Aid workers explain: What is it like to live and work in remote South Sudan?

Women queue to register for humanitarian aid in Leer County, South Sudan. Photo by: Zenebe Teklewold / U.N.

JUBA, South Sudan — When fighting broke out in South Sudan almost six years ago, 39-year-old Galla Michael found himself living in a swamp in the country’s northwest, trying to help 20,000 people flee from war.

The local staffer was working for an international aid group in Lakes State when violence erupted in 2013. He fled with the community and sheltered in remote wetlands for two weeks, surrounded by crocodiles and mosquitos and without access to food, housing, or clean water.

“It was really hard. I [kept thinking] what brought me here?” said the water and sanitation technician, who had never experienced active fighting as an aid worker before. Michael stayed with the community for two years and helped erect a makeshift town out of the swamp. When he finally returned to South Sudan’s capital of Juba, he was sick and ordered by doctors to take three months off to eat and sleep.

Despite the challenges, there’s nothing he’d rather do and nowhere he’d rather be than in the field. “I love being a humanitarian,” he said.

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South Sudan is slowly emerging from a civil war that has killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions. Almost 25,000 local staff and more than 2,600 foreigners comprise the aid sector, according to figures seen by Devex from South Sudan’s NGO Forum and the U.N. Office for the Coordination Of Humanitarian Affairs.

Many humanitarians spend long periods working in remote locations across the country, living in conditions far outside their comfort zones. South Sudan’s vast terrain includes the Sudd, one of the world’s largest wetlands, as well as forest, mountains, and arid expanses, often making it hard to reach the most vulnerable people.

Devex spoke with three aid workers with extensive field experience outside of Juba to gain insights into what it’s like living and working in remote areas in complex contexts.

“Leer is the hardest place ever to work in … A lot of people work there and they run away and are fed up.”

— Galla Michael, WASH technician

Bush living

After taking time off, Michael returned to the field and now works as the manager for the water and sanitation team in Leer in Unity State for Medair, an international organization focused on health. Even though Leer is known for its unpredictable security,  Michael requested to be there.

“I don’t like staying in the office. I need to go to the field and make sure I see my work and make sure I sit with my staff,” he said. After arriving, it became clear that it wasn’t going to be easy.

In order to reach communities and drill boreholes so people have access to water, Michael and his five-person team walk at least two hours through swamps each way every day, carrying equipment on their heads. Due to Leer’s instability, aid workers take everything of value everywhere they go in anticipation that they might not always make it back to base. In a place where everyone has a gun, it was at first intimidating to turn a corner in the forest and see two men sitting with rifles, Michael said.

Stints in the field aren’t short. Michael spends up to one month sleeping on a thin mat on the ground in his tent. To avoid being attacked by mosquitoes during the rainy season, he’s careful to be inside the tent with the zipper closed before 5 p.m. Laughing, he recalls how when he first arrived, he wasn’t able to eat because he was more focused on “fighting mosquitoes” than on his dinner.

“Leer is the hardest place ever to work in … A lot of people work there and they run away and are fed up,” he said.

Sometimes when U.N. flights arrive to drop people off and pick others up, they aren’t able to bring food from Juba, leaving the team without rations for the week. With no market or shop, they’re forced to buy fish from the Nile. Hanging his head at the thought of subsisting on bland boiled fish, Michael said they eat it to survive.

American aid worker Rebecca Huebsch, who also works with Medair as an emergency response team health manager, said the lack of food variety can be hard.

“The diet is challenging. There are only so many times you want to eat rice and beans,” said the 27-year-old who spent nearly five consecutive months in the field this year, spearheading measles vaccination campaigns in Gogrial State. Desperate for variety, Huebsch would buy a chicken through the window of the car if they passed a person selling one on the street, she said. She’d also stop and negotiate mango prices with the owner of any mango tree she spotted.  

Life in the bush is a stark contrast from her previous job as a paramedic in the United States, where the field equated to a daily one to two-hour mission and where the back of the van often had more supplies than a health facility in some towns in South Sudan. With less at her disposal, she’s had to rethink how things can be achieved in terms of providing medical care.

