Q&A: How War and Displacement Set Back a Generation of Farmers in South Sudan

Robin Denney worked with the Episcopal Church of Sudan from 2008-2011 to help community leaders and displaced farmers – some of them micro-entrepreneurs – make the most of the limited resources around them. Robin talked about displacement and how that can impact farming. Here, she shares a few stories about the lives of farmers who have been displaced.


When you were giving talks and seminars, what was the makeup of your audience?
It was usually a gathering of people that the bishop had pulled together from different sectors. Usually, a mix of Mothers Union staff, pastors, people like archdeacons who could carry the information out to a larger group, and then a mixture of teachers, farmers, and farmer group members. It was a neat mix of people.

When you met farmers who had been displaced, what was their spirit like?
Every individual reacts to a situation differently. So I met some people who were hopeful, doing everything they could, who maybe received a little help from the person who was near them. Once, we stopped and prayed with a family that was grinding up peanuts that their neighbor had given them. They also had a bunch of leaves that they had collected from the forest. Their attitude was, "OK, we have what we need for today, and we are going to pray for tomorrow and be hopeful." They were hopeful because of the love they had experienced from the community and because of their faith.
           But I met an old man in Ezo who was weaving baskets just for his own use, and perhaps to make a little money, in case anyone would buy something. He looked very, very sad and we stopped and talked with him. He said, "You know, I was a farmer and I always had enough to eat. I have never been hungry in my life because I was a really good farmer. But I wish I would never have lived to see times like this." He was living in the worst part of the displacement where people didn't even have tarps or anything. They just had palm branches with which they were trying to make basic shelters.

You mentioned techniques like planting in line and mulching. How did you "teach" these techniques?
One problem that secular organizations have is they just focus on techniques, thinking if I show you a technique that's better, then you can just use that and you'll be fine. But that doesn't work. People use farming techniques not because of logic, or because they were taught something, but because of tradition. There are whole systems and cultural things in play about why it is you farm a certain way. And it also comes down to how you feel about yourself. Many farmers are only farmers by default because they didn't get a scholarship or a business loan, so they have a negative feeling about their farm. So the first part of the workshop is really about helping farmers to discover their worth, and that God is calling them to be caretakers of Creation and to support their families, that it's a noble work and the first calling of humanity, of Adam and Eve.

Wow – that's really fascinating. Can you share a story from one such session?
It's more a story about the long-term displacement of war. The LRA has been the recent displacement. You can see through that the immediate effects. But the war has gone on for 50 years. People were displaced again and again for generations. I was in Rokon diocese doing a workshop. I was teaching my standard workshop [when] we go out and actually learn from Creation – really obvious techniques that you can find just by looking around. We look for where the plants are growing really well and dig into the soil and feel the soil and look at the natural mulches that exist.
           As I was doing this, an old woman kept grinning at me and laughing. I thought she was skeptical because of the look on her face. But it was actually that she was remembering something. So after a while I was asking for questions, and she raised her hand and said, "You know, I've been watching you, and I remember when I was a little girl we used to do this mulching thing. But I'm trying to remember when it was that we stopped doing that."
           It was really interesting because that comment helped the other farmers to realize that it wasn't something foreign. This was a technique that they had used in the past, but it had been lost. And the reason it had been lost was because over generations of fleeing you still farm, you don't stop farming when you're displaced -- you plant wherever you can. Even if you're not going to be there to harvest, you still plant. But you don't use the same effort that you would if you knew that you were going to be there. You throw out the seed but you don't really worry about the weeds. What happens then is you bring your children up learning to plant that way. So the more nuanced techniques that allow the farmers to get the most out of the land are lost over long periods of displacement.