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Doing the cash dash in Southern Sudan

After almost three weeks in South Sudan I’d still not made it out to the field. A couple of trips had been organised but both had fallen through at the last minute. One aborted trip was to Terekeka, where we would have been distributing NFI kits to about 14,000 IDPs, displaced following inter-community conflict.

However, the day before we were due to leave a UN convoy was shot at while waiting at a checkpoint on the road between Juba and Terekeka. The consequent security concerns forced us to postpone the distribution. Between January and the end of September, 330,000 people have been displaced in Southern Sudan; much of this has been caused by recurrent conflict, and so it is doubly frustrating when further conflict restricts our ability to provide life-saving responses.

So it was with great excitement that I arranged to travel north to Malualkon to assist in a cash distribution. The area has recently experienced a large number of returnees (27,000 in the first six months of 2008 alone), and this has put a huge strain on the community, and malnutrition levels have consistently been above the emergency threshold. The idea of the cash transfer is to give beneficiary households the ability to address their immediate nutritional needs, but also to invest in capital assets such as livestock or small business enterprises so they can escape the cycle of poverty. We are targeting 1,400 of the most vulnerable households.

Mary, Charlie, Jimmy and I flew up to Malualkon via Wau.

From Wau we boarded a single propeller Cessna with room for eight passengers and two pilots.

Given the size of the plane, we cruised at a much lower altitude, and so the views were incredible.

There’s something quite breathtaking about flying in such a small plane. The flight was just over half an hour, and we came in to land on the dirt runway kicking up clouds of dust behind us.

As soon as we arrived in Malualkon we joined the team and made for the distribution points. The distribution points (one called Mobil, and the other, worryingly, Warawar) had been chosen to be as close as possible to as many as possible of the beneficiaries. But still some people had to walk for seven hours and wade through two large rivers just to reach us. Some even paid to take boats down the river.

Working with Chirilo, a Save employee based in Malualkon, we set up our table in the shade of a tree. Chirilo checked the beneficiaries’ cards, and took thumbprints, whilst I counted the money and handed it to the beneficiaries and asked them to count it too. After three hours we had handed out cash to the representatives of over 350 households.

The predominant ethnicity in this area is Dinka, and I managed to learn a few functional words to engage with the beneficiaries: Chiback – Good morning/how are you? (although I erroneously continued to use it in the afternoon); achin kiretch (I’m fine); tirbet (80); and quenkaike (count it) – a fairly specific vocabulary.

By the time we were finished we were all pretty exhausted and it was a relief to see that Rebecca and Theresa, the cooks and cleaners, had a meal ready for us.

As we looked out over the runway, music drifted across to us. It turned out that the Governor of the area was celebrating his wedding day. Well, I should say his most recent wedding day, because he had just tied the knot with his 66th wife. Rumour suggested that there were also mistresses, taking the total up into the eighties.

And we had our own small celebration to mark the successful completion of another distribution. The distributions started in August, and are to take place approximately monthly, so this was the third. Although there were a few aspects that could be improved, it seems to be a well-designed, well-organised operation that had identified a need and was responding appropriately.

After a good night’s sleep (despite the fact that the wedding party across the runway continued until after six in the morning; the Governor was obviously getting his kicks on Route 66) we had a breakfast of tea and mnendazi (small doughnut-type biscuits), freshly fried up by Rebecca and Theresa.

We were booked onto the UNHAS flight back to Wau, but had no firm idea when it was due to leave. But given that the compound is right next to the runway, we knew we’d hear the plane well before it landed. And wait we did.

I was going to comment that it’s like waiting for buses, in that you wait for ages and ages, and then eventually three come at once. But I realised that that would have been a) boringly clichéd, and b) untrue as there was no chance three planes were going to land on Malualkon runaway at the same time.

At last we heard the drone of a small plane engine and headed off in the Land Cruiser to the end of the runway. But as the pilot emerged from the cockpit, it became clear that this was not the UNHAS plane we had expected. But then we heard a droning from the south and turned to see another small plane approaching.

The 'busy' airstrip at Malualkon
The surprisingly busy airstrip at Malualkon

As the second plane was coming in to land, it pulled up at the last minute – some cattle were straying onto the runway. Its second attempt to land was a success, and as it switched it engine off we heard a third drone coming from the south. So, although my ‘bus’ comment would have remained boringly clichéd, its applicability was at least vindicated.

The second plane to land was indeed the one we were booked on, so we jumped aboard and began the return trip to Juba, with a short wait in Wau to change planes. It was great to get back to the office, and catch up with all the staff – even though we’d only been away for three days. But it was even better to have been out to the field, and see the sharp end of our operations. It’s easy to sit in Juba (as it is to sit in London) and get wrapped up in the ‘head office’ strategising, and politicking. But a visit to the field is key to understanding exactly what it is we do, and that Juba (and, by extension, London) exists to support that work. And this experience made me realise that what we do, we do very well.

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