Illiteracy, hunger, disease main worries for citizens


Albin Maring downed a glass of siko, a potent drink widely distilled among the poor in South Sudan, and gazed into the horizon.

He had gulped several glasses of the drink, surrounded by drunken women and children outside huts with pointed thatch roofs.

Nearby, women stirred a frothy, brown mix of millet flour and water, which bubbled lazily inside a huge drum. They were brewing kwete, the local equivalent of busaa.

Maring, 64, sat on a piece of cloth spread on bare earth. He paused in thought, stroking his graying beard.

"We live like this every day," he said through an interpreter. "There is no school. No hospitals. Nothing."

Children in his Manur village, about seven kilometres outside Juba, have never seen the inside of a classroom. The situation is replicated in neighbouring villages, and across much of Southern Sudan.

"There’s nothing for people to do but burn charcoal," said Maring.

Maring spent most of his youth fighting in the civil wars that ravaged South Sudan. His children never had a chance to go to school. Now, all he wants is his grandchildren to get education, and perhaps ease out of a cycle of poverty that plagues many citizens.

"Let them teach our children," he said in his local language as he stuttered. Green plains dotted with shrubs and huts spread as far as the eye could see, offer a sight pleasing to the eye.

Rains have been pelting the region in recent weeks. But for residents, the rains have not brought any happiness. "We have no seeds. We can’t plant anything," said one of the women selling siko. A glass costs five Sudanese Pounds (Sh150).

Even if they had seeds, they lacked equipment to till the land, and few know any modern farming methods. Such high levels of poverty in Juba, an area with relatively better standards of living, and near the seats of policy makers offers insights into the situation deeper in rural areas.

The new South Sudan nation, to be launched on July 9, faces a huge challenge of fighting illiteracy, hunger and disease.

Sitting under trees

The big challenge now is to develop policies that will help the poorest clamber out of misery. Many agree that the transitional government that has been in place since 2005 has got some of its priorities wrong.

The civil service is heavily bloated, and there are thousands of unqualified people serving just because they were members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). This is sapping scarce resources. The SPLA waged war against the north’s domination for two decades.

About 70 per cent of the budget is used to pay salaries, 20 per cent for development and the rest caters for operational costs. Minister for Finance, Economy and Manpower for Central Equatoria State Jacob Arigo said the situation should be turned around.

"Employment had become a form of pastime for many people," he said. "You see them sitting under trees doing nothing."

Arigo said the government would have to downsize the civil service. Concerns were also raised about a bloated Cabinet when President Salva Kiir named his ministers last year.

Arigo said the country would have to invest more on agriculture, and not focus only on oil.

Wells in Southern Sudan produce about 85 per cent of the oil drilled by Sudan.

"They say oil is a curse," Arigo said, referring to a widespread belief that African oil-producing countries are plagued by civil war, poverty and strife. "I don’t think it’s going to be the only resource we’ll rely on. There’s a lot of arable land," Arigo tells The Standard.