elizabeth started with just 30 people in 2010 when the Ministry of Agriculture gave her seeds, and today there are 500 people working the land.
WFP acts as a catalyst, working in support of the Government to help these communities stand on their own feet. Yes, it will take time in this young nation. But with the will of the people, and a comprehensive approach of partners, it will not take long.
As we get ready to leave she thanks me saying, You are the Executive Director, and I can be your Deputy here in Aweil!
Indeed, she would make a fine Deputy Executive Director!
We then travel 45 minutes to Nyoc Thok to see the work of Help Restore Youth South Sudan, another young, community-based organization that we started to support only in May.
When I arrive I find the men of the village struggling to hold down a bull. It is their tradition to have a visiting dignitary jump over the bull, after which it is slaughtered and shared with the villagers. I steel myself and go for it! My grandson will be impressed when I show him the footage!
We walk through the fields and I notice that the ground is dry. The sorghum grows tall around us and finally a three foot dyke blocks our path. We have reached a part of the 4 kilometer long dyke, constructed in just two months by the community to preserve the crops from flooding. It’s clearly working, as I see fields of sorghum stretch before me as far as the eye can see. Fifty households receive support from WFP for working on the dyke, and 80 households receive support for growing the crops. The question is: Will this help people to eventually feed themselves?
WFP provides 87mt to the farmers, and the farm is expected to produce 120 mt. Produce will be shared by farmers and the surplus will be sold, a small increase, but still an increase. They have managed this increase after only four months.
As the men and women gather around us the Minister of Agriculture says to them: I see you have a 15 percent increase - but you should be at 50 percent next year! We have signed with a cooperative bank and you will benefit from it. You have to transform this group into a cooperative society and we will help you. WFP has started you off, but you must be sustainable by yourselves! They cheer loudly, and, as they quieten, I raise my voice,
We helped you feed your children during the war and now we are with you as you begin to take charge of your own lives and feed your own children. I have to go now but when I come back I want to see crops that are taller than the minister! We want to show the world that the people of South Sudan don't just feed their own children, they can feed the world!
As I leave Aweil, the state of South Sudan that has the worst food security ratings in the country, I am confident that when I return I will see a completely different place. A place where new roads of tarmac enable women farmers to move their surplus vegetables to the nearest market. A place where the extra money earned from the market allows their children to go to school. A place where cooperatives thrive, banks function efficiently and medical care is close at hand. A place where mothers and fathers grow enough food to nourish their children and meet their financial needs.