For South Sudan mothers, COVID-19 shook a fragile foundation
JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Paska Itwari Beda knows hunger all too well. The young mother of five children — all under age 10 — sometimes survives on one bowl of porridge a day, and her entire family is lucky to scrape together a single daily meal, even with much of the money Beda makes cleaning offices going toward food. She goes to bed hungry in hopes her children won’t have to work or beg like many others in South Sudan, a country only a decade old and already ripped apart by civil war.
But the pandemic scares Beda in ways that even hunger doesn’t.
In South Sudan, lives are built and teeter on the edge of uncertainty. A peace deal to end the civil war lags far behind schedule. Violence erupts between ethnic groups. Corruption is widespread. Hunger haunts more than half the population of 12 million people. And even the land itself doesn’t guarantee solid footing, as climate change sparks flooding in swaths of the country.
Yet many women say it’s the pain of the pandemic they feel most — a slow-moving disaster, in contrast to the sudden trauma of war and its fallout of famine — as they try to hold families together in one of the world’s most difficult places to raise children.
With COVID-19 came the shrinking of humanitarian aid, a lifeline for many South Sudanese, as faraway donors turned attention and funding toward their own citizens. Closed borders cut off imports, and the oil sector on which the economy largely relies was hit by a crash in global prices. A lockdown wiped out the informal, untaxed labor and other work that many South Sudanese relied on for their daily meal.
This story is part of a yearlong series on how the pandemic is impacting women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. AP’s series is funded by the European Journalism Centre’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AP is responsible for all content.
The pandemic has only exacerbated South Sudan’s widespread hunger. As the country marks a decade of independence this month, the United Nations warns that are “more children in need of urgent humanitarian assistance than ever before.” Over 1 million are expected to face acute malnutrition this year, and the county has the highest proportion of out-of-school children worldwide.
Beda, now 27, delivered her youngest children, twin girls, weeks before coronavirus arrived in Africa. Along with closed borders and other restrictions, prices began rising for basic items such as cooking oil. Schools closed, and the paychecks for teachers — including Beda’s husband, who had long supported the family with his salary — abruptly stopped.
To meet this new reality, some South Sudanese children even younger than 10 were sent to work or to panhandle. Girls barely in puberty were married off.
Beda told herself she wouldn’t allow her children to become part of what some see as a lost generation of South Sudan, entrenched in poverty without education. She found a job and commutes an hour each way to an office in the capital city of Juba — a rare move for a woman in parts of this largely conservative country. As a cleaner, she makes 16,000 South Sudanese pounds monthly, or about $35. She earns additional money by making cupcakes to sell in her office building.
But the money doesn’t buy much. Inflation hollowed Beda’s earnings, even when combined with her husband’s pay once schools reopened. Before the pandemic, Beda said, 100 pounds “could get you something,” but now even 1,500 “won’t do anything.” The cost of white sorghum, a staple, rose from 1,000 South Sudanese pounds to 1,500 for 3.5 kilograms in six months.
Beda tries not to dwell on her situation before COVID-19. But she remembers: “Before corona, life was good.”
Juba was a refuge of sorts. Beda could stay home and raise the three children she had before the twins, thanks to her husband’s pay and the humanitarian food aid supplementing it.
Beda’s family ate three daily meals. Drinkable water was delivered home, a relative luxury in a country where many women carry containers long distances from wells or rivers.
Now, Beda wakes before dawn to get her family out the door. Her elder children climb onto their father’s motorbike for school. Beda works while the twins stay with extended family.
Water deliveries dried up with their savings. So Beda hauls water from a well, several times weekly.
She constantly watches her children for illness. Medicines are harder to find now; Beda might rely on herbal remedies instead. Hospital services are no longer free.
South Sudan’s health centers weren’t prepared to deal with an outbreak as widespread as COVID-19. They’re seeing infections rise as Africa grapples with a wave of increasingly dangerous cases. Overall, the country has had over 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. That’s likely an undercount because of low testing. Oxygen, ICU beds and supplies are scarce. And the country has received a fraction of the vaccines it needs.
In her community, Beda has become a role model: She found a job and showed independence.
Beda and nine women formed a group that meets and contributes two of the barest necessities for warding off hunger and illness — money and bars of soap.
They gather weekly, pooling supplies and giving them to a different family. Over coffee, they share advice. They’re from different ethnic groups — a counterpoint to the civil war’s tensions — and say the group reflects their shared trust.
Beda’s twins have known life only in the pandemic. Beda wants more for them than she had for herself. She witnessed five years of war that killed an estimated 400,000 people. She carries a scar where a bullet struck her arm when she was young. She never finished her schooling.
Beda is determined. She’ll forge on as a helper in her community and as her children’s provider. Each Friday, when the women’s gathering breaks up, the twins rush to Beda to breastfeed, nestled against each other.
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