Vegan and Glutton Free in South Sudan
Introduction by Karim
I first met Rutendo Urenje ten years ago, in 2004, in Harare, Zimbabwe.
I was in Zimbabwe as part of an educational program I was beta-testing, called The Brick Project, which was the subject of my doctoral thesis at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I was working with a private girls’ school in Mount Pleasant, Harare called Arundel Girls’ High School.
Rutendo was a high school student at Arundel and Rutendo’s father, Shepherd Urenje, was a Geography teacher at Arundel. Shepherd and I worked together to recruit some of the Arundel students to participate in an environmentally sustainable project to alleviate hunger in a nearby township called Porta Farm.
To read about my work on The Brick Project with Rutendo’s father, Shepherd Urenje, kindly click here.
Today, ten years later, Rutendo is studying for her masters degree in Human Rights Law at Lund University in Sweden. Rutendo is also a Managing Editor of the African Peace Journal and a member of the Board of Directors of Pencils for Africa. In her capacity as Managing Editor, Rutendo recently returned from a journalistic human rights reporting field expedition to South Sudan, Africa’s newest country.
What follows is the very first in a series of travelogues of Rutendo’s experiences in South Sudan.
Rutendo, can you tell me how you got from Sweden to South Sudan?
Well Karim, I live in Malmo, Sweden so I first took a train to Copenhagen, Denmark.
From Copenhagen, I flew to Vienna, Austria and then flew from Vienna to Cairo, Egypt.
In Cairo, I met with a representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees from which I learned much about water and sanitation in South Sudan. After spending a night in Cairo I flew on to Juba, South Sudan.
What was it like arriving in Juba, South Sudan for the first time?
From the airplane, I could already see all the ramshackle and makeshift dwellings of people who are living a subsistence life, scraping below the poverty line. However, for the first three days after I landed in Juba, it was a surreal experience for me because I was attending a workshop at the Quality Hotel in Juba.
This meant that there was an abundance of food and comfort and I was able to satisfy all my dietary and needs as well as enjoy good food.
What are your dietary preferences?
I am a vegan and I really enjoy food, I am a food-orientated person.
I am one of three daughters and growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe my mother always cooked more than ample amounts of delicious food recipes for my sisters and me. My mum cooked a ton of food – enough for a small army!
So, I must admit that I felt quite spoilt and indulged growing up in my household.
Also, at Arundel School, as you will remember from your visit there, Karim, there was always plenty of food flowing through the school. We had morning tea, afternoon tea with scones and cakes, and sumptuous lunches in between.
We had a ‘tuck shop’ where we could purchase yummy snacks!
I do remember that when I was in Zimbabwe, your parents had explained to me that Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of southern Africa, because it was so rich in agriculture and fertile land.
It was sad to see that the country had deteriorated so much. This is why your dad and I worked on the project with your old school, Arundel School, to alleviate hunger in Porta Farm near Harare.
There is an interesting parallel here Karim: South Sudan could be breadbasket for the middle or northern part of Africa. Over the past two decades South Sudan has not had any formal agricultural production but there is much potential. The country, especially in the Western Equatoria region which I visited has the most beautiful fertile landscape and brilliant red and green colors: the red soil, the green vegetation.
However, similar to Zimbabwe in terms of the destructiveness of political and civil conflict, South Sudan is unable to flourish agriculturally. A combination of civil and tribal wars – some of which I nearly encountered upon my recent visit there – have ruined the agricultural potential of the country. Today, there is barely any food, and what is available is expensive even for a person visiting from a Western country, as I was. There is some nominal subsistence farming in the rural areas and much of the rest of the food is imported in from Uganda.
What happened after those first three days at the workshop at the Quality Hotel in Juba?
Well Karim, that is when reality started to set in!
From Juba, I took a very crammed and crowded land vehicle ride, which lasted about nine hours with only one brief stop for water. It was on this land journey that I began to understand the eating habits and realities of the local people as well as their resolve and their courage. I recall that there was a little girl on the journey who was eating an egg while sitting on her mother’s lap. There was so much dirt everywhere due to the scarcity of water for sanitation and even her egg and the little girl’s hands were dirty.
I had some sanitation wipes and offered them to the little girl and her mother. They smiled gratefully.
I realized though, that this egg was the only food the child ate throughout the entire nine-hour journey.
This was true for the people in the land vehicle, including me. There was nowhere to get food and it occurred to me that remaining hungry for extended periods of time was a normalcy for these people.
What did you do once you got to your destination?
I arrived at my destination on a Thursday.
