When her first son was born, Agawol lived in Yargot, a village in the north of what is now South Sudan. There, life has always been hard: depending on a small plot of land to grow food, and coping with very little access to clean water, income opportunities, or health care services.
In 2011, in an historic referendum, she cast her vote in favor of South Sudan’s independence from the Republic of Sudan, stamping her fingerprint next to the “yes” box on the ballot: "I thought that peace would be established and that hunger would be a fading memory,” says Agawol. Her hope was short-lived: just two years later, in December 2013, conflict broke out in the world´s youngest country.
The consequences were significant. Fighting made many roads unsafe, interfering with the delivery of food and other essential goods to local markets. Depreciation of local currency, along with spikes in inflation year after year, have contributed to an economic crisis. Rising food prices have forced families to eat less and, along with other factors, have helped to fuel an extreme, widespread hunger crisis.
In areas directly affected by conflict, violence has uprooted 3.9 million from their homes and cut off communities from humanitarian assistance, leaving people without food, water, or medical help. In early 2017, famine was declared in Unity State, and today, six million people are in urgent need of food assistance – the greatest number of people suffering from hunger ever recorded in the nation.
Four years after the outbreak of civil conflict, Agawol is doing everything within her power to feed her family and strengthen her community’s ability to overcome adversity. Even though her resources are scarce, she has abundant determination to persevere.
Agawol rises at dawn to tend her crops, then goes out to collect firewood. Once she has enough, she ties it up, put it on her head in perfect balance, and walks toward the market.
The market smells of dirt, dust, and spices. The largest wooden stall sells detergent, cookies, packets to make soap and candles. Another sells wood and peanuts, another only sells four onions, another has bags with sugar and straw brushes. No fresh fruits or vegetables are sold. Agawol sets her bundle down, and a woman examines her wood and offers to purchase it. With the money Agawol earns, she buys two sachets: one of milk, another of peanut powder. She smiles. Her family will eat today.
The cooking routine begins back at home—all the children approach and watch expectantly. Agawol grinds a small amount of sorghum grain in a mortar, builds a fire, and begins to prepare the asida, a kind of porridge. Everyone sits on the floor and eats together inside the mud hut where they live.
–Do you eat other things apart from asida?
–No, almost always we eat asida.
–Would you like to change from time to time?
–I don’t know. We grow sorghum.
–And do you eat meat?
–Yes, once in a while.
–When was the last time?
–A year ago. There was a celebration of the army and they brought meat to Yargot. We share it among all the neighbors.
Last year, when Agawol's sixth daughter got sick, she was not surprised. Her sorghum harvest had been ruined and prices were high. She had no choice but to eat boiled leaves as the only food. "My child cried and cried, but I had nothing else to feed her," says Agawol. When the girl barely had enough strength, she was taken to the health center and Action Against Hunger staff diagnosed her with acute malnutrition.
"I was told I should feed her a special peanut paste," she explains, referring to a ready-to-use therapeutic food full of protein and micronutrients designed to treat acutely malnourished children and restore them to health. Action Against Hunger admitted Agawol’s daughter into its outpatient program for acutely malnourished children, where caregivers are given weekly supplies of the special therapeutic food, and health workers provide weekly monitoring to track children’s health and nutrition status. Agawol says, “We went back for a check-up every week, and I saw my child gaining weight until she was discharged one month later."
An Agent of Change
As her daughter got better, Agawol volunteered at Action Against Hunger’s outpatient nutrition center, helping the staff and learning to spot the warning signs of malnutrition. She hasn’t stopped volunteering now that her child is healthy again: every Tuesday, she leaves her house armed with a special plastic measuring band and a pen and walks to the homes of her neighbors in Yargot. First, she talks with the parents, tells the story of her daughter, and then, if they agree, she screens the children.
"With this bracelet, I measure the circumference of the child's arm," explains Agawol, showing the mid-upper arm circumference band Action Against Hunger trained her to use. "When the small arrow on the bracelet is yellow, it means that the child has from moderate acute malnutrition. But if the arrow points to the red, it means severe acute malnutrition.” In either case, Agawol refers all children with indications of malnutrition to Action Against Hunger’s nutrition program at the health center.
In Northern Bahr el Ghazal, where Agawol has always lived, communities live on very little, even before the current crisis. They are accustomed to coping with setbacks and scarcity.
Agawol has never had abundant income or running water, she has never had electricity. She has never given birth in a hospital, owned a watch or a bed with a mattress. But she is determined to make it possible for her children to someday live without worrying if they will have enough to eat tomorrow.
Despite extreme hardship at every turn—Agawol refuses to give in to despair. She has found not only the courage to continue, but also the determination to help her neighbors. Facing adversity has led Agawol to share her strength and become an agent of change in her community.