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On the west bank of the White Nile lies Terekeka, a small bustling town in Central Equatoria state in South Sudan. The town center rises with the sun, with vibrant sounds and excited chatter marking the start of the day.
A myriad of shops selling goods from sandals to phone chargers are setting up for the day’s trade. Loyal patrons are already breaking bread at their favorite restaurants, their voices raised and heavy with expectation for the coming hours.
In Mundari language, Terekeka means ‘the forgotten,’ and walking through the town, one can’t help but notice the buildings, crumbling but sturdy, the roads, potholed and dusty, the markets, busy. Terekeka feels like a town moving at its own pace. Whereas peace and independence for South Sudan promised opportunities for lives to change for the better, the reality is different in Terekeka, which has seen its fair share of cattle raids and intra-communal fighting. As long as there are limited opportunities to earn income, especially for youth, insecurity will remain a problem. Lack of resources is a key driver of conflict here, even though the White Nile, an untapped source of food and income, can bring much needed change in the lives of ‘the forgotten’.
Cattle represent wealth – but not income
Clement Soboit is the chairman of the Sernum fisheries cooperative and has been leading the group since its formation in 2001. Sernum is named after one of the tributaries of the White Nile, a fitting name for the group that aims to lift the lives of many young men too easily driven to violence. Mr. Soboit, a familiar figure known fondly as ‘Mzee’, meaning ‘respected elder’, recalls the days when fishing was unheard of as a source of income.
“When I was growing up, the Falata people were the fishermen in Terekeka. They exported their catch to Kosti and then to Khartoum,” he says. “For us Mundari, however, if you were a man that fished, you were laughed at because it was not a craft that men undertook. There even used to be a fish dance that mocked people who worked with the river.”
Perceptions on fishing changed among the Mundari because those who were fishing were making enough money to support their families. This, however, did not resolve issues brought on by a lack of income. Although some were better off, many were still struggling, especially those in the cattle camps who had wealth in cattle, but not income. Oxfam, in partnership with ACORD, is working with the local community to identify and diffuse triggers to reduce the risk of falling back into conflict.
Young men are fishing, not fighting
“We were growing as fishermen, but leaving many behind. This is when we decided to come together, to grow and in turn develop the community. Initially, we had no office, store, fishing gear or boat. Oxfam helped us lay the foundation to set up our group and provided some of the supplies we needed. As a cooperative we were able to reinvest in the group, which grew big enough to accommodate new members.”
The program targets young men who are at risk of being involved in violence, such as those from the cattle camps in Terekeka.
“In South Sudan, cattle represent wealth, but are not a source of income. Cattle rustling is a big problem as young men fight to protect their herds, their wealth,” says Tom Modi, a member of Serum and chairman of one of the fishing camps along the Nile. “We presented fishing as an alternative to this and some of the violence reduced after word spread of the benefits of fishing. Many young men joined this fishing camp, and others left to establish their own. They are too busy setting up businesses to waste time fighting.”
“I'm focused on the future”
Agelo Kenyi grew up among the members of the Sernum fishing group.
“I learnt how to fish and started earning income. I have now formed my own fishing camp and this is possible because as a member of Sernum, I am able to rent a boat at a subsidized cost. I sell what I catch in the local markets, and in areas outside Terekeka. I’m focused on the future. I want to grow my business by expanding to other sectors and making sure those around me grow with me.”
Increased commercial fishing also created new opportunities for others to earn a living through transport, storage and marketing of fish products. Bodaboda (motorcycle taxis) are in high demand, generators are leased for refrigeration and markets are in constant need of fresh supply. More and more people are involved in the trade, meaning more income is earned and less time is spent fighting.
After years focused on fish, Soboit and his team decided to try something new. “Using some money from the group, we were able to expand into farming. We are now growing fruits and vegetables to sell in markets in Terekeka and other parts of South Sudan,” he says. The Sernum group is tapping into the long hidden wealth in the Nile and has been reaping the rewards from years.
Oxfam has supported five fishing groups with capital and business training to set up cooperative models that are still being used today. The groups work together to find alternatives solutions to problems in their communities. They are using the Nile and its vast resource as common ground for dialogue and income generation.
Progress is at risk
The progress made by Soboit and countless others is in danger of being erased if South Sudan’s economy continues in its downward spiral. The diminishing value of the South Sudanese pound, the ongoing conflict and collapsed markets are threatening years of investment and planning, and ultimately, people’s livelihoods and future.
A real, lasting peace that delivers genuine security and stability is needed to protect the future of South Sudanese people everywhere.