I set off early, heading for the rocky summit of Jebel Mara.

The rising sun lit the vast granite outcrop overlooking South Sudan’s capital of Juba. The faint trail was engulfed in elephant grass, towering over me as I clawed and sweated my way upward.

I broke free momentarily of the jungle flanking the summit, and found myself face to face with a young South Sudanese man sitting back on his haunches, watching me silently. He was clad only in a pair of filthy shorts, and his muscled torso gleamed with sweat. About him lay a tumble of granite boulders, pitted with the fresh scars of his pickaxe.

We eyed each other for a moment, until his steady gaze broke into a wide grin. ‘I am Moses’ he announced in thick English. I sat next to him, thankful for the respite. The air rang with a rhythmic high-pitched ring of steel against rock, and I realised Moses was not alone.

‘This is how we make money.’ he told me as I peered at his crude tools. Just then the rumble of falling rocks startled me. From the bushes, two men, hard and lean like Moses, strained to roll giant boulders past us, blazing an earthen trail through the grass to the valley floor below.

‘We came to Juba to escape the war. Now we live in the caves.’ He told me simply, pointing to a distant hillside. His face was weathered, his hands gnarled and strong. As he continued I discovered that small bands of men like him lived rough, enduring rain, snakes and mosquitoes, spending their days dragging massive rocks from the face of the Jebel.

I learned that while the men scale the rocky ridges in search of boulders, their women work in the valley below. Their daylight hours are spent breaking the stone down into saleable chunks, painstakingly growing the piles that now line the tracks. It is relentless and backbreaking. Their children scamper amongst the rocks and muddy streams, quick to inspect any passing hawajas (white people) like me.

Moses told me that each pile sells for about one hundred dollars. This seemed to me a reasonable sum, until he mentioned that it takes at least two weeks to gather enough stone into a pile. And it might take up to three months to sell a single pile to any of the local businessmen – who sell the stone onto foreign construction companies at a hefty margin.

It dawned on me that this was truly a sentence of hard labour. There are no welfare programmes in South Sudan. No support for people displaced by fighting. No pension schemes, and very few jobs. If a family’s granite doesn’t sell, their only option is to head back up the hill and keep digging. Snakebite, malaria or injury would leave them with few prospects.

I realised that this is the nature of livelihoods in South Sudan. For some, this is what it now means to ‘earn a living’. Many of these same families survived years of conflict, constantly moving, living in the bush. The men no doubt carried weapons and most likely took some part in the war. And as I descended from the summit of Jebel Mara later that day, I wondered if perhaps some of them would rather still be there now.

Katie Chalcraft has been awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship and is currently travelling in Malawi and South Africa, exploring the use of arts in programmes working with people living with HIV. This blog is the fourth in a series of journal entries from Katie as she travels.

People Like Us

In 2007 Temwa made a film about HIV in the community. Jumbo, Project Coordinator at Temwa tells me that people love to watch films here. Video shows attract large crowds and people in the community will walk over an hour to get to one of the showings. They have become an effective medium for transmitting health messages. The week before I visited Temwa they were conducting a series of shows across Usisya in partnership with Utu Africa.

The film People Like Us was developed in response to comments from the community that the people in the films saying they were HIV+ could have been actors just saying they were HIV+ for money, they were not ‘people like us’. Temwa set about finding people from within the community living with HIV who were willing to share their testimony on film. They found three people, I interviewed two of them.

Jumbo and I walked in the midday sun along sandy paths and up a rocky mountain path to reach Jane’s house. On her veranda she sat leaning against the wall, her daughter was absentmindedly playing with the marbles from Bau (an African game) young baby on her lap. Jumbo translated for me as I explained to Jane why we had come to talk with her. One of the main motivations behind my research was to find out more about the impact that being part of theatre and visual arts programmes has on people living with HIV. With HIV theatre projects in particular, behaviour change is often evaluated by monitoring knowledge, attitude and behaviour change among the target population. However, I am interested in the psychosocial impact that performing one’s story of living with HIV has on the performer. Whilst I had not anticipated interviewing PLHIV who had been in films, the opportunity arose and I grabbed it. How had being in People Like Us affected Jane’s life, her attitude towards living with HIV, her role in society, her relationships in the community?