On a personal level, everything requires more effort.

In order to shower or wash clothes, Huebsch walks about five minutes to the borehole, pumps water, socializes with the community, and then carries the water back. The whole process requires added motivation, which she doesn’t always have. She learned quickly not to rely on anything requiring a battery or electrical outlet for entertainment. Reading and listening to podcasts and audiobooks on her phone quickly changed to journal writing and going for walks to the market in order to stay busy.

For Servasius Koli, a WASH coordinator for a roving emergency response team with Oxfam, the biggest challenge in the field is the unpredictable insecurity and the bureaucracy. While working in one field location for five months last year, the 41-year-old Indonesian said his team would need two to three hours daily just to process clearance letters before traveling for another three hours to reach the population in need. Every morning they had to file a letter detailing the names of staff going on mission, the travel plan, the vehicle, location, and items to be distributed for that specific day, he said.  

“During an emergency response if we can't respond quickly to provide safe drinking water and emergency sanitation facilities then the affected community will suffer,” Koli said.

South Sudan was the most dangerous place for humanitarian aid workers in 2018 for the third consecutive year, according to research by Humanitarian Outcomes. In July 2019, 44 access incidents were reported, including harassment of aid workers, violence against personnel, and operational inference, according to OCHA’s Humanitarian Access Snapshot.

Learning to cope

Compounding the man-made barriers are the geographical challenges. Crossing a large swamp in a canoe one day, a crocodile jumped in front of Koli’s boat. While everyone was shocked, no one was hurt, he said.

Wildlife encounters are common in the field, and Michael deals with the stress by finding the humor in these close calls.

Minimizing aid worker risk in dangerous environments

Courses, such as hostile environment awareness training and basic security training, can help mitigate some of the risks taken by aid workers working in dangerous locations.

Among fits of laughter, he recounted the day a leopard walked into the compound in the tiny village of Padeah in Unity State in search of water. “We were sitting there and one colleague was so scared, as it came closer he was shaking … the leopard had a voice that terrorized people,” he joked.

He smiled remembering another incident when the wind, created from the U.N. helicopter as it was landing, destroyed their tents and warehouse and forced them to rebuild everything.

The most important tool for success in the field is to build trust with the community, Michael said. If a community member offers water, drink it. If they make food, taste it. And most of all, always take time to listen, he said.

Huebsch tries to learn a few local phrases, which she said makes locals more welcoming to her as a foreigner, especially when running a health campaign that many people might not be familiar with. The more comfortable you feel within the community, the easier it is to stay longer, she said.

Huebsch also tries to find ways to stay connected. Before coming to South Sudan she bought a personal GPS device, which allows her to send short text messages to anyone in the world from her phone, even without network. “There’s the illusion of freedom” that comes from having a way to communicate with the outside world and not feel so cut off from family and friends, she said.

Some psychologists worry that even though aid workers develop coping strategies to deal with stress, they have a propensity to overburden themselves.

“We see a lot of superhero syndrome field workers who want to save the world and many tend to burn out by accepting too much on their plate,” said Mélodie Safieddine, a clinical psychologist focused on humanitarians who spent time in South Sudan.

This often happens at the expense of one’s self-care as many aid workers are too afraid to admit they feel burnt out, comparing themselves to the beneficiaries who are facing worse situations than they are.

Safieddine recommends activities that help relax and reconnect to the mind and body, such as yoga, sports, or meditation. Developing a regular routine including eating at the same hours and doing something every day or week at the same time is also helpful. She suggests diverting the mind from work by reading a book, watching a movie, or playing cards with friends.

Most important, however, is the ability to ask for help: “There’s no shame in asking for a break,” she said. “Taking care of yourself has to be a priority. How can you take care of others if you don't know how to do it with yourself first?”

Update, Sept. 17, 2019: This article has been updated to reflect that Servasius Koli, a WASH coordinator for a roving emergency response team with Oxfam, is from Indonesia.

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.