After decades of war, South Sudan gained independence last year. But the young country is still struggling with violence and a lack of infrastructure as refugees and internally displaced people return home.
DW: Your organization - Veterinaires Sans Frontieres Germany (VSF Germany) - started out helping to improve animal health in developing countries. What is your focus now in South Sudan - you do more than just vaccinating cattle, don't you?
Tinega Ong'ondi: Of course when they (VSF Germany) entered South Sudan in 1997, at the height of the civil war, the immediate need was to eradicate rinderpest, because large communities of South Sudan depend on animals and rinderpest was sweeping away all their herds.
So, the original work was concentrated on vaccinations and treatment of animals, but now, with independence, the focus has shifted more to development work - looking at the livelihood of the pastoral communities, at a wider perspective, not just animals.
Where in South Sudan do you currently work, what's the situation like there?
For anyone who is coming now, you'd think the situation is bad. But for those who've been here before, the situation has improved very much. We're very positive about it, we don't want to be negative. A lot of South Sudanese nationals are coming back home, they're looking at what they can do themselves to built their country.
So, the situation may look a bit volatile at the moment. There is a lot of conflict among communities. For us, we're not even looking so much at the conflict between South and North Sudan, we're looking at the conflicts within the