Resilience is someone – I met her in South Sudan

Aid, Conflict, Humanitarian

ON THE GROUND REFLECTION:

Definitions of resilience should come from the people we are here to support, rather than our own assumptions. Elizabeth White, Policy Adviser in South Sudan, reminds leaders and humanitarians at the World Humanitarian Summit of the faces behind the words and numbers, and just how much we can, and must, learn from them.

‘Resilience’ has been a buzzword in the aid world for some time. But despite many discussions on its meaning, and projects designed to build and strengthen it, we still find ourselves asking the same questions: what is resilience? How can we support it? And how is it measured? Oxfam defines resilience as ‘the ability of women, men, and children to realise their rights and improve their well-being despite shocks, stresses, and uncertainty‘. I’ve sat in many a meeting in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, discussing what this
might look like here. But I only really learnt its true meaning in practice when I saw it for myself.

Months of fighting made it impossible for aid agencies to access the area, leaving those living there without any kind of assistance for seven months.

I went to Thonyor in Leer County, Unity State, in December last year. I was there with our Emergency Preparedness and Response Manager and staff from other organizations to find out how people were coping, what state they were in and what they needed the most. The picture wasn’t pretty. Leer is one of the most conflict-affected counties in South Sudan and Thonyor has been one of many frontlines of the brutal civil war that has ravaged the country since December 2013. Months of fighting made it impossible for aid agencies to
access the area, leaving those living there without any kind of assistance for seven months.

The needs were extreme. They still are. Men and boys of fighting age (which starts here as young as 13 years old) have left, either to join the war or to avoid it. Despite no sustained fighting in the area since September last year, the risk of violent and sexual attacks is still so great that thousands of the women, children and elderly left behind remain in hiding on islands which are hard to reach. They’re living in extremely crowded conditions, with the surrounding swamp their only source of food, water and ‘hygiene’. Their endurance of such
unimaginable conditions is testament to their well-founded fear.    

One day, a group of us made the journey to the furthest island from Thonyor mainland. It took three and a half hours each way. Roughly half of the journey involved wading through swamps, sometimes as high as my neck. I’m five foot four, so many of the South Sudanese are taller than me. But the same cannot be said for the children and babies bound to their mothers’ backs, many of whom have been lost to the swamp when fighting forced them to flee. Sediment from the swamp bed seeped through my shoes, pressing against my feet and leaving blisters for weeks
after. My arms ached from the act of balancing my shop-bought fit-for-purpose backpack on my head. I staggered in all directions as I tried to put my foot in the print of the person before me and press on along the narrow gully created by the footfall of countless people on countless journeys.

The people residing on those islands make that journey every single day, barefoot, with nothing more than one ‘meal’ of fish and water lilies in their stomachs, if they’re lucky. They have no fit-for-purpose backpack; only their hands, and occasionally a plastic chair that they turn upside down and hold on their heads as a vessel to carry their belongings, which are more often than not just the clothes off their back. Every day, they leave the islands at first light to make the journey to the mainland. There, they can only hope to
find some way of making money.  

Resilience is the woman walking every day twice a day, head held high through the swamps with a heavy load of firewood on her head

What I saw has changed the way the way I think about resilience. Because you cannot know what resilience is until you meet those whose resilience has been tested. Resilience is the woman walking every day twice a day, head held high through the swamps with a heavy load of firewood on her head. It’s the 16 year old girl who left school when the war hit to look after her mother, knowing she may have lost her chance at an education. And it’s the woman in her seventies who has lost six of her seven children to conflict, yet still has a desire to live that drives her to walk three
hours each way to a food distribution.

Definitions of resilience should come from the people we are here to support, rather than our own assumptions. One way we can do this is by building on how communities already cope with and adapt to shocks. 

But our work to strengthen resilience must go further than simply restoring the pre-conflict status quo. After all, pre-conflict is a relative term in a country that’s experienced a mix of local and national conflict for more than four of the last six decades. We need to accept this as a reality while working to mitigate both its occurrence and its impact by focusing on poverty reduction and promoting sustainable self-reliance. Many donors already share this vision, but there is still a need for funds to reflect these realities and focus on long-term
resilience building alongside short-term survival.

In Thonyor, I saw the sheer power of human beings to endure when their backs are against the wall, when they have no other choice. I have never been pushed to those limits, and probably never will be. Would I be as resilient if I was?

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Photo: A woman makes her way to join the queue at a food distribution in Thonyor, Leer County, Unity State in December 2015. Intense fighting made it impossible for humanitarians to access the area for seven months; this was the first food distribution in Thonyor since May. Credit: Nick Lacey/Oxfam

Author: Elizabeth White
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.