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‘I Have to Come and Help’: Diary of a South Sudanese Aid Worker

Gisma Magara works with women in Juba’s camp for people who have fled South Sudan’s civil war. She tells her story to Sam Mednick.

Written by Sam Mednick Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Gisma Magara holds up a knitted rug made by one of the female beneficiaries of her aid program. The business initiatives include soap and bead making as well as knitting, all with the purpose of helping to empower women so they can support themselves and their children.Sam Mednick

JUBA, South Sudan – It’s always complicated entering Juba’s internally displaced person’s camp. Sometimes I lose my patience. Sometimes I’m denied access and sometimes the army steals our things, and accuses us of supporting the opposition.

One day, for no reason, the army wouldn’t let our car approach the U.N. gates, so I got out and walked 45 minutes in the heat until I reached our small office inside the camp.

Every time we come, the army questions us: “Why are you coming every day and bringing things for these people?” they say. I just let them speak and continue on my way.

I’ve never thought of quitting, because working with these women, many of whom have lost everything, is something I have to do. I have to come and help, because otherwise these things would just stay in my mind.

I work with a local advocacy group called Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), helping to embolden South Sudanese women living inside Juba’s internally displaced person’s site by providing them with training and giving them business skills so they can become independent.

More than 100 women have joined the program, which focuses on income-generating activities such as wool knitting, bead and jewelry designing, and making liquid soap.

From these projects, the women are able to produce and sell their goods and start their own businesses. Some of the women have started their own shops and opened restaurants from the money they’ve made. That’s the part I love most about this – helping women step out from behind themselves and become able to work, instead of just giving them something to eat.

But sometimes this job makes me miserable.

I come to the camp three to four times a week and sit with these women, listening to their stories, the whole time thinking to myself: How long will they have to live inside here? They’re supposed to be out. I get to stay in my own home in town and these people aren’t in their own houses. They’re traumatized and it makes me sad. I try to make them feel like they’re not here just staying with nothing, but I really don’t know how to advise them.

The aid will end and I don’t want them to have to start from zero once they’re outside of the camp.

All I can do is try to get rid of this mindset of depending on aid. We do training, hold weekly business planning forums and teach them how to be leaders so they can become independent, because the aid will end, and I don’t want them to have to start from zero once they’re outside of the camp.

For my part, I connect the women with people who can buy their products outside the camp. It’s hard to sell soap and beaded purses and knitted items inside, because the camp’s residents have no money. Since the women don’t feel safe leaving, I facilitate their business transactions.

Magara, sits with women involved with business initiatives in Juba’s camp for internally displaced people. (Sam Mednick)

Recently, I linked the women making soap with a local NGO called Nile Hope, which pays them 100,000 South Sudanese Pounds a month ($300) for a large shipment of soap.

I sell the women’s handmade accessories at any art exhibit that I can find in Juba and I make sure I promote their merchandise during holidays, like at Christmas.

It’s not easy. Each day is a struggle, especially when it comes to getting inside the camp.

Today, it only took an hour to get in, but yesterday I came and was turned away because camp security hadn’t received my paperwork, which was sent days prior. Every time we come we need the right documents, which have to be stamped by all of the right people and distributed to the appropriate security departments within the U.N. It’s never smooth and we’re usually made to wait at least 30 minutes so people can call and verify that we’re actually allowed in.

When we bring in fuel for our office generator we need clearance from the country’s national security arm, but sometimes the army steals the fuel at the gates before we enter. I don’t understand why it’s so hard.

The women, although always waiting patiently for me inside, often scold me for showing up late. They don’t understand that it’s usually not my fault.

The women, although always waiting patiently for me inside, often scold me for showing up late. They don’t understand that it’s usually not my fault.

Inside the camp today, Mama Mary showed me the latest bottle of soap she’s produced. I market the women’s soap to my colleagues at work in Juba town, who sometimes request a few bottles. I hand Mama Mary a few hundred pounds and put the bottles in my purse. I want these women to sell as much as they can to whoever they can. I then follow her to her tea shop a few minutes down the gravel road from CEPO’s office.

Magara stands with a colleague from Community Empowerment for Progress Organization and a recipient of the women’s business initiatives in Juba. (Sam Mednick)

Mama Mary’s tea shop is a one-room hut is small and dark and filled with furniture, cooking utensils and clothes. Under the wooden countertop she pulls out a few boxes of mugs and sugar.

“It’s going well,” she smiles proudly. Mama Mary represents what I want all of our women to be. She has something for herself now and so when peace comes one day she can find her own way and pay for her kids’ school fees. Her daughter has finished secondary school and she wants to send her to university.

But so many of the women here have nothing. Due to our culture, which ranks them as second-class citizens, they face a lot of challenges. As a result of the conflict, women are the ones working in the house and on the farms and taking care of the kids, while their children, husbands and brothers are dying.

I want to teach children how to save money and have an income, and I want to work for a better future for South Sudan, especially for our women and girls.

Most of them have no links with schools or society at large. A lot of them can’t read or write, and so in addition to our business programs, we also run an adult literacy group. Right now we have 19 women and 33 men in the beginner group.

If this project had more money, I’d love to work outside of Juba in other internally displaced person’s sites around the country. I want to teach children how to save money and have an income, and I want to work for a better future for South Sudan, especially for our women and girls. I’d love to see all South Sudanese women educated. I want to see a woman president one day.

My mother is a teacher, and she always told me, “When you do something, you have to do it for other people.” That’s why I do this.

This story originally appeared on Women’s Advancement Deeply

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