I was to be hosted by a local family while I worked at a local school in Juba. When I arrived to be with the family, they warmly greeted me and then offered me the opportunity to take a bath. This meant a tin bucket with warmish water, which I then took to the outhouse to bathe with.
After that, we had a very modest and sparse dinner of rice and beans.
And the next morning for breakfast I had the leftover rice and beans.
So, Thursday night you had rice and beans?
Yes, rice and beans.
What did you have on Friday night?
Rice and beans.
What about Saturday night?
Rice and beans.
What about Sunday night?
Rice and beans. And weeping.
I started to cry because I realized I would be there for three weeks and this was to be the same menu every night: rice and beans, rice and beans… I know I sound a spoiled and snobbish Westerner but I was overwhelmed and started to weep.
I was weeping when I called my dad up and told him about it.
What did Shepherd say to you in response?
He said: “Stop being such a spoiled snob and just get over yourself!”.
So, I presume you were desperate for a change of menu from rice and beans?
Yes! Presumed correct! I was so desperate for a change of menu that this is what I decided:
I had brought some gifts of chocolate for my hosts, but since I had such a craving to eat something different I raided this gift basket and got out a nice big bar of Toblerone and ate the whole thing! Now this is unusual for me because normally I watch my sugar intake and I would not do that. But I was desperate and also, I realized I needed a sugar intake at this point because South Sudan was sugarless.
Were you still a vegan?
Well Karim, I had to modify and improvise at this point.
Let us just say I became a vegetarian instead of a vegan for the duration of my time in South Sudan.
What happened once you ran out of Toblerone?
Well, the next day we went to the local market and that was also a learning experience. The market was dirty and fly-infested, noisy and bustling and also really fun and exciting all at the same time!
What did they sell at the market?
Not much. And it was really, really expensive because of the scarcity of food which causes an economic inflation in food prices as well as unpredictable food shortages. So, with the equivalent of US $45, all I could manage to purchase was about 2 cups of rice, some beans, 5 tomatoes, 3 onions and 6 bananas.
And Karim, just so you know, these bananas were the size of my pinkie finger, no bigger than that!
What was the availability of food at the school where you worked?
Pretty much non-existent, Karim.
Whereas at Arundel, there were tea breaks and lunchtimes and tea times again, constant flow of food; here, at the school I worked at, there was only one short morning break at about 10:00am and school went from 8:30am to 1:00pm.
I never saw any such thing as a lunchbox – children there do not even know what a lunchbox is.
The only available food was from a these village ladies who are nearby the school where they will fry up some doughy dumpling like food, which in South Africa they call “fat cooks” and in South Sudan they call “mandlas”. However, even this was prohibitive in cost for the schoolchildren and the only people that could afford them were some of the teachers and staff.
So you were still essentially on a rice and bean diet?
Yes – until I found a remote workable wi-fi internet connection and got on my Facebook page!
A friend of mine on Facebook said that they had heard I was in South Sudan and if there was anything that I needed they would be happy to help out. I replied immediately and said that I needed “FOOD !!”
A few days later, I received the following from my friend in Switzerland:
Dried fruit, nuts, packaged noodles, oats and couscous. I also received some powdered (cow’s) milk although I had requested powdered soy milk, but my Swiss friend could not find soy milk in time.
Well, at this point you were no longer a vegan anyway, correct?
Exactly! I had to let go of all those labels and was happy to have cow’s milk – or any form of milk!
I started cooking with all these new ingredients and sharing all my cooking with my host family.
However, whatever I made for them they did not like, which surprised me. It was perhaps because their palate was very unfamiliar to food like couscous and cooked oats. All this was part of the experience and I learned to just go with the flow and not be too rigid about things.
There appear to be some profound lessons in all these various experiences. What are the most important lessons you learned regarding hunger, Rutendo, on this field trip to South Sudan?
Karim, the most important lesson I learned has to do with truly understanding what it means to be hungry.
People in the West often talk about hungry children in Africa. I am from Africa, and I even talk about hungry children in Africa.
However, until you have actually gone hungry and seen malnourished hungry children looking you in the eye, you cannot even begin to understand what hunger means.
The point is that I had no options.
I am mindful of my health and diet and I have been on fasts and gone with minimal food for days. I have even attended rigorous boot camps where there is a strict discipline about meals and diet. Nevertheless, in these examples, I knew I always had the option to opt out and that I was never going to starve. However, when you have absolutely no option but to be hungry it is very, very scary.
I am so very grateful for this experience because it has both transformed and improved my character.
This experience has helped to deepen and clarify my understanding of people living on the poverty line.