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How a canoe program is saving lives and livelihoods in South Sudan

Saving lives in South Sudan

"When the crisis happened, I was fortunate to have the canoe because we were able to leave Nyal and move safely to the islands. Many people were not so fortunate, so I helped where I could." Martha Nyabany, canoe operator. Photo: Stella Madete/Oxfam

Gabrial: the boatman of South Sudan

Located in Panyijar, Unity State and shouldered by a vast swamp, Nyal was previously a quiet town known for its mango and palm trees. Two years of extended fighting in the surrounding areas however, has forced thousands of people to seek refuge in the town and the islands surrounding it. Many of those who have found refuge here, including women and children must regularly walk long distances alone in search of aid and food.

We are providing assistance to displaced people and the communities that host them in and around Nyal, both on the mainland and remote islands. With support from Irish Aid we are able to offer a free canoe transportation program to those people who need to journey to Nyal for food distributions or medical treatment. We provide vouchers for transport to those in need and train canoe operatives. The program also extends to assisting communities to seek refuge rapidly in an emergency and helps the canoe operators to earn the money they need to support their families.

Jal Banyiei – “With the voucher system, we are all taken care of”

With six years experience, Jal is one of the many canoe operators that work with us in Nyal, Panyijar and one of the many displaced in Nyal trying to carve out a living from the little he has left. A devoted husband and father, Jal is motivated by his need to contribute to building a better future for his children.

Photo: Ashley Hammer/Oxfam

"Many people travel to Nyal on a regular basis. Some, like me, were forced to move here because of the conflict, and some come because they can access hospitals, markets, food distribution, education, and many other things here."

"With the voucher system, we are all taken care of. When there is a food distribution, people use the canoes to take their food back to the islands. If there is a medical emergency, people use vouchers to pay for a trip to Nyal. If there is another crisis, we are more prepared to take people to safety, and they are more confident because they have come to know us."

"With the regular income (I get from my canoe), I am able to support my family. I can also put some money aside in case there is another emergency, something I have not been able to do since the crisis started in 2013."

Photo: Ashley Hammer/Oxfam

Martha Nyabany - "There are many female canoe operators in Nyal. They are well respected in the community."

A mother of five, Martha is driven by the need to serve her community. Born and raised in Nyal, she lives by the shores of the expansive Sudd swamp where she cultivates crops. She is also an experienced canoe operator, having driven one for over ten years, travelling to the various islands, and also fishing for food. When Oxfam put out a call for skilled canoe operators, Martha was at the top of everyone's list.

Photo: Stella Madete/Oxfam

"There are many female canoe operators in Nyal. We have been doing it for many years, and are well respected in the community. Some people had doubts initially because of the strength required to steer a canoe, but we proved them wrong."

"After we were selected to be a part of the voucher system, we were trained on locating and supporting people in need, and how to use the vouchers. It is a very easy system, and has linked us to many people we did not know, and places we had not been."

"The work is very tiring, especially when the water level is low. Sometimes it takes a lot of strength, and time to reach a destination, but so far the people I have carried have been patient. Sometimes the canoe is overloaded, and at times people fall into the water, but these are common risks we face and warn our customers about."

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