When Juliana John sees the newborn piglets in her garden, she thinks about how they’ll help her children continue in school.
Like all the families in Riimenze, in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State, John has struggled with keeping her family alive and safe amid massive violence and repeated displacement. A key to her survival, she says, has been the support she received from Solidarity with South Sudan, an international network of Catholic groups supporting life-giving education and projects in Africa’s newest country.
“Solidarity has helped me with many things. I’ve learned how to cultivate crops. I’ve learned a lot about nutrition. And I’ve learned how to raise animals, and how to use their manure in the garden. By selling those animals I get money to pay my children’s school fees. My pig just delivered nine piglets, and they’re going to help my family,” she said.
Growing up during the civil war, John never went to school. But with the small income from her patio garden, her oldest daughter is about to graduate from secondary school. And another daughter and son are enrolled in a nearby boarding school.
According to Sister Rosa Le Thi Bong, a Vietnamese member of Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, women in the area were a special focus for the ministries of Solidarity.
“Women in South Sudan, at least here in Western Equatoria State, are mostly uneducated. They had no chance to go to school. Or if they did go to school as a young girl, after class they had to help their mother. And they often got pregnant at a very young age. Those girls become women and the cycle gets repeated,” said Sister Rosa, who came to Riimenze in 2008, founding the work of Solidarity in the isolated community.
“Their work load is hard. Farming, taking care of children, looking for food, fetching firewood, fetching water, so we have tried to support and empower them, help them find easier ways to do those chores, lessen the burden on them. For example, we introduced some simple hand machines for threshing or grinding ground nuts. All of that has reduced their work load, making life more enjoyable,” said Sister Rosa, who left South Sudan in 2021.
According to Anita Margaret Apollo, a nutritionist working with Solidarity in the Riimenze area, organizing small groups of rural women has measurably paid off.
“We used to have a lot of malnourished children, with a lot of people suffering from kwashiorkor [a severe protein malnutrition], but these days there’s a lot of change that’s resulted from our training. You can’t see malnourished children now. And people are keeping their environment clean. It has helped a lot, and they are learning even more,” she said.
Apollo says she and the Solidarity team visited each woman every month, monitoring progress. They tried to keep up the visits even when fighting disrupted life in the region.
“With people shifting from place to place because of the war, there was no time to cultivate, and food insecurity grew. But we tried to make small kitchen gardens wherever we went, even if that meant just putting some soil in a bucket as a place to plant something you could carry,” she said.
The program has focused largely on women, and rightly so, according to Apollo.
“When you educate women, and help them generate income, you see a change in their home. Because women care for their families,” she said.
“Men, when they have money, they go for other women, for booze and other things. Women, when educated, focus on supporting the family. These women with new pigs, you can see their children are healthy and in school. They are living a happy life compared to before, when there were quarrels and fighting and the children were sick. Now things are better.”
Story and photos by Paul Jeffrey
Featured photo: Juliana John shows edible leaves she has harvested in Riimenze, a small war-ravaged village in South Sudan. She is part of a women’s group, sponsored by Solidarity with South Sudan, where she has learned how to produce better quality, more sustainable food.