”The feeling of seeing our work first-hand isn’t one you can get from reading board papers”

”The feeling of seeing our work first-hand isn’t one you can get from reading board papers”

As a Civil Servant, I can access up to five days annual volunteering allowance. How I use this time is a personal choice; I know many people who are school governors or give time to homeless shelters, all of which they find deeply rewarding.

I give my time as a Trustee to Concern, an amazing charity whose focus on tackling hunger, transforming lives and working with some of the world's poorest communities is close to my heart. This year, I used my volunteering allowance to visit South Sudan with Concern to see first-hand the vital yet highly challenging work of our teams in the field. This is an experience you can't get from reading board papers.

Visiting South Sudan - the world's newest nation

South Sudan is a land locked country in East Africa. It’s also the world's newest nation, gaining independence from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011.

With access to substantial oil reserves, whose revenue contributes significantly to the economy of South Sudan, there is much hope that the country will develop to be strong and prosperous. Sadly, however, the country has seen much internal violence and conflict since 2013.

Empty and damaged building and cars are a reminder of the recent conflict in Bentiu Town, South Sudan. Photo: Steve De Neef
Empty and damaged building and cars are a reminder of the recent conflict. Photo: Steve De Neef

There have been great losses of life owing to the continued insecurity and ethnic tensions. There is limited infrastructure in the country, impairing access to education and health services, food and nutrition, and gender equality remains low. Many people have become internally displaced within the country or fled as refugees.

Concern has been working across South Sudan for eight years, delivering lifesaving emergency and development programmes.

What I saw

I, some fellow Trustees and Concern staff landed in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. After receiving a second detailed security briefing (we received the first before we left the UK) we travelled to the Protection of Civilians (POC) site to see the delivery of some of Concern’s programmes.

From my time working with the UN in conflict zones, I have sadly seen many locations with internally displaced people, but I have never seen one surrounded by a high perimeter wall with barbed wire, cameras, guard towers and UN peacekeepers patrolling the POC in armoured tank convoys. I would show a picture, but our security briefing advised against us taking pictures openly on the streets.

Inside the POC, where approximately 26,000 people live in tents, we drove to one of Concern’s nutrition centres. I watched as Concern’s nurses and nutritionists weighed toddlers and young infants, brought in by their mothers. On a daily basis, they give vaccinations, malaria treatment and medicines, and distribute cereals, pulses, oil, salt and nutritious formula for the children. They also teach mothers critical skills such as maintaining hygiene levels to prevent the spread of diseases.

A child flies a home made kite on the streets of Juba's PoC, South Sudan. Photo: Steve De Neef
A child flies a home made kite on the streets of Juba's PoC, South Sudan. Photo: Steve De Neef
Communal shelters built by Concern in the PoC of Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Steve De Neef
Communal shelters built by Concern in the PoC of Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Steve De Neef
The edge of the PoC in Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Steve De Neef
The edge of the PoC in Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Steve De Neef
Nyahou, a young IDP living in Bentiu's PoC comes back from gathering firewood outside of the protection of the site. Photo: Steve de Neef
Nyahou, a young IDP living in Bentiu's PoC comes back from gathering firewood outside of the protection of the site. Photo: Steve de Neef
Kids goofing around in front of the camera while they take a small break from their soccer game in Bentiu's PoC. Photo: Steve De Neef / Concern Worldwide.
Kids goofing around in front of the camera while they take a small break from their soccer game.

We then visited a women's group - a very basic space where women come to drink tea, talk, sing songs and connect. When we asked the women why they came, one lady replied, "Here I can enjoy tea, talk openly and let go some of my tension so when I go back to my family in my tent I feel calmer."

The next day we flew to Nyamlel in the northwest of the country. There, we saw a nutrition outreach centre and medical facility where sick women and children are treated by Concern doctors.

Those we spoke to said they travelled between 30 minutes and two hours to reach these centres, enduring an average temperature of 30-40 degrees. Hearing this made me realise the importance of Concern’s mobile clinics that deliver healthcare to those in more remote areas.

Michael is a nutiriton officer for Concern in Bentiu PoC. Photo: Steve De Neef
Michael is a nutiriton officer for Concern in Bentiu PoC. Photo: Steve De Neef

We then drove through dry bush land to meet an amazing group of men and women who had been selected by their communities to be leaders. When I asked what they gained from being in the group, their answers came thick and fast: many women had learned exclusive breastfeeding and hygiene techniques which they said had reduced instances of diarrhoea in their infants. The men said they had learned how to help women in the home and to value the work that they do.

Finally, we spoke to groups who are building the resilience of their communities. One group, with help from Concern and the UN World Food Programme, had built a road connecting their village to the local school to improve access for their children. Another had formed a local cooperative savings group to help each other with short-term loans, where they divide the income from the interest gained equally. A local agro-farming group is teaching participants block farming techniques – empowering them to improve their productivity and enhance their food security.

What I learned

This experience was profoundly rewarding; it was a privilege to connect with people I may otherwise never meet and learn from their perspectives. It truly was great to see how projects like these can sustain, support and empower people - even in countries enduring conflict.

Now, having seen Concern’s work first hand, I’m determined to help share our vital work with Concern’s donors, advocate for more positive change, and learn from the resilience of so many great men and women from South Sudan.

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