British humanitarian writer and photographer on life in South Sudan: the deadliest place to be an aid worker
“Cutting down a big jar of needs – sometimes you wonder what aid really means.”
Former Hythe resident Jenny Davies recently returned to the UK from her new home in Juba, South Sudan. She moved in early 2019, moments before international borders closed due to Covid-19, and is reconnecting with family and friends on the south coast and Scotland before returning to Juba at the end of June 2022.
Work as a communications officer gathering story material for Mission Aviation Fellowship [MAF] – the largest humanitarian air service in the world – Jenny has witnessed the realities of violence, displacement and poverty, which have ravaged the country for decades.
South Sudan became independent in 2011 and is the newest nation in the world. Two periods of civil war (1955-1972 and 1983-2005) killed around 2.5 million people, mainly due to famine and drought. The most recent conflict in 2013 erupted between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, who belong to different tribes. As a result, at least 3.7 million South Sudanese have been displaced from their homes, 6 out of 10 being children.
More than 2.2 million people are still in displacement camps, mostly in Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan, and on some MAF flights, Jenny has seen the NGO community working to provide sustainable development solutions and to long term to these refugees.
Jenny describes the situation in South Sudan as “fragile”, and in her hometown of Juba where she lives in a fortified compound with a 7 p.m. curfew, she never escapes poverty:
Yes, poverty is everywhere, and MAF cannot meet all the needs, so it is sometimes overwhelming. The NGO community is doing a great job, but it’s like putting a bandage on an open wound. Take it out and it will continue to bleed. Some days I wonder if we are making a difference, but deep down I know we are. We nibble on a big jar of needs.
MAF has been transporting aid, medical care and humanitarian aid to the most remote areas of South Sudan for over 70 years. In partnership with more than 200 NGOs based mainly in Juba, MAF has become a reliable means of transport where overland travel can be life-threatening due to the harsh climate, lack of roads or the risk of armed bandits.
In May 2022, the UN raised concerns about a return to civil war, but despite the threat of violence, Jenny says she was never afraid:
“I hear horrible stories every day – for example that seven or eight women are admitted to hospital in Juba every day because of rape – but I personally have never been threatened. I was never scared, but the risks are not low in Juba. Living under a curfew is really tough, but this city gets dangerous after dark – you can’t be too careful.
Having lived in Juba for over three years, Jenny has discovered a unique strength among the South Sudanese people that she wishes to communicate in her work.
She says, “Sometimes in my work I feel like an outsider looking inside, but I want to honor those people and tell real stories, not just what the West wants to hear. Nobody wants their culture to be an example of failure – and South Sudan is full of potential. I want people to know that.
“What surprised me the most was how incredibly resilient people are. They have to face harsh realities, but they do so with so much grace. They live in conditions that most people live in. between us would struggle, but they live on. Like everyone else, South Sudanese have hopes and aspirations for their children – and those children have such beautiful smiles. I love people, I love being part of a community in Juba and I love building relationships. Sometimes the most sincere thing you can do for someone is go to a funeral with them. It shows you care – it is the harsh reality of life.
Reflecting on the more humorous contrasts between life on the Kent coast and in a war-torn African capital, Jenny recalls a day when she and a few colleagues decided to order a takeaway:
“I volunteered to pick up pizzas for a large group of us – there were probably a dozen orders. But when I arrived to collect them, the man behind the counter had stacked the pizzas and squeezed them into a single box. It was like pizza! I couldn’t bring myself to complain because I know he didn’t want to waste his pizza boxes. It made me smile because of course nothing like that would ever happen in England.
Although development is slow in South Sudan, Radisson announced in May 2022 that it had opened the country’s first five-star hotel in Juba, which, according to Radisson’s Middle East and Africa boss, Tim Cordon, will be “a great addition to help promote the country’s hospitality offering – where safety and security will be a top priority.
As hospitality is reborn in Juba and around the world in the aftermath of the pandemic, Jenny admits that Covid has had both positive and negative impacts on the country:
“Handwashing stations in remote areas were irrelevant for Covid – but they helped reduce the diorama, which kills around 7,000 people every year in South Sudan. It’s hard to believe it took a pandemic to bring soap and water to a community – but it did in remote places.
“Health has improved in many ways due to Covid – but the impact on rural development projects such as education and agriculture has been devastating. MAF was unable to carry passengers at most of the lockdown, which has prevented aid workers from reaching the most vulnerable places and many development projects have come to a halt. This shows how much NGOs rely on MAF to facilitate their work.”
Summarizing her job satisfaction over the past three years, Jenny says, “People are saying really warm things about MAF, and they’re grateful for our consistent service. I love what MAF does – it’s unique, it’s practical and it’s important. I love flying – and look forward to continuing this great work when I return to Juba – which I now call home.
Written by: Jo Lamb