Jane glowed with pride when she spoke about her involvement in the film. She explained that the film was an appeal to the general community to know their HIV status. She said that it took a lot of courage to act in the film. In the support groups for PLHIV there were many people but very few were public about their HIV status. She said it took her some time to decide. Some members asked for money to participate in the film but Jane told me she did it for free. “I wanted to show people that it can be done without money. Today people confront me, you did this for nothing, why? I tell them I wanted to give them a message.”

Jane tested +ve in Zambia in 2005 and started on antiretroviral therapy in 2006. She tells me that she had a very good counsellor and all her problems and concerns vanished right there in the testing room. She feels very proud, usually after the film is shown, people come to her home. They see her preparing nsima and digging in her garden and see that she is healthy. She is very proud when people see what she is able to do and how she is able to live, proud of what she has achieved.

I asked if people living with HIV came to her for advice, she said it is very difficult for people to do this because that is automatically disclosing their status and people fear to be laughed at, men say if I say I am HIV+ then I can’t propose love to any woman.

I ask her: what elements do you need to live a full and happy life? She responds: not feeling sick, participating in sports, good food, a leak-proof house, feeling energetic, able to do work, having capital, running a good business, and being able to support family. Jumbo used the training I had provided 2 days previously to run through the batteries methodology with Jane. He used a stick to draw the batteries in the red sand of her yard.

Normally this tool would be used in relation to a programme intervention rather than something as short-lived as involvement in a film. However, it seemed like a good opportunity to talk through how the film had impacted Jane’s quality of life if it had and also an opportunity for Jumbo to put into practice what he had learned.

Jane cited that her emotional happiness had improved due to her involvement in the film – she was happy that people were talking about her status and said that she feels proud when people watch her on the screen and when they come and talk to her about it, it makes her feel better about herself. Following the film she has been approached by a number of organisations to attend trainings – this she tells us has empowered her and also contributed to the increase in her energy levels in the fourth domain of change: Livelihood and Security. Through the trainings she has been exposed to ways to find food and money for her family.

For Anderson, talking in the film about his status was not difficult. His main motivator was his interest in educating people. He started to be open about his HIV status after joining the Zetuwekha support group set up for HIV+ people by Temwa. Following the film he also had many people approaching him, he now calls himself a public figure. He speaks at events about HIV – when people are meeting to play Bau and at funerals. He prides himself on giving correct info about HIV to the people in his community. He says he has seen an increase in the number of people going for testing as a direct result of the film.

I ask where he gets all his HIV info that he is sharing in the community – he tells me he is learning from trainings and a support group. But the support group is not meeting at the moment, they got funding from the National AIDS Commission but, he tells me that the people in the support group who were in charge of the money squandered it, a story that is not unfamiliar in Malawi. I think of the corrupt border guard I encountered who was asking for my jewellery in addition to the extra 5000 Kwacha he was charging me to enter the country. Since 2010, no one meets. He tells me he misses it so much, the group once had over 20  members whenever they met they had an experience, they would learn from each other. He said that after the group met he would always go home happy. I ask him what is the solution? He says Temwa should write letters to the group members and invite members back. For me, his words underline the importance of community in achieving emotional wellbeing.

So what does a good QoL involve for Anderson? Being HIV negative, having a happy family, good food, a happy house, access to medical services, having a fishing net, being able to catch fish, eat fish, sell fish, farm and grow his own food.

Similarly to Jane the reasons for improvement in health were not attributed to the film. However, in relation to emotional happiness he says that now his energy level is at 10 – he has no concerns, no worries and is very proud of what people see in the film People Like Us. As a result of his involvement in the film he took part in positive living training (another Temwa programme) which he tells us taught him a lot, especially about diet and safe sex. Whilst his livelihood was not directly influenced by his involvement in the film he did say that some people do approach him and give him small amounts of money to congratulate him for taking part in the film, which helps.

As mentioned, this was a slightly unorthodox way to test the Batteries Methodology, nevertheless it does seem to demonstrate some genuine positive changes experienced by the two participants interviewed and provided a good talking tool to unpack the reasons behind changes in their energy levels. Consequently I am reviewing the possibilities that this methodology offers, whilst keeping a critical eye on the situation on the ground. So far Malawi, Temwa’s work, their inspirational staff, school children and project beneficiaries  have made me realise the value of community here and the determination of people to fight for a better future for themselves.

*FYI – for more info on the Batteries Methodology please contact Harriet Jones at [email protected]

NB –full quantitative data regarding the research gathered using the Batteries Methodology will be available in my full research report

Katie Chalcraft has been awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship and is currently travelling in Malawi and South Africa, exploring the use of arts in programmes working with people living with HIV. This blog is the third in a series of journal entries from Katie as she travels.

