South Sudan is a country that humanitarian aid workers - whatever their origins - can be reluctant to travel to. It conjures up images of rudimentary living conditions, serious security problems, and unwelcoming people. Agnieszka Goscinska, who has just returned from a year spent as SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL’s Head of Mission in South Sudan, sees things very differently.
I don’t understand why humanitarian workers don’t want to go to South Sudan, or why they don’t want to stay very long once they get there. The people are really nice: yes, they can be harsh, but they come from a long line of warriors, and they’re proud of their history. They like to test us, to challenge us - but it’s because they want to know what we’re made of. In truth, they like people who know how to stand up for themselves. Admittedly, you need to be aware of the limits - the lines not to cross if you want to avoid hurting people - but the South Sudanese like people who have ideas, and who can defend their opinions. You need to strike a balance between firm and fair. You have to be open to discussion, and willing to listen. The South Sudanese talk a lot, and many important decisions are taken collectively. Once you’ve passed their "test", things are a lot easier. Once someone decides to trust you, they trust you totally, and you’ll be friends for life!
Better living conditions for aid workers
Expat aid workers also tend to expect living conditions to be rudimentary here. They’re wrong to do so. While this may have been true a year ago, or even a few months ago, it’s no longer the case today. When I arrived in South Sudan, I lived in a tent. The toilets I used were the same as those we built for the beneficiary families. Today, things have changed. For example, in Juba, the capital city, I had a good bed and satellite television; I could go out to restaurants. Certainly, it’s hard to find fine wine or salami, cheese and yoghurts. You can’t go to the cinema or the theatre, like you can in capital cities of the Western world. But that’s equally true for many of the countries we’re led to work in, and not only in Africa.
The security situation is improving
One of the things expat workers coming to South Sudan are most worried about is the security situation. They see the world’s youngest country as totally unstable, and they fear for their safety. I understand their concerns. But it’s important that they know that as soon as the authorities learn there’s a possibility of an attack happening, they warn us (the humanitarian community). As long as we heed their advice, there really is very little risk for us. And finally, the country is not as dangerous as we imagine it to be. Shafi, our Logistics Coordinator, is from Afghanistan. When he arrived a few months ago, he admitted that he’d been a little worried about coming here. I was astonished to hear this, especially coming from someone who’s lived his whole life in Afghanistan, and who had worked for SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL for a number of years. Now, he laughs at his own reaction; at the pre-conceived ideas he had on arrival. What we have to accept is that as humanitarian workers, we’re inevitably going to end up working in some dangerous places. It could be South Sudan, but it could just as easily be the DRC or Myanmar.
Why am I leaving?
I’ve lived in South Sudan for several years now. And although I’m very attached to the country, I don’t want to become the world’s leading specialist in South Sudan! I’d like to continue helping people affected by humanitarian crises - maybe in Yemen. One country I’d really like to work in is North Korea. I’d happily come back to South Sudan as a tourist - maybe in a couple of years, if things have settled down. I’d love to travel along the River Nile from the south to the north of the country.