Conflict and a severe economic crisis are causing increased levels of hunger among residents of urban areas in South Sudan. School meals provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) have become the only assured source of food for many children in Juba, the country’s capital.
JUBA – When fighting erupted in July 2016, Christina Adam, a 12-year old orphan, was at home with her grandmother in the Gudele neighbourhood in the west of the South Sudanese capital Juba. As clashes became intense Christina’s grandmother decided that they join others who were fleeing the area.
“We started running. We were seeing a lot of guns,” Christina recalled. “I was not afraid. I prayed to God and said no gun will shoot me,” she added.
Christina and her grandmother found shelter at a church in Gurei, a neighbourhood further west of Juba. There were hundreds of other people who had gathered there for safety as the guns continued crackling and bangs from explosions filled the air. The fighting in Juba lasted only a few days but conditions at the temporary displacement site were tough.
“When we were in hiding we ate only once every other day. One day we would eat rice, the next day we would just drink water and sleep,” Christina explained.
Once fighting subsided and a ceasefire declared, her grandmother decided that they should return home but new challenges emerged. Shops and markets were closed and it was hard for the family to find food. Christina’s grandmother asked her to go and check if her school, the Straight Link Centre where she received daily school meals provided by the World Food Programme (WFP), had reopened. WFP provides cooked meals or take-home rations to encourage children, especially girls, to consistently attend classes in South Sudan. These school meals are often the only meal a child will receive that day.
The school, which supports hundreds of orphans, former street children and kids who are unable to locate their parents since civil conflict started in South Sudan in December 2013, was also affected by the recent fighting in July. Classes stopped and many of the children fled. The school was damaged as residents of the surrounding area began pulling down the wooden walls and roof to use as firewood for cooking.
Moses Primo, Christina’s classmate, who lives at the school was among the children who quickly gathered in a mud and brick church located on the compound, when fighting erupted. As fighting intensified, Moses and others later fled to other parts of Juba and even beyond the city when a military helicopter hovered around the area aiming shots at targets in the distance.
“We ran when the aeroplane [helicopter] started shooting the bullets from the sky,” said Moses, who doesn’t know his exact age. “The guns from the aeroplane [helicopter] shooting and hanging in the air were loud. Then we saw that all the people were running away and we also ran.”
Moses and some of his friends later sought refuge at the Church in Gurei where Christina was staying with her grandmother. But just a few days later he left the shelter and headed back to the Centre because he was hungry.
“The food from WFP, it is a gift”
Moses, Christina and hundreds of other children who returned to the school in hopes of receiving food and continuing their studies were partially disappointed. The teachers had come back and classes slowly restarted but there was no food for the school meals. The main WFP warehouse in Juba had been looted in the aftermath of the fighting of all of the 4,600 metric tons of food it contained - food that could feed up to 220,000 people in a month. It was impossible for WFP to resupply the school for the rest of the month of July.
“We didn’t have anything that we could give [the students],” Patrick Lopok, the Chairman of the Straight Link Centre Orphanage School said. “But later, we thank God that the World Food Programme was able to run very fast to put us as the first priority.”
The return of school meals has been a great relief to the children in a context of hyperinflation, high food prices and increasing levels of hunger in Juba and the rest of South Sudan.
“Now I eat food every day at school,” Christina said. “I can stay long at school and write my exams.”
“The food from WFP, it is a gift,” Moses added.
However, not everybody has returned to school. Prior to the outbreak of fighting the enrolment stood at 1,050 pupils. This has dropped by 30 percent to 720 pupils since the July fighting, with the majority of those who have returned being girls (520). The school authorities say many boys have taken casual jobs such as polishing shoes or collecting used plastic bottles for sale in order to earn money.
“The boys have gone back to the street. With this war some of the parents are sending the boys to look for food,” Lopok said. “They were forced because their parents can’t provide the basics so they do the work that their parents cannot do in order to provide food for the family,” he added.
School meals provide an important social safety net, encouraging parents to enroll their children and helping to keep them there, while ensuring basic nutrition for child learning and development. In South Sudan, WFP has so far provided daily school meals to more than 160,000 children this year with support from donors including the United States, Norway, and private donors.