How a canoe program is saving lives and livelihoods in South Sudan

“When the crisis happened, I was fortunate to have the canoe because we were able to leave Nyal and move safely to the islands. Many people were not so fortunate, so I helped where I could.” Martha Nyabany, canoe operator. Photo: Stella Madete/Oxfam

Located in Panyijar, Unity State and shouldered by a vast swamp, Nyal was previously a quiet town known for its mango and palm trees. Two years of extended fighting in the surrounding areas however, has forced thousands of people to seek refuge in the town and the islands surrounding it. Many of those who have found refuge here, including women and children must regularly walk long distances alone in search of aid and food.

We are providing assistance to displaced people and the communities that host them in and around Nyal, both on the mainland and remote islands. With support from Irish Aid we are able to offer a free canoe transportation program to those people who need to journey to Nyal for food distributions or medical treatment. We provide vouchers for transport to those in need and train canoe operatives. The program also extends to assisting communities to seek refuge rapidly in an emergency and helps the canoe operators to earn the money they need to support their families.

Meet some of our canoeists:

Jal Banyiei With the voucher system, we are all taken care of

With six years experience, Jal is one of the many canoe operators that work with us in Nyal, Panyijar and one of the many displaced in Nyal trying to carve out a living from the little he has left. A devoted husband and father, Jal is motivated by his need to contribute to building a better future for his children.

With six years experience, Jal is one of the many canoe operators that work with us in Nyal.

“Many people travel to Nyal on a regular basis. Some, like me, were forced to move here because of the conflict, and some come because they can access hospitals, markets, food distribution, education, and many other things here.”

“With the voucher system, we are all taken care of. When there is a food distribution, people use the canoes to take their food back to the islands. If there is a medical emergency, people use vouchers to pay for a trip to Nyal. If there is another crisis, we are more prepared to take people to safety, and they are more confident because they have come to know us.”

“With the regular income (I get from my canoe), I am able to support my family. I can also put some money aside in case there is another emergency, something I have not been able to do since the crisis started in 2013.”

Photo: Ashley Hammer/Oxfam

Martha Nyabany - There are many female canoe operators in Nyal. They are well respected in the community.”

A mother of five, Martha is driven by the need to serve her community. Born and raised in Nyal, she lives by the shores of the expansive Sudd swamp where she cultivates crops. She is also an experienced canoe operator, having driven one for over ten years, travelling to the various islands, and also fishing for food. When Oxfam put out a call for skilled canoe operators, Martha was at the top of everyones list.

When Oxfam put out a call for skilled canoe operators, Martha was at the top of everyone’s list.

“There are many female canoe operators in Nyal. We have been doing it for many years, and are well respected in the community. Some people had doubts initially because of the strength required to steer a canoe, but we proved them wrong.”

“After we were selected to be a part of the voucher system, we were trained on locating and supporting people in need, and how to use the vouchers. It is a very easy system, and has linked us to many people we did not know, and places we had not been.”

“The work is very tiring, especially when the water level is low. Sometimes it takes a lot of strength, and time to reach a destination, but so far the people I have carried have been patient. Sometimes the canoe is overloaded, and at times people fall into the water, but these are common risks we face and warn our customers about.”

Photo: Stella Madete/Oxfam

Elizabeth Nyajoka Gai To other women in a similar situation, I say stay strong and find a way to survive.”

Elizabeth tragically lost her husband in 2015 during the conflict in Nyal. Like so many other women, Elizabeth was forced to be both father and mother to her children. Earning an income from the canoes has been a lifeline as she waits to cultivate her land. 

For Elizabeth, earning an income from the canoes has been a lifeline as she waits to cultivate her land.

“The attack took place at four in the afternoon in Guak. The soldiers took everything we had: cows, beds, chairs, and even mosquito nets. Luckily we had escaped to the islands before as we had been warned about the attack. Our cows had been taken to Leer for grazing, but we never saw them again.”

“I am happy to be working and taking care of my family. My husband died last year, so I am the only one they have left.”

“I am strong and have travelled to many islands - Payat, Meer, Nyuat in the swamp. I have been called when there is an emergency and someone needs to go to hospital, and also during the food distribution when many people need help transporting the food they received to far away areas. The vouchers have introduced me to new areas and people, and I am earning more money than I did before.”

Photo: Stella Madete/Oxfam

Thomas Boum We are able to help people in need, who dont have the means to travel to get help.

Thomas, 45 years old, is a veteran in the field. He has been operating a canoe since 1991. Following the breakout of a previous conflict in South Sudan, his herd of cattle was stolen from him and he was forced to run to escape death and find safety. Unable to support his family, Thomas then learned how to steer a canoe and he has been doing it ever since.

Unable to support his family, Thomas then learned how to steer a canoe and he has been doing it ever since.

“The canoe business was good before the crisis in December 2013. I travelled through the swamps, taking people to their homes, visiting their families, buying or selling things to the market. It was safe to move around. After the crisis, everything got spoilt. Security became a problem and there was no money. People would prefer to walk and buy food or medicine than spend money on a canoe ride.”

“The canoe vouchers have really helped people in Nyal. Now that there are food distributions, we are able to take people home instead of them walking with the heavy loads on their back. We are also able to help people in need, who don’t have the means to travel to get help. I am happy that I can make money on a regular basis.”

“I don’t have enough money to buy cows, but even if I did, I would not spend it on them. The country is not stable, and we don’t know when the next war will come. If I spend money on cows, they might be taken, and I will lose again. The only way to survive is to work, feed and educate your children, and hope for peace and a better future.”

Photo: Stella Madete/Oxfam

You can help

Each day brings new arrivals to Nyal, many settling with host families and seeking safety and access to basic essentials. By making this journey, they join the 1.6 million people displaced within South Sudan by an ongoing conflict. Forced displacement, lack of humanitarian access and collapsed markets have created conditions that have left nearly a quarter of the population across the country without enough food to eat.

Despite the risk and challenging logistics, Oxfam is providing families with life-saving support with your help we can do more.

Please donate now


This program was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA)

“A canoe ride to Nyal takes three days, so walking would have taken too long. It was a good ride, very quiet, but safe. I know how dangerous it is for women to walk long distances and sleep in the bush alone. I felt very safe moving by canoe instead.”
Nyambor, who experienced canoe travel using the vouchers