Achok Deng Agok, who has lived nearly half of her 45 years as a displaced person, has a life story similar to an entire generation of South Sudanese. When she was growing up in Sikadit, it was a bustling village, served by a narrow gauge railway that stretched north to Khartoum and east to the Red Sea. The land here is fertile, and back then life was reasonably comfortable. Local farmers produced enough food to feed their families with something left over to trade in the markets. Achok married a local man and they had three children.
Achok Deng Agok, a war widow, returned to South Sudan and is now growing her own food.
But then came civil war, pitting south against north—one of Africa’s longest and deadliest conflicts, leaving as many as two million people dead over two decades. In 1988, Achok's husband was killed in the fierce fighting, and she and her children fled north where she found work as a domestic servant for a family near Khartoum, the capital of the Republic of Sudan. And those years spent far from home took their toll.
“I cleaned house in return for food and a little money for the dry season. We were like slaves. It's not safe there,” she says.
A ceasefire was announced in 2005, and six years later, on July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was born. Now a grandmother, Achok and her extended family joined as many as 800,000 others who made the journey back to South Sudan in a huge migration organized by the international community. But much has changed in the intervening years. The south of the country was devastated by the war—its people traumatized, social structures torn apart, and infrastructure in ruins.
"We came here with nothing but the clothes we were wearing", says Achok. "We had no land, no home, and no money and we have been relying on the goodwill of my husband's family to survive.”
Concern Worldwide has worked in South Sudan since 1985 and, today, we are helping returnees like Achok build a sustainable future for them and their families in South Sudan. To do this, Concern Worldwide partners with community-based organizations, one of which is Aweil Project Agriculture Development (APAD). Its executive director, Michael Piol, is a man with a mission. He has an unshakeable belief in the potential of his people. "The first thing we need to do is help them earn a sustainable living,” he says. "Food aid was for the war time. Now we must stand on our own feet—only then can we truly develop to greater things.”
A couple of miles from the village of Sikadit lies an enormous, flat, fertile expanse of land. And what's happening here is amazing. As far as the eye can see colorfully-clad farmers, mostly women, dot the landscape, working to cultivate and nurture a vast field of sorghum
, the staple crop of South Sudan.
In consultation with traditional and Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Concern and APAD secured minimum two acres of land each for 500 of the extreme poor and vulnerable families living in the area. The land, though community-owned and fertile, remained uncultivated due to war, lack of resources, and the collapse of infrastructure. That is, until now.
Adut Atak Atak believes 2013 is the year they will be able to feed themselves.
With support from the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the European Union, Concern gave the farmers quality-assured seeds. This investment gave the farmers—most of whom are women and widowed by war and all of whom returned after the independence—the foundation they need to break the cycle of poverty and hunger in their family and community. Through donations from the World Food Program (WFP), the program also offered food as a means of compensation for training and other participation. "With one acre of land each family can grow eight or nine sacks of sorghum (90kg each),” Michael says. "This is enough to feed their family all year and also gives them seeds to plant for next year’s harvest.”
As we leave, the women gather on the edge of this huge field to give thanks. Another woman farmer, Adut Atak Atak, leads the group in a haunting and powerful prayer, their collective voices reverberating beautifully across the sunlit landscape that was once a battlefield. It is now a symbol of rebirth.
"Until now we have been surviving only with the help of others,” Adut says. "This year we will be able to feed ourselves. I know it.”