I have just returned from Morobo County, in the Central Equatoria state of South Sudan. It is in the Greenbelt, which is so named because of the usual rainfall, beginning in March and ending about October. As of this writing we are in the dry season, November through February.
The Greenbelt is a food-growing and feed-growing region. The rainfall period includes two growing seasons, with between 1.2 and 1.5 meters (40 to 55 inches) of rain through these seven months.
This region includes Western Equatoria state, Central Equatoria state and portions of Eastern Equatoria state. The soils here range from coarse-textured sands to loamy clays and are generally quite productive.
Here in Morobo County, we found some rolling topography and the “bush” was quite extensive. As I have written before, the bush is the vegetative growth of a wide range of grasses, bushes and trees.
The complexity of the bush, or shall we use the phrase “ecology of the bush,” is amazingly complex. The native plant growth here is rapid; the combination of plentiful heat units, reasonably fertile soils and rainfall are the right ingredients.
For two days, my colleagues from the U.S. Agency for International Development and I have looked at the effectiveness of a USAID program, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). OFDA is the part of USAID dedicated to help dislocated people get back on their feet.
Here in South Sudan, “dislocated” can be refugees returning to their villages, thus refugees no longer, and IDPs, or internally displaced persons.
I have a billet at the UNHRC compound (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in Torit and, in every direction from the compound, IDPs have set up camp, trying to find food and, in most cases, growing maize (corn) and sorghum on small garden-size plots.
The OFDA effort here in Morobo is short-term (one year) provisions of largely hand tools and seeds. The tools are simple: a hoe, a machete and an axe. These three make up the vast majority of farm tools here in the Greenbelt.
I did not realize the challenge with seeds here in South Sudan. Challenge as in finding good-quality seeds, especially vegetable seeds. Here in the Greenbelt most seeds come from Uganda and Kenya (neighboring countries to the south).
The challenge is obtaining good-quality seeds, and there is no process in place that labels seed as “certified” or places a germination percentage on the bag.
For these refugees returning to their village, OFDA simply contracts with an implementing non-government organization (NGO) and awards the NGO a financial contract to deliver support to the refugees and the IDPs. Fortunately, the NGO we evaluated did far more.
The staff were delivering Extension-like management advice, including how to clear land, how to plant the seeds and how to manage the crop harvest avoiding storage losses.
Yes, the challenges here are at that basic level. In fact the challenges here are so profound that progress is measured very slowly. In the vast landscape of the “bush” we drive for 30 minutes only to find a one-to-three-acre plot of land with a crop growing in it. The crop may be cassava or maize or peanuts.
A group of refugees have organized into a cooperative effort called a farmers group organization (FBO) and collectively began farming.
The collective part of the organization is traditional (cultural) here. The very basis of the village is a collective effort so that everyone is fed and taken care of. The refugees, organized into an FBO of 20 to 40 persons, include many women.
It is no mystery here in Africa that women do much or most of the farming. In fact I have been told often that women farm, as in cultivate, and men are herders of livestock as pastoralists.
With the hand tools, seeds and the simplest of management practices, these African farmers grow food for themselves. This home consumption model is a start … and the effort reduces the need for humanitarian efforts built on entitlement.
Often in my work here, I see the opportunity of just giving a little bit of help to an FBO so that they can provide for themselves. The World Food Program (as entitlement) is here (South Sudan) in a big way … providing foodstuffs for people without that initial push of hand tools, seeds and management practices.
The effort described here may seem so basic and simple compared to our agricultural industry. They cannot be compared equally. The similarities of planting seeds and managing a crop (weeding, controlling soil erosion and harvesting) are the same, but the level of sophistication is vastly different.
Imagine, 25 farmers in an FBO farm three acres of land, growing enough food to feed themselves and nothing left over. But this step is an enormous one, the first step at self-determination, of ownership, rather than the cycle of entitlement and abject poverty.
The OFDA program is funded by the U.S. taxpayers. My role here in Central Equatoria state, Morobo County, is to see if we are getting a return on that investment. In more than just what may be a self-serving statement, I submit we are.
In the deepest recesses of our humanness, our empathy and compassion rise to this level of action. At the core of our being we are helpful, but such help must be made manifest.
The simple act of giving a steel hoe, an axe, a machete and a sack of seed can cause a man to have just enough that he or she meets the most basic demand of living … growing food on a plot of land that once was “bush,” the placement of a cassava tuber to sorghum seed or peanut into the soil with one’s hand, keeping the weeds away, scaring away the animals that come in the night to feed, until at some point the men and women enter the field and harvest a crop.