It’s their eyes I notice first. Wary. And yearning. Older than they should be. Curious, cautious, and skeptical. Three boys, maybe brothers, at a pier on the Nile river, showed me what childhood looks like during a hunger crisis.
I joined some colleagues for a short Sunday drive to the Nile in Renk; a distraction from the six-day-a-week work of humanitarian aid. Down at the pier I was reminded that every aspect of life is in crisis here; this is life outside of the project sites that I generally visit.
Five cargo barges floated quietly, flying tattered flags for the World Food Programme. Their holds contained tones of food aid being brought to the next community. There is hunger in South Sudan.
Barges carrying food aid along the Nile in South Sudan, 21 July 2019.
We wandered around the nearly deserted dock area talking about what it was like in Renk in the past. There was a time when masses of people coming from the north travelled with all of their household goods; each chain of boats was four barges carrying personal possessions and one barge carrying people. During times of peace, commerce flowed freely and the pier area was clean and bustling, rather than filled with rusting boats and overgrown reeds as it is now.
Boats, abandoned when their owners fled, rust away while waiting for the return of peace and commerce.
Back to the boys.
I spotted the first one as he checked his fishing line. I asked my colleague to translate. The boy mumbled his replies in Arabic; barely glancing up and definitely not looking at me. No, he hadn’t caught anything yet today. Yes, he was catching fish to eat; not for selling in the market.
My encounter with these boys showed me the face of the food crisis in South Sudan.
As we wandered to the other end of the pier we saw two traps – quite inventive actually – with some seeds scattered beneath round nets that were propped up with sticks. Strings tied to the nets stretched about 10 metres to where two more boys hid behind a rock and waited for birds to land. Beside one of the traps lay a small sparrow – a decoy placed there to attract more of its kind.
Their trapping method reminded me of Canadian prairie kids trying to catch gophers.
As my colleagues and I stood talking and watching the Nile rush past, we heard whispering behind us. The boys were motioning for us to move. We were scaring the birds away.
I thought of kids back home in Western Canada making small nooses and placing them over gopher holes, ready to pull tight when one of the rodents poked his head out. This was done mostly for sport – sure, it was to rid a field of destructive pests – but something young boys did in their spare time to earn pocket money.
These boys don’t have spare time, I thought. This is not for sport or a hobby. This is for survival.
While we were there, two birds and one fish were added to their catch.
How many people are they providing for, I wondered.
I’ve been told that the first priority for people in South Sudan is food. Every day is a relentless rhythym – find something to eat; find a way to earn some small money; find a way to feed the children. Market prices in Renk have increased sharply – today, four small tomatoes cost 400 South Sudanese Pounds. Compare that to the 50 SSP ladies earn selling a cup of tea, and who must also pay for tea leaves, sugar, charcoal, kettles, cups, and a market stall. I’ve heard stories of mothers having to choose between working in the market to provide for the entire family, or taking the time to bring a sick child to be treated for malnutrition. Imagine having to make this decision.
He seemed like the eldest of the three; the most reluctant to smile.
As I watched the boys celebrate catching two small birds, I saw childhood spent under a tremendous amount of pressure. These boys know a desperation that my young friends catching gophers have never felt.
I made a short video of the boys and called them over to watch. For a moment their guard came down and they laughed, punching each other in the shoulder and pointing at the screen on my camera. Then it was over. The eldest one walked away without looking at me, and the other two followed. Back to work.