When Roda was forced to flee her home in South Sudan, her life fell apart. Thanks to a vibrant mother’s group in Uganda, she has found renewed strength and a strong network of support.
On July 9th, 2017, South Sudan marked its sixth anniversary as an independent country. What should have been an occasion to celebrate the potential of the world’s newest nation was instead a time of crisis. A new global alert published in late June revealed that six million people throughout the country are in urgent need of food assistance—the greatest number of people suffering from acute food shortages and hunger ever recorded in South Sudan. In fact, 1.7 million people are now on the brink of famine.
The severity of South Sudan’s crisis—fueled by extreme poverty, four years of conflict, an unstable economy, and political upheaval—is evident in the statistics related to food deficits, dramatic inflation, and increases in malnutrition and numbers of people fleeing the country as refugees. But the impact of this crisis is most powerfully conveyed not through numbers, but through the stories of individual people—parents, children, grandparents—doing their utmost to overcome crisis and keep their children safe from famine and violence.
Roda Keji, 29, is both a refugee and a mother. She fled South Sudan in 2014, when the conflict came to her home village of Mugali. “We ran because of the war,” she says. “Armed men came and took people from their homes at night, men and women.”
Roda’s younger sister and her brother-in-law were killed during the conflict in her village. Roda is now taking care of her sister’s three children as well as four children of her own. Her husband is alive, but she was separated from him when she escaped her village, and he has not been permitted to cross the border into Uganda.
“When we first arrived in Uganda, there was nothing to eat, and my children really suffered from hunger. We had no shelter [at first.]”
Roda found shelter and help in Adjumani, in a refugee settlement managed by Action Against Hunger’s partner, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since then, she has literally worked to rebuild the foundation for her life, alone, caring for seven children. She says, “I built my home here [myself] from bricks.” Action Against Hunger enrolled Roda in a nutrition program to ensure that the lives of her seven children are not threatened by acute malnutrition.
Part of Action Against Hunger’s work to prevent malnutrition among child refugees in Adjumani settlement involves setting up mother-to-mother support groups. These groups educate pregnant women and nursing mothers about proper care and feeding practices to boost the health and nutrition of their infants and young children, as well as about hygiene and sanitation to prevent illness. These mother-to-mother support groups are led by Action Against Hunger’s nutrition staff, in collaboration with a trained “lead mother” who is elected by the group.
Mothers in these groups are no longer rebuilding their lives alone. For Roda and other refugee moms, belonging to the mother-to-mother support groups means not only improving their children’s health and nutrition, but also finding a community full of trust and shared strength. The groups are a safe space for women to share their experiences and help each other overcome the trauma they have experienced. The groups are also a source of inspiration and income: many of the mothers have joined forces to start small businesses together.
“If I need to go to the health center, my neighbors will help me,” says Roda. “If I have any problems, I share them with the mother group. We are all united. We are all sisters.”