Since March 2014 Musa Abdallah has been travelling with emergency mobile teams to reach vulnerable people who have been isolated by conflict in some of the most food-insecure areas of the country. The South Sudanese national became a team leader in October and tells us about the challenges he faced in his new role while in the village of Mogok in Jonglei State.
Having been part of several mobile teams deployed to assist people affected by conflict, I could tell from observing others that being a team leader could be a challenging task. I found out for myself when I led a team of eight WFP staff members to Magok at the end of October.
This was not our first mission so everyone was used to the drill: find a place to set up camp, meet the local authorities, organise meetings with members of the community, explain our purpose and procedures and identify an airdrop zone. It was hard to find an airdrop zone as almost everywhere was flooded. But this challenge was like child’s play compared to what happened later.
We radioed the coordinates for the place we had selected as the drop zone. The first drops were alright but on the third day it rained heavily and the drop zone became soggy. When the bags landed some almost sunk in what had become a muddy field in parts and a swimming pool in other areas.
Should we continue the drops in such conditions? Should we start immediate distribution of part of the food such as cereals rather than have them going wet? Here’s where I had to make my first tough decision as a team leader, as I had to consider that we had registered 13,000 people, most of them looking desperately hungry. They were so weak that we could not find enough people to help as porters to move the bags from the drop zone to where they had to be stacked ready for distribution. Most of the community, if not all, were against suspending the operation until the area became dry again. Women talked about how many weeks they had gone without food and said they would be willing to accept the wet cereals and pulses and dry them just to have food. It is such instances that show the desperation that this conflict has caused.
We therefore agreed to proceed with the drops whenever the weather conditions permitted until we could get the required stock. What was amazing was the level of resilience among the women. They were the ones who were ready to move into the wet drop zone to collect the bags. Many men said they were too weak and tired. They were just waiting for the distribution to commence.
Then something happened that tested my efficiency as a team leader. As we were about to start distribution, we made a routine stock check. We noticed that 20 boxes containing oil and 20 boxes containing nutritious food known as Supercereal Plus had gone missing. This was not good and I could fill sweat trickling down my forehead.
I got in touch with the community leaders and told them we (WFP and our partner Catholic Relief Services) were going to suspend the distribution until the missing commodities were found. The community leaders and authorities tried to influence me and force me to relent.
“How can you take such a decision?” one of the community leaders asked. “Don’t you see all these hungry women and children? Do you want them to die because of a few boxes which have gone missing? Do you want to have their deaths blamed on you?”
I called the WFP Country Office in Juba for guidance and they confirmed my position. No distribution if the food was not returned.
“I cannot be blamed for any deaths,” I said. “We have come here as WFP to help people in need. Do the people who took away those boxes of Supercereal Plus know how many children will now suffer from malnutrition because what the world has sent to help them was carried away by unscrupulous people? My conscience is clear. We are here as humanitarians but you must find those commodities,” I told the community.
After a while the elders and authorities agreed to organise a search for the missing commodities. I really can’t tell how they managed it but after what seemed like several long tense hours all the boxes were recovered. I informed the office in Juba and we carried on with the distribution.
I have experienced many things in the field. The team in Magok was staying in a small, abandoned tukul (house). There was a big tree in this compound and snakes kept slithering out of a hole near the tree. The tradition there does not allow for people to kill snakes, so despite many team members being petrified we always had to figure out how to send them away and hope they did not comeback. Then there were the hyenas that kept laughing near our compound around midnight. One of them even got into the compound once which was frightening.
The tensest moment definitely remains that period between when we discovered that commodities had gone missing but I am happy that it all went well and that the people received their food.
By Musa Abdallah, WFP South Sudan