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South Sudan: Life in a cattle camp

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By Francesca Sabatinelli & Linda Bordoni

In South Sudan, some 8.9 million people, more than two-thirds of the population, are estimated to need significant humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022.

For over a decade people’s lives have been undermined by years of conflict, social and political instability, unprecedented climate shocks, ongoing violence, frequent displacements, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity and multiple disease outbreaks. And now, among the consequences of the war in Ukraine is the suspension or reduction of international aid operations due to the rise in the cost of wheat and transport.

But, as Vatican Radio’s Francesca Sabatinelli discovered, in some parts of the country, cattle are a significant part of politics and the economy. People rely on their milk or their sale for food, school fees and medicine.

John Maker who works as a logistics expert for the Italian-funded NGO “Doctors for Africa CUAMM”, and who personally grew up in a cattle camp, explains that traditionally, cows have an enormous economic and symbolic value, for the people of South Sudan.

Listen to the interview with John Maker here

image 6 - South Sudan: Life in a cattle camp
Cattle camp near Yirol, Lakes State, South Sudan

“In a cattle camp, sometimes life is difficult and sometimes it is easy!”

This is our life, says John Maker, who grew up in a cattle camp in Sudan’s Lakes State, explaining that cows are valuable property.

Cattle camp near Yirol, Lakes State, South Sudan

Right now, he says, “the situation is ok – because there is peace in Lakes State” – but for many years the State was ravaged by war and violence in which hundreds of people, including aid workers, were killed since conflict broke out in 2013.

But today, John continues, different families and many tribes live together in the cattle camp.

He explains that many of the inhabitants commute between the camp and the nearby town of Yirol nurturing an economy based on selling milk in order to buy other goods, such as maize flour, the basic food for the children and the community at large.

Currently, he says, “people are getting benefits from the cows.”

“And if there is hunger, the head of a family can choose to sell a cow”, he adds.

“The cows are like money in the bank”

image 7 - South Sudan: Life in a cattle camp
John Maker at the cattle camp near Yirol

John himself spent the first 12 years of his life in a cattle camp before receiving an education. 

His life changed when he was sent to school in the town, he says, and now that he is working for CUAMM his life “has changed for the best!”

“And I am happy to help my community”

Doctors with Africa CUAMM which was founded in 1950 is Italy’s leading organization working to protect and improve the wellbeing and health of vulnerable communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. In South Sudan, it provides displaced persons with healthcare assistance and essential supplies and supports hospitals and peripheral clinics.

The NGO, John says, has brought enormous change to Yirol because “where there is a health facility, is where the people come and it makes the town grow.”

When there were no Italian doctors, Yirol was not like this, he says, the community is grateful for their presence!

Cattle camp near Yirol, Lakes State, South Sudan

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