DAY 2: Temwa

 Forum Theatre

On my second day in Usisya, Kams and I left her home at 5.30am and met Hillary on the path for our 2 ½ hour walk to Chiwisi Primary School. Determined not to be deterred by the lack of fuel and transport Hilary and Kams have spent the last few months walking up and down mountains for up to 6 hours in a day to deliver training to the AIDS Action Clubs. AIDS Action clubs were a government initiative for young people in schools to receive education on HIV, to protect themselves from the virus and to fight the stigma and discrimination so commonly associated with HIV.

In June, Hilary and Kams ran training with Chiwisi’s AIDS Action Club in communication, leadership and introduction to drama skills. Following this, four star pupils were selected along with four from each of the other 29 AIDS Action clubs from schools in Temwa’s catchment area to be trained in forum theatre. Today’s visit to Chiwisi was to monitor what the club members had retained from the trainings and to prepare them for an open day planned next month. The open day would provide the opportunity for the AIDS Action clubs from a number of schools to introduce the community to forum theatre and to show how they can use forum theatre as a way of ‘rehearsing life’ and practicing behaviour change.

Forum theatre was developed by Augusto Boal and is highly participatory. It involves directly inviting audience members to the stage to try to find practical strategies for changing the behaviour of the characters in the play. This kind of theatre has proved to be a powerful method for developing dialogue around HIV and sex education as it favours critical thinking and draws attention to social and psychological aspects of the pandemic.

In the dark and dusty classroom, AIDS Action Club members (aged between 13 and 17) ran games to warm up the audience. Following this they forumed a real life situation: a schoolgirl was telling her parents that she was going to school when really she was going to meet her boyfriend. The facilitator, a skinny young boy (no more than 13 years of age), pauses the scene and asked the audience – so what is the problem here? He gathered the answers: the main concern of these school children was that the girl is at risk of contracting HIV.

The facilitator then asked the audience to get into groups for 5 minutes and to brainstorm what the girl can do to change her situation. The following solutions were suggested: the schoolgirl should be advised to use a condom, be counselled to abstain from sex, go for an HIV test. The facilitator explained that anyone in the audience can step into the scene and try out their solution. A slender young girl with high cheekbones and almond shaped eyes raises her hand – she wants to participate. The facilitator clarified who she was in relation to the protagonist, which point she wishes to step into the play and where she is coming from when she enters the scene.

So she steps out from the audience and onto the stage as the friend of the schoolgirl. She begins her intervention by chastising the boyfriend before turning her attention to her friend warning her that she should not be having sex with him because of the risks of contracting HIV. She spoke of the importance of going to school and getting an education. Her friend is resistant, arguing “who does not want a man? He gives me money, he gives me love – who would not want that? What’s the point in me going to school when I can be supported by this man?” It appears that her boyfriend is older than her and is working, the school children tell me that this is a common scenario. After some time and a heated discussion, finally the friend convinces her to focus on her education and to leave her boyfriend.

Following this conclusion, the facilitator asked the audience: “having watched the drama has the problem been solved? Are you happy with that solution? Are there any other solutions?”. Some other bold young women say that the girl must learn how to use condoms, another one says the girl in the play must go for Voluntary Counselling and Testing. The facilitator probes further – if you were in this situation what would you do? Would this solution work for you? Would you use this solution for your friends here in school? Why? Why would this work? What have we learned from this? Where do we take this information now? The facilitator summarised the drama and the key lessons learned before closing with a game.

I was particularly impressed with how the girls spoke out, their knowledge about condoms and the importance of testing. Contrary to my expectations, it was the girls who spoke out in this scenario more than the boys. Forum theatre is providing these young people not only with an opportunity to practice dealing with real life situations they face but it also provides a forum to explore the variety of options available to them in reaching solutions. I wish I had time to attend one of the open days it would have been interesting to observe the response of the audience in the community.

Arriving home exhausted, having scrambled over rocks, through the lake, trees and bushes (Hilary took us on a short cut!), I was struck by the sheer dogged determination of Temwa staff to continue to run their programmes despite the many obstacles they may face in their work. I was informed that the route I walked was one of the easier ones and Kams and Hilary joked that this time we were lucky because at least we had food and water with us.

Katie Chalcraft has been awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship and is currently travelling in Malawi and South Africa, exploring the use of arts in programmes working with people living with HIV. This blog is the second in a series of journal entries from Katie as she travels.

