John Skinnader with Agum, her mother and Daniel As the soldiers attacked their
village and destroyed their livestock and crops, in South Sudan, Maria Mabior had
one last chance to save her family from starvation: the beauty of her 16 -year-old
Last year, an older man offered $1,000 for her dowry, enough to take her extended
family to Leer where international aid agencies are handing out food and water to
families fleeing the devastating conflict.
Agum refused. "I would rather die. It is better that I run into the bush and be eaten
by lions," said the smiling bright-eyed girl in a high, soft voice. "Then we will
stay and starve to death and the animals will eat all of our bones," her mother shot
back. The exchange, related to Fr. John Skinnader by the teenager and her mother,
is typical of the choices facing South Sudanese families after years of conflict
and poor rains. Crops withered and the white bones of livestock are scattered across
the Horn of Africa nation.
The disaster is part of an arc of hunger and violence threatening 20 million people
as it stretches across Africa into the Middle East. It extends from the red soil
of Nigeria in the west, where Boko Haram's six-year jihadis insurgency has forced
2 million people to flee their homes, to Yemen's white deserts in the east, where
warring factions block aid while children starve. Between them lie Somalia's parched
sands and the swamps of oil-rich South Sudan, where starving families fleeing three
years of civil war survive on water-lily roots. Parts of South Sudan are already
suffering famine, the first in six years.
As U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to slash aid budgets, the United Nations
says the drought and conflicts in the four countries are fuelling humanity's greatest
collective disaster since World War Two. "We stand at a critical point in history,"
Undersecretary-General for humanitarian affairs Stephen O'Brien told the Security
Council in March. "We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation
of the United Nations." The United Nations needs $4.4 billion by July, he said. So
far it has received $590 million.
THE CHOICE Missing from the statistics are the heart-wrenching choices families make
every day to survive. Sheltering under the bare branches of a thorn tree as she waited
for a cup of flour, one mother who just arrived in Leer said she had been feeding
her younger children while the older ones went hungry. Another had left her sick
5-year-old son by the side of the road with distant kinsmen as she led children that
could still walk towards help. A third woman bid goodbye to her crippled husband
and walked through the desert for a week, carrying their toddler, to the place where
there was food.
Maria traded Agum’s freedom for the lives of her sisters.
"I felt so bad," she told us in the ragged dome of sticks, rags and plastic that
shelters her and 14 other relatives. "I ended the dreams of my baby. But without
the money from the dowry, we would all have died." Agum says . She wants to be an
English teacher. She wants to finish school. She does not want to be married. "I
want something different to this," she said, Weighed against Agum’s dreams were the
lives of 20 nieces and nephews, the sons and daughters of her three elder sisters,
all married young and all widowed or divorced. There was also her careworn older
brother, her gap-toothed younger sister and her middle-aged parents.
Once the family had cows and goats and three donkeys that they hired out with carts
for transport. But the animals died around them and Agum became their only hope of
escape. For a month, she refused, withdrawing into herself and running away when
they forgot to lock her in her room. Finally, faced with her family's overwhelming
need Agum relented. "We didn't want to force her," her mother said wearily, worry
lines etched into her forehead as her daughter sat beside her. "I could not sleep
for stress. My eyes were so tired I could not thread a needle."
THE MARRIAGE The dowry was received, the marriage celebrated, and union consummated.
Agum stayed three days and ran away. When her family hired cars to drive them the
40 kilometres to Leer, Agum went with them. She enrolled in the local school, where
stick walls topped by corrugated iron sheets serve as classrooms for 10 teachers
and around 500 students. Her husband followed. "He says, if the girl refuses me I
must get my money back. Or I will take her by force," Agum said quietly. "He sends
me messages saying give me the money or I will be with you as your husband." Her
family cannot repay even a fraction of the dowry. Their only assets are their two
stained foam mattresses, three cooking pots and the tarpaulin that covers their
makeshift dome. There is nothing else to sell.
Then Agum’s English teacher Daniel Malou decided to step in. Daniel has seen hundreds
of students drop out due to the conflict. One girl left to work as a maid to help
feed her family. Her generation was the first where the daughters were sent to school.
A boy sickened and died; cholera has exploded throughout South Sudan as the bacteria
infects dwindling water supplies. Five girls this year also left for forced or early
marriages, Daniel said. Young, reluctant brides are not unheard of in South Sudan
, but they are less common in good times, he said, at least in Leer. "Before the
drought, the cases were less," he said, an inflatable globe hanging from the ceiling
of his classroom. "Some parents do give their children to other men to get that money."
THE END No one knows how many families are making choices like Agum. Aid groups said
most drought-stricken families are too poor to pay dowries after their animals died.
None knew of a programme to help girls like Agum. Daniel took Agum to a local aid
group, who took her to an Irish Aid group. The regional coordinator, visiting on
a trip with EU donors, decided to intervene. "We must do something for this girl,"
said Jonathan, pouring tea for colleagues gathered to hear the story as the shooting
could be heard in the distance. "Otherwise it will be a rape every night." Her staff
held a collection and came up with enough cash to repay the dowry. Jonathan told
Agum that the group would mediate a meeting between the men of the two families.
Her husband would get back his money if he divorced her in front of witnesses. Agum’s
dark eyes flicked up from the floor. "Will I be free?" she asked.
John Skinnader, Spiritan Congregation, South Sudan