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Rising out of poverty during a pandemic

Once the food basket of South Sudan, Pochalla has been rocked by decades of conflict

by Othow Okoti and Christi Boyd | Mission Crossroads

Despite challenges faced during COVID-19, women of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan in Pochalla hold on to their vision of “Women Feeding the Nation.” (Photo by Othow Okoti)

For the people of Greater Pochalla, survival hangs in the balance. Once the food basket of South Sudan, decades of conflict have unraveled the region’s fabric of society that ensured the population’s self-reliance through farming, fishing and trade.

A few years ago, the women of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan in Pochalla launched the ambitious “Women Feed the Nation” project to improve food security and teach children traditional agricultural skills long lost in the war. With a Presbyterian Women Thank Offering grant, they set out to establish a large farm near Otallo village to grow staple foods and a demonstration field at the Presbyterian Education Complex in Pochalla town (PECP).

Then COVID-19 hit, creating new challenges for the 400 women farmers in the project. Illness and safety guards resulted in a shortage of labor and a price increase for seeds and other farm inputs rendered them inaccessible. While the activities at the farm were disrupted, the demonstration field returned to weeds after the school was closed in the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.

Besides the symptoms of the coronavirus itself, leaving hunger, economic hardships and death in its trail, the pandemic also revealed underlying systemic ills that have long been undermining the community’s ongoing efforts to lift itself out of poverty and food insecurity.

Confinement exacerbated harmful behaviors stemming from cultural norms, peer pressure and sexual abuse, which left 15 female students at PECP with early and unintended pregnancies. Having infants to look after, these girls have not enrolled for the new school year.

Fifty PECP students and three teachers returned to the gold mines near Dimma and Okugo refugee camps, across the border river of Akoba in Ethiopia. It remains to be seen whether they will return to class; in an impoverished context, digging gold is an alluring economic activity, even though it cheats children out of an education.

People living along the region’s extensive river network are exposed to hazardous outputs produced by a foreign hydraulic mining company. This mining leaves holes everywhere and releases toxic mercury and other waste products that contaminate drinking water and enter the food chain through water-based animals and agricultural produce.

Through years of adversity, however, the Pochalla community has grown resilient. When the school reopened in April, the demonstration farm grounds were cleared and new crops were planted. While weathering the shock of COVID-19, the Pochalla women are determined to support this year 100 vulnerable families in critical need of food.

As community- and peace-building activities have resumed on the school grounds, Pochalla has become known in humanitarian and development circles as one of the most peaceful areas in South Sudan, as was confirmed by a European Union delegation visit to the community on June 1.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inequitable access to vaccines and medicines that could give communities like Pochalla a fighting chance. Seeing the faces of Jesus in those suffering from preventable and treatable diseases, we are called to prioritize basic human rights to life over intellectual property rights that protect the economic interests of the pharmaceutical industry.

Othow Okoti is a community worker and peacemaker with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan.
Christi Boyd is facilitator for Women and Children’s Interests with Presbyterian World Mission, based in Kinshasa, Congo.

Learn about community-based ministries of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan:

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