South Sudan’s tomorrow people think beyond their squalor

Helen Achayo

Helen Achayo is one of maybe 22,000 people hoping to find a new homeland and opportunities in South Sudan but for now she waits in squalor

Is Helen Achayo an inspiring person? I’m not sure. But she’s definitely a survivor.

I meet her at the transition camp of South Sudanese ‘voluntary’ returnees. She is one of a mass of homeless humanity living in what is effectively a shanty town at the side of Kosti New Port waiting for a barge to take them and their meagre possessions south. How big is that mass? One estimate puts it at 22,000 yet the camp was built for 500. How long have they been waiting? Some have been waiting three months.

As soon as Helen sees me and hears I am from Australia, she has one thing on her mind – getting some money out of me. We enter a commercial contract. For 10 Sudanese pounds, the equivalent of a little less than $4(US), I ask her questions and she answers in broken English.

I soon learn why she associates Australians with money – why indeed she feels Australia owes her money. Her husband – father of her first three children – migrated to Australia in 2005. He should be sending her money but isn’t. Before he went to Australia he went to Uganda and there took on “many” new wives, says Helen.

Helen is 35 years old but looks older. She tells me she married in 1991. I do the calculations and work out she was 15 years old. “Yes, I was just a small girl,” she says with a sad smile.

She has four children and has been in the camp for a month and a half. Her eldest, Denis, is 18 years old and after an initial period of waiting around he, and his 16-year-old sister Emmanuela, went back to Khartoum – to work and earn money – until Helen is able to call them and say the family has a place on the barge.

I ask what work, but Helen is vague about this. I’m not sure if she is unable to express herself in English or if she really does feel the work doesn’t matter. “They can do any work,” she says.

She displays the same faith in her family’s abilities in talking about herself.

“If I get some money I can do any business in Juba,” she tells me. I press her about what business but this woman, with her strong build and hair held back by a colourful scarf in the style most often worn by women doing housework, is adamant she can do anything – all she needs is some capital.

Despite being officially called ‘voluntary returnees’ Helen and everyone else here is essentially being forced out of Sudan.

The government has made it clear southerners are not welcome and should go to their new homeland. Yet this camp of, essentially, refugees displays plenty of entrepreneurial spirit. The long wait to get on the free barges was not in their plans but they have adjusted.

Next to Helen stands Emmanuel. A trained carpenter he is hopeful about his future in South Sudan, believing he will establish himself as a good tradesman in burgeoning Juba – the newest capital city in the world. In the meantime he runs a bread store and a cinema in the camp. Others have set up internet spots and cafes.

The bread, for those with a bit of spare cash, supplements the American sorghum and oil given by aid organisations.

“It is not nice to eat but what can we do because we have no money,” says Helen.

Helen tells me she has done four first-aid courses and has worked in hospitals. If she can not fulfill her entrepreneurial ambitions in Juba she would also be happy with another job in a hospital.

I ask if she wants a new husband and she is adamant that she does not. I ask her what is the saddest thing in her life and she responds: “All I want is for my children to be able to study.”

Her children who remain in the camp are 14-year-old Sarah and one-and-a-half year old Godfrey.

Sarah has missed a month of school. She is one of many teenagers to have these extra-long summer holidays.

Thirteen-year-old Esther and 14-year-old Sarah are hiding from the sun by lying under a bed, listening to a portable radio. They have been in the camp for two months and had no schooling in that time. They both grew up in Khartoum and have never been to Juba.

Esther says it is hard in the camp but is excited about the future: “It will be good because Juba is very good,” she says.

Sarah on the other hand is not so sure.

Despite describing Juba as her “village”, knowing that she will have the support of her brother there and telling me that the government has set aside a new development for the returnees, Helen too has her doubts.

“I want my children to study,” she reiterates and I guess she knows the abysmal record of education for the area of South Sudan to date and what a monumental job the new government has in front of it in that respect.

 “If I can work, so they can eat and drink and study, then I am happy,” says Helen. “Now I have no home, no work, no anything – that thing I want is in the future.

“Maybe I have more chance in the south, maybe. But I’m not sure.”

I’m not sure either but if the new government of South Sudan lives up to the goodwill being directed towards it, and passes that on to its new citizens – a survivor like Helen might just flourish.


Read more about what is happening to the returnees at Kosti New Port here