Farmers in South Sudan: “Our fight now is against hunger and poverty, not against each other” – South Sudan
Communities in conflict find cultures at peace in a World Food Program project
For three decades, John Mabior lived in fear of the next attack, pillage or murder. His community of Malual Mok in south-central western South Sudan, Tonj South, has always been at war with its neighbors across the river – the Thony community. Competition for water, land, livestock and crops has never ceased, leading to mistrust, grievances and conflict on both sides.
In recent years, however, the two groups have managed to put aside their differences, farming and trading together.
For most of his life, Mabior was never able to grow enough food for himself and his family all year round. Always on guard against frequent violence and raids, he could barely tend to his crops. Even when he managed to reap a good harvest, he could not keep the raiders at bay.
“Fertile soil was everywhere but our stomachs were always empty”
In 2017, his farm was attacked, his crops looted – by whom we do not know – and he was almost killed in broad daylight. It was at the height of the lean season when food shortages in her village led to increased hunger, poverty and crime.
“We lived hand to mouth,” he says. “There was fertile soil everywhere but our stomachs were always empty. I was never able to grow enough groundnuts or sorghum to feed my family and the elderly who depended on me. I had to borrow and beg several times during the lean season.”
Everything started to change in late 2018 when Mabior and other residents of Malual Mok joined a series of livelihoods projects run by the World Food Program (WFP) and its partners. The goal was to bring communities together with the common goal of growing food and, in the process, peace.
A newly formed cooperative trained farmers in the use of additional crops, including climate-resistant ones like cassava, to boost harvests. Farmers learned new techniques in the process and were equipped with tools to build ponds and shallow wells.
WFP has also mobilized young men and women from both communities to work on labor-intensive projects such as the construction of community dykes to prevent flooding of farmland. This has provided a year-round source of water for farmers and cattle herders in Malual Mok and Thony.
Mabior throws himself into work, eager to make up for lost time. In three years, he managed to triple his harvest, working solo on his own land and on community farms to help others. Its agriculture has expanded beyond groundnuts and sorghum to include the cultivation of *sukuma* (green cabbage), cowpeas, beans, sweet potatoes, cassava and even rice – using the waters floods that engulfed parts of Tonj South.
“No one thought that our peoples would join hands and plow to plant together in peace”
“I still feed my family with last year’s harvest,” he says, referring to his 2021 harvest. “My life has changed so much in the past three years. I’m not hungry anymore.”
Now in his thirties, Mabior is financially well off and able to educate two of his five children.
A prime agricultural area known as Majak-Kot has been a source of great tension between the Malual Mok and Thony communities for decades. Today, however, farmers on both sides of the Wanh-Alel River work the land side by side and share its precious harvest.
“No one on either side… thought that our peoples could ever join hands and plow to plant together in peace this disputed area,” says Mabior, recalling the initial reaction of some members of his community who had a grudge against the Thony people. But the promise of a safe and peaceful food future was greater than the memory of past wrongs.
Michael Kuangjak, a project officer with WFP partner ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) in South Tonj, said the peace dividends were too obvious for anyone to miss. “Malual Mok and Thony led unstable lives marked by isolation, hunger and misery,” he says. WFP programs “have offered thousands of people, men, women and young people, a way out”.
For Haileselassie Berhanu, who leads WFP’s program activities in Warrap State, community ownership has ensured the sustainability of the current peace. But its foundations were laid in partnership with a multitude of other actors.
“The path to peace had to be paved,” says Berhanu. “A concerted humanitarian effort has brought together various civil society groups, local authorities and NGOs and the entire United Nations to help the people of Malual Mok and Thony chart their own paths to peaceful coexistence. These communities are now invested in their future together.
WFP worked with the Malual Mok and Thony communities to identify the drivers of their conflict and find solutions – which were designed by the communities themselves. The effort helped shift mindsets within the two conflict-torn communities from rivalry for habitable land to collaborating for mutual benefit.
Today, Malual Mok and Thony trade with each other, selling the fruit of their labor in the vegetable gardens of the PAM that Mabior helped create. But the business initiative was led by women from both communities – they encouraged their sons and husbands to fish together, further strengthening the bond.
Mabior, who recently hosted a young man from Thony seeking to sell his fish and crops at Malual Mok market, sums up the impact of the humanitarian response here perfectly.
“We used to fight, loot cattle, loot crops and property,” he says. “But since we started farming and producing, we stopped fighting. Our fight now is against hunger and poverty, not against each other.”
Communities in conflict in the Greater Jonglei and Greater Pibor administrative region of South Sudan are forging their way to peace – finding local solutions to local problems through local initiatives led by WFP and other partners in the framework of the Reconciliation, Stabilization and Resilience investment fund program.
Learn more about WFP’s work in South Sudan here