UN World Food Programme

South Sudan: 'When People Rejoice After Food Distributions, I Want To Do More' (Staff Interview)

Lucy Wasuk was once detained by a child soldier while working for WFP but she says working to save lives spurs her to continue with her job. WFP/George Fominyen

WFP and partners have been working flat-out for months to try to prevent a hunger catastrophe in South Sudan, overcoming enormous obstacles to bring food and other assistance to people in desperate need who have been isolated by conflict.  Part of WFP’s response includes rapid response teams that are deployed to hard-to-reach communities affected by the conflict. Lucy Wasuk, a South Sudanese programme officer tells us about her experience as a member of one of these teams, her recent mission to Adok in Unity State, where WFP assisted over 54,000 people. She also talks about being a humanitarian worker.

What struck you about the situation in Adok?

Adok is completely isolated. The situation was desperate. There were no functioning markets – in fact the closest market is in Leer, which is an 8-hour walk away. The people have plenty of fish but nothing else, not even salt. Many people had trekked for days to reach this point of safety.  Our assistance was immensely useful.

Could you describe a typical day with the team in Adok? 

Adok is inaccessible due to the insecurity and because the roads are impassable, so we had to assist people through airdrops. Each day we walked 7 kilometers in deep, slippery mud to the airdrop zone to receive the food and stack it, then walk back 7 kilometers back to where we had camped. Normally, we would receive all the required food quantity before launching a distribution, but the rains made it impossible to do that. We had to distribute on a daily basis, otherwise if we stockpiled the food and it got drenched in the rain, it could get bad.

How does Adok compare to other places where you have led distribution teams?

I have been working with WFP since 1998, and this job always takes us to very remote places where people are really in need of assistance – so it has been hard to tell the difference. Adok was so isolated that people were surprised to see my team of 10 people. They kept asking if we were spies or foreigners. We had to keep telling them that we were South Sudanese and that we were just there for humanitarian work – to assist people who were in need. But they were very welcoming, just like people everywhere else we have been.

What’s your most frightening experience working for WFP?

The most frightening experience I have had in my 14 years of field work is being detained by a child soldier in 2003.  We missed a small village around Kaldak (in Jonglei State) in our allocation plan, [so] we were forced to stop in the village of four huts and they asked for the team leader.  I was taken, locked in a small hut with a boy of about 12 years of age carrying a gun.  His gun was pointing at me - so close, almost touching my face. The child was tired, hungry and almost dozing off to sleep with his hand on the trigger. Anything could have happened. I was just left at the mercy of this child for six hours until our security officer came from Khartoum.

With such experiences, what motivates you to stay with WFP? 

WFP saves lives through food assistance.  When people rejoice after food distributions, I feel happy and I am encouraged to do more.  Usually, when we arrive at a location, places are quiet and you may think it’s an empty town – but after food distribution you can hear drums, children playing around, youth at the churches singing, mothers busy cooking and others dancing. The area comes alive. When I hear and see all that after distribution, I retire to bed wearing a happy face even if I’m tired.

What is the most rewarding experience related to your work? 

Back in 2001 when we were distributing food in Pibor (Jonglei State), an orphan of about 11 years old walked up to me and said that he ate a hot meal only when WFP brought food. After that he goes back to eating lalop (wild fruits) until there’s another airdrop. He said he was tired of eating lalop and asked if it was possible for me to take him to my house for a hot meal. He said he would pay me back through cattle rustling when he grows older. I couldn’t imagine that a life of cattle rustling was the dream of a young boy. I decided to help him in another way. With his uncle’s agreement and my supervisor’s permission I took him with me to Malakal. The whole village escorted him to the plane. He stayed with me in Malakal for 4 years attending classes, and later moved to Juba to become a businessman. He then helped his cousin, who now wors for Plan International, one of WFP’s partners.

When we were in Pibor we saw so many people call you Bolen. Thisis not one of your names - what is the story behind that nickname? 

The name Bolen refers to a big tree which provides good shelter to elders during heavy rain.  [Back then], I was the first South Sudanese female aid worker not a khawaja (foreigner) to set foot in Pibor. Since we were receiving food from airdrops and organising distributions, they likened me to that big protective tree. They would sing songs in which they would say: ‘with Bolen you are sure to see food; with Bolen, we see big planes dropping food from heaven; with Bolen on ground you hear our drums, our children getting married, and our food tastes good because of salt.’  There are so many girls in Pibor town between the ages of 8 and 14 named Lucy or Bolen – after me. The parents were happy to have a daughter like me working for a big organization that feeds hungry people and changes their lives.

Would you want any of your children to be a humanitarian worker?

I’m actually praying that one of my children should do humanitarian work. I think helping people in need makes you adjust your life accordingly.  When they see the difficulties other people face and the challenges we go through to ensure that assistance is provided, then they (children) will know that life is not as soft as they may think.