Batteries Methodology Training at Temwa

Upon waking up in Kams’ house in Usisya we walked to the Temwa offices. Temwa in Usisya consists of two buildings – a community library with the programme manager’s office attached, and a community hall with an office for the rest of the staff. I am shown around the community garden where food is grown for PLHIV, widows and orphans. The produce is sold to the rest of the community. I am told that the people of Usisya at first only believed that cassava grew there, the demonstration garden was set up to prove otherwise. Seeing is believing. The villagers became despondent at first when they did not see quick results, to them reiterating that the lake soil was only good for cassava; however, there is now a wide range of vegetables available to them.

In the afternoon I ran the training with the Temwa staff in the Batteries Methodology. This approach was developed by CAFOD to support partners in assessing changes in the quality of life of programme clients, and to increase participation of clients in programme monitoring and design. It was developed in consultation with CAFOD community-based programme partners in Nigeria, Cambodia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.

The methodology provides a way of assessing the impact that programmes are having on the quality of life of people living with or otherwise affected by HIV. This information then supports organisations in providing a holistic programmatic response. The Temwa staff had an interesting brainstorm on quality of life. In response to the question “what does it mean to lead a happy and fulfilled life?”, answers ranged from: freedom and rights, sex, beer, access to good health services, peace, land, education, a sofa set, a good cell phone, fuel, a fat salary, etc. The answers were divided into 4 domains of change: Health, Emotional Happiness, Knowledge and Empowerment and Livelihood Security*.

Participants rated their energy level from 1 to 10 on pictures of batteries in the four domains of change mentioned above. This method can be used as a baseline before a programme intervention, or can be done retrospectively – how would you rate your QoL now in the domains of change mentioned above? Thinking back to before you were involved in the programme – how would you rate your QoL then, using the same domains of change. With Temwa the staff would potentially either be conducting research using the methodology themselves or training others in using it, so to enable them to practice this methodology we used the example of assessing their quality of life retrospectively since joining the organisation.

I used this merely as an example to demonstrate how to use the batteries tool and was not prepared for the heartfelt challenges that were aired in the group. The challenges of living in Usisya were exposed. A number of frustrations were raised about working in such a remote area however, it seemed that the desire of the staff to serve the community overcame the desire for a ‘fat salary’ and the ‘sofa set’.

The next step following the indication of energy levels ‘now’ and ‘before joining the organisation’ was to unpack the reasons behind the shift. Fuel and transport featured highly as well as the need for rural allowances. It seems the voices of those on the ground need to be heard by those in the Mzuzu office generally creating a better line of communication between the offices and ensuring that Temwa’s excellent standards of work are maintained.

Katie Chalcraft has been awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship and is currently travelling in Malawi and South Africa, exploring the use of arts in programmes working with people living with HIV. This blog is one of a series of journal entries from Katie as she travels.

To Temwa…

It was as if we were driving along a silver thread. Sitting on a bench in the back of the vehicle, my back to one window, looking out of the other, I could not see the road; I could only see the silhouettes of mountains in the moonlight. Sheer blue shapes, the enormity of the landscape, we were so high, and the drop-off so steep If the road were not so bumpy we could have been flying. I pressed my thumb and forefinger together in a cross and kissed them. I do this to pray for safety, a technique I have used on perilous adventures around the world in an attempt to bring peace of mind. I recalled the moment when my brother first taught it to me, I was to do it when I saw or heard an ambulance. I smiled to myself; I was now travelling in an ambulance. One of eight passengers, I was squashed between Kams, a volunteer from the UK for an NGO called Temwa, and Steve the medical assistant for a local health care centre. The driver was Rasheed, other passengers included Lucy a nurse, her husband and child and some villagers whose faces I could not see in the dark and whose voices I could not hear over the roar of the engine and the sounds of UB40 blasting from the stereo. None of us were ill; this was merely the only means of transport we could use to travel from Mzuzu to Usisya, a remote rural area in Northern Malawi.

The purpose of my journey was to visit Temwa, a UK-based NGO that are implementing a series of programmes aimed at providing sustainable, community-driven development in: health education, skills development, agriculture, irrigation and schools support in Nkhata Bay North. This remote region of 28,000 people has no electricity, no running water and is severely affected by the HIV epidemic. There are no other NGOs working in the region and the local government strongly encouraged Temwa to work in this area due to its need for basic development.

This year I received a grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to conduct research into ‘Tackling HIV-related stigma through visual and performance arts’. Temwa is the first organisation I am visiting as part of my research. The key objectives of my research are to gain a comprehensive understanding of how the visual and performance arts techniques of body mapping and interactive theatre affect the self-perception of people living with HIV (PLHIV); and to gather information on the perceived strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and constraints of these approaches from a wide range of stakeholders in Malawi and South Africa.

(It’s not) All About Me

When I initially wrote to Tonderai, Temwa’s Programme Manager, explaining my research interests and enquiring if I could visit Temwa, the response I received was curt. He proposed conditions under which I could visit: he stated that one of the major deliverables of my assignment must be that I design a project and create links for possible funding for a sexual and reproductive health programme amongst young mothers and adolescent girls in Nkhata Bay North. He said he would like to see the communities benefitting more from all those who come and work with Temwa. The conditions he specified were neither in line with my research nor with my expertise, however Tonderai raised a valid point and for this I am most grateful as it led me to re-frame my research. It is all very well going to organisations and learning from them but what was I actually contributing in return?

I am clear on what I want to gain from this opportunity and what learning I would take back to the UK with me. Through the experience gained in Malawi and South Africa I plan to develop a programme of creative workshops for PLHIV based on interactive theatre techniques and body mapping. These workshops will aim to support people in rethinking their relationship with the virus, their bodies, antiretroviral therapy, their lives and the laws and policies that affect them. This work aims to increase the quality of life of PLHIV by introducing new coping mechanisms to address the self-stigma, depression and low self-esteem often associated with HIV. The question remained: what would the organisations I visited in Malawi and South Africa gain from my visit?

I will share learning between institutions, highlighting best practice, and submit an abstract of my findings to the 2012 International AIDS Society conference. Following a conversation with Tonderai we came to an agreement. He identified a need for his organisation to develop their expertise in monitoring and evaluation; I could conduct my research with Temwa on the condition that I shared my experience in this area. I agreed to run a workshop for Temwa on a tool developed by CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) called the Batteries Methodology: A Participatory Approach to Assessing the Quality of Life of People living with and affected by HIV.


Journey to Usisya

Following a 9 hour bus journey from Lilongwe to Mzuzu, I was met at the bus depot by Kams who, together with a Project Officer at Temwa named Hilary, runs forum theatre workshops with the AIDS Action clubs in and around Usisya. Kams took me to meet Tonderai and the other staff at Temwa’s Mzuzu office. Tonderai looked tired and frustrated as he explained how the fuel crisis in Malawi is seriously impacting their ability to do their work. Temwa’s main office is in Mzuzu but their work in the field is conducted in Usisya, a remote area made up of 56 villages in and around the lake. The organisation’s vehicle was in repair and we needed both fuel and transport to travel to Usisya. Tonderai heard that fuel was on its way to Mzuzu (the closest town to Usisya), loading his car with jerry cans he set off from the office for the gas station joking that he would wait as long as it was necessary and that he was prepared for a fight at the pumps!

Unfortunately, after a long wait Tonderai returned without fuel, so Kams and I stayed the night in Mzuzu and hatched Plan B. Rasheed the ambulance driver from Usisya was in town – we would travel with him the following night.

Fuelling Health

Usisya is set in and around the mountains leading down to the lake, the views are spectacular but I am told that life is hard here. There is one health centre where Steve and Lucy work. However, there is no trained doctor there. Steve and Lucy serve a community of 14,000 people but their contracts are only temporary and they are limited in what they can do without a doctor; most cases need to be referred onto Mzuzu hospital. Rasheed drives the ambulance from Usisya to Mzuzu sometimes up to 2 to 3 times in a day. The journey itself is anywhere between 2 to 5 hours depending on the season and how passable the road is.

The roles of nurse and medical assistants are based at Usisya’s health care centre for 3-4 months only. People simply don’t want to stay for longer: the environment is too harsh. Steve and Lucy, like Rasheed, are not entitled to holiday, they are constantly on call and only get to leave Usisya for training. Transport from Mzuzu to Usisya is limited to the ambulance or the Petronics truck – an open truck leaving Usisya at 2am. The truck is packed with people; the journey is cold, dusty, bumpy and extremely dangerous. What is needed, I am told, are health professionals from Usisya itself as they would not mind living there as much as the outsiders, but due to the poor level of education in Usisya this has proved to be difficult. The fuel crisis compounds the situation: Rasheed, the ambulance driver with whom we travelled, spent 3 days in Nkhata Bay trying to get fuel for his ambulance, leaving the people of Usisya stranded and unable to reach a hospital. We were told of a woman so sick and in need of hospitalisation she embarked upon the perilous journey through the mountain passes in the back of the Petronius truck in his absence. It seems there are no special allowances in the fuel crisis for ambulances; indeed taxis seem to get fuel over and above ambulances. Word can get out that fuel is there but it’s all about who you know, and people book the fuel before it even arrives. Long queues of cars are a common sight in gas stations all across Malawi. Sometimes people wait at the pumps all day, leave their vehicles overnight only to return the next morning and begin waiting again. Many buy fuel on the black market but it is often mixed with water or paraffin. A few days ago an NGO worker told a story of a man trying to set himself on fire at a fuel station here, he was so frustrated having waited many hours for fuel that by the time he got it he decided to make a point by dousing himself in it and setting himself alight. The attendants managed to put the flames out before too much damage was done, it reminded me of the Arab Spring scenario but we are not allowed to mention that here.

It is difficult to grasp just how much we in the developed world take our roads for granted. Growing up in rural Australia, endless stretches of blacktop shimmering in the heat haze were an unquestioned necessity.

This is not the case in South Sudan. Roughly the size of France, it has a total of around 4,000 kilometres of hard-packed dirt road, in conditions generally ranging from poor to diabolical. There is a mere 100km of paved road, shared across the country’s three largest towns.

To put this into perspective, France itself has just over one million kilometres of road. (1,000,960 to be precise). All of it paved. Which is almost exactly ten thousand times the amount of tarmac in South Sudan.

Comparisons such as these can often mean little. But for any average South Sudanese farmer, living in just about any village in the country, it means an awful lot;

A road means he might be able to get his crops or his cattle to market without having to walk for days. This eases the burden on his family, especially his children who otherwise have to fetch water, tend the cattle and forage from a young age.

It means a greater chance a school can be constructed in his community, and staffed with trained teachers who are able to live in areas previously out of reach. This means it is more likely his children will receive an education. It means his wife has a better chance of delivering their next child in a medical clinic, rather than risking her life to give birth alone.

It means it more likely that a police post will be built in the area, which means that marauding attacks by cattle raiders or rebel groups will be less frequent, and less bloody. It means that he is more likely to actually meet those officials who represent him in the government. And he is more likely to have a say in the decisions they are making on his behalf.

You get the point. Roads are no panacea. But they do improve security, extend governance and reduce poverty. The UK think tank ODI recently reported that rural road construction provided widespread benefits to poor communities; expanding markets, improving access to education, strengthening livelihoods, increasing opportunities for women, and more.

The benefits have not been lost of the South Sudan Government. Kuol Manyang, Governor for the South Sudan’s largest state of Jonglei bluntly told me recently “In this state, roads are more important than schools. Without them we perish. And this government will perish also.”

Yet there are excellent reasons behind the virtual absence of roads in his state. Forty years of war aside, they are extremely difficult to build, and massively expensive.

Most of Jonglei is swamp. The rest is made up of the dreaded black-cotton soil, benign and forgiving in the dry, but turning into an evil sludge with the consistency of treacle the instant rains fall. Any road therefore has to be surfaced with gravel. Unfortunately this gravel, known as ‘murrum’ is only available in a handful of areas across the country. Every shovel load has to be painstakingly hauled over desperately poor roads that deteriorate further with the passing of each truck. Out here the circle is vicious.

This means that the average cost per kilometre of dirt road becomes anywhere between $30,000 to $200,000 depending on its remoteness. At close to one million dollars per kilometre, tarmac is not even an option.

I met Patrick Ivo, a South Sudanese engineer working in Jonglei. He told me that even the best ‘murrumed’ roads don’t survive the thundering rains which pound the landscape in the wet season. Without maintenance (which is expensive), they will last two years. He shook his head mournfully as he told me of thirty trucks, each laden with construction materials, lying marooned in the black-cotton morass less than fifty kilometres from the state capital of Bor. There they will stand until the rains cease in a few months.

Despite the challenges, there is cause for optimism. The UK funded South Sudan Recovery Fund is constructing 600 kilometres of road across some of the most conflict prone and inaccessible areas. The UK is considering investing further in a rural ‘feeder’ roads network, linking into the work of the Americans and Chinese who are pumping vast amounts into primary road construction. It will take time, money and commitment of the government and its partners. It will also require patience for rural communities. But change is coming.

Last week South Sudan’s largest state of Jonglei was again wracked by violence.

On 18 August, thousands of young men from the Murle tribe, armed with assault rifles, launched an attack on communities from the neighbouring Lou Nuer tribe, deep in the remote northern part of the state. The men first struck the village of Pieri, and moved quickly westwards, scorching a swathe through villages across 150 square kilometres. In their rage they abducted hundreds of children, torched thousands of homes and stole tens of thousands of cattle, the life-blood of the Lou Nuer.

When the dust had settled and the blood had dried, more than 640 people had been killed, with 750 wounded.

As one of the least developed states in South Sudan, Jonglei has long been marred by conflict. Life for many is precarious, burdened with crushing poverty, tormented by the threat of cattle raids and newly formed rebel groups. Add to this a ready supply of weapons and young men without work. The mixture is highly combustible.

So volatile in fact, that prior to this recent incident, over a thousand people had been killed in dozens of clashes between the Lou-Nuer and Murle communities this year alone. The August attack had simply been the latest in a surge of retaliatory violence that is not looking to diminish anytime soon.

This time, the response was immediate, but not sufficient.

Humanitarian agencies, despite having been caught up in the carnage, tended to the wounded, distributed food supplies and provided emergency shelter. Searches for the missing children were launched. An inter-agency assessment team, led by the South Sudan Government, was dispatched four days after the violence had ended. They resolved to deploy more troops to the area, establish reconciliation processes and improve local infrastructure.

Such promises restore confidence and stability if they are fulfilled. Failure or inaction however can do more harm than good. If for instance, troops are deployed without sufficient equipment or provisions, forcing them to plunder local communities (as is not uncommon), then the public is further traumatised. If peace processes rehash old tensions or yield few outcomes then the initiative is lost. If it takes years to construct new roads or dredge blocked rivers, then government credibility is damaged.

Violent incidents such as these reinforce the need for rapid, concerted stabilisation efforts, which tackle the immediate situation while building local resilience and laying the foundation for longer-term recovery. They must be ably led by the Government and its security forces, and supported by the international community.

For instance, at precisely this moment in Jonglei, a raft of integrated stabilisation initiatives should be underway; shoring up the capacity of the local police, supporting local citizens to voice their grievances, enabling officials to access remote areas, communicate with their people and visibly lead in recovery efforts. Homes destroyed in the fighting could be rebuilt with well run employment schemes, offering new skills and possibilities to youth who otherwise know only cattle and raiding. Restoring water-points, markets and local services could be a fulcrum for not only addressing immediate needs, but for including women, young people and traditional leaders in determining how to mitigate tensions and avoid future conflict.

Except this time, the response will be limited – at best. Humanitarian organisations are performing heroically, yet their scope is narrow. Government agencies suffer acutely from a lack of just about everything; skills, funds and supplies. International organisations are hampered by cumbersome procurement systems, inflexible funding mechanisms and programmes that take time to deliver.

There is no doubt that South Sudan is a uniquely challenging environment, from just about any perspective you care to take. Yet this recent attack in Jonglei brings renewed urgency to the quest for new approaches to establish much needed stability for the region.

‘Don’t be fooled by Juba, Hamish. The real South Sudan lies outside… you’ll see.’

In my first week, virtually everyone I met offered me this advice, and it sparked my interest in life beyond the capital.

Just days later I was in the north of the country, enduring a bone-jarring journey on the recently refurbished inter-state road between Wau and Kwajok, weaving and bouncing around bathtub sized potholes that threatened to swallow our vehicle. Kunal, a colleague from UNDP and South Sudan veteran, took great delight in my various reactions; ‘Enjoy it!’ he kept booming over the rattle; ‘this is one of the best roads in the state!’

Along the way we had passed hundreds of troops from the South Sudan Liberation Army (SPLA), manning checkpoints, hunched under trees and amongst the thatched huts lining the road. Their bedraggled appearance in an assortment of ill-fitting uniforms, often without weapons, did not inspire confidence. I’m told that it’s not uncommon for local communities to be better armed that the military. But in these parts, a uniform and a semblance of authority substitutes for a livelihood.

We arrived in Kwajok, the docile, sprawling capital of Warrap state. A look beyond the dusty air of calm revealed vast challenges for security, governance and development. Basic sanitation and services appear not to exist, living conditions for recently returned Southerners are bleak, newly installed power-lines lie broken and V8 landcruisers and air-conditioned offices were the only evidence of government. A second glance at the shops in the teeming market reveals a near monopoly by Ugandan, Ethiopian and Kenyan businessmen. There appears to be a vast population of unemployed youth, with ready access to weapons, facing few prospects and rising costs of marriage. A volatile mix in a state wracked by ethic division and violent incursions by rebel groups.

Serious as these challenges are, it is worth putting things into perspective. After all, as I had only recently learned, this region has been wracked with war for all but ten years since Sudan’s independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. The question I found myself asking in Kwajok was what is the impact of decades of conflict, marginalisation, displacement and devastation upon this new country?

For a start, the need to address insecurity is all-encompassing. Entrenched poverty, deeply embedded ethnic and tribal tensions, weak and corrupt governance, scarce water and grazing land, a military which acts with impunity; there are many reasons for conflict to remain pervasive, despite the war ending with the north.

Then there is the question of state-building. How do you create a nation in this context? Where much of the population felt more secure during the war? According to a recent Danish assessment, the process ‘is virtually starting from zero, in a backdrop of serious demographic, ethnic, rural-urban and centre-periphery fault lines.’ And do not overlook the fact that, most, if not all, civil servants earned their jobs as bush-fighters in the war.

Finally, the socio-economic impacts have been simply devastating. South Sudan faces some of the worst indicators in the world; more than 90% of the population live on less than a dollar a day, 97% of people have no access to sanitation, 92% of women cannot read or write, 1 in 7 pregnant women will die of complications, 1.5 million people are food insecure… the list goes on. And it is staggering.

The enormity of these challenges began to sink in on the return flight to Juba, as the vast country below, cut off by seasonal rains for half the year, merged in the distance with the hazy blue horizon. At this point the significance of recent events struck me; relatively orderly national elections in 2010, a peaceful referendum early this year, followed by a surprisingly calm transition to independence in July.


It made me wonder if, in spite of massive obstacles to peace, nationhood and development, this place might just have a chance. It might be a faint glimmer of hope at present, perched atop a fragile foundation, but it is a glimmer nonetheless.

I stepped from the aeroplane into a thick haze of humidity. Its warmth enveloped me in greeting, rich with the scent of the wet season. Heavy, grey clouds lounged low in the sky, soon to deluge the city of Juba with its daily downpour.

‘Welcome to our new country!’ beamed the customs officer, reaching over the heads of the newly arrived throng for my travel permit. He flashed me a wide, toothy smile, appearing genuinely pleased to see me. I was not expecting this. Where was the surly glare I had experienced in Kinshasa? Where was the suffocating security of Kabul?

The world’s media was anxiously hopeful in the run up to South Sudan’s celebration of independence on July 9. Fears of violence and unease over the many problems still unresolved were all underscored by a deep incredulity that this day had actually arrived for a region wracked by war for much of the past fifty years.

I arrived just days later, and the elation was still plain to see in the customs officer’s greeting. The mood was also evident on the streets of Juba. Amidst the pools of murky water and mounds of rotting garbage, precarious wooden scaffolding encased new buildings being constructed. Gleaming solar powered street-lights flashed by as we drove past road crews busily marking lines on a newly paved road.  About me, four-wheel drives bearing logos of aid agencies and government ministries weaved and jostled their way through the pedestrians. The world’s newest capital is bursting at its seams.

Ive been dispatched as the UK’s Stabilisation Adviser, charged with continuing the work of Adrian Garside, who by all accounts was universally admired, leaving me with substantial shoes to fill. As such, I’m to oversee the £50m Sudan Recovery Fund and £10m Community Security and Small Arms Control programmes. Both were established to tackle the pervasive conflict that continues to threaten South Sudan’s stability.

Thankfully, two former Helmand comrades are to join me; Phil Weatherill and Mike McKie will be embedded within UNDP to manage the programmes across four of South Sudan’s most violent states. They will have the unenviable jobs of ensuring that roads are built, police posts established and warring communities brought together in some of the remotest parts of the country.

It’s clearly going to be a massive challenge, one fraught with dilemmas, uncertainties and setbacks. It also strikes me that ‘stabilisation’ in South Sudan wont look like stabilisation elsewhere, and that this journey can’t be constrained or configured by what failed or succeeded in other parts of the world. Whatever its course, it will certainly be one buoyed by the optimism and energy of a newly forged nation excited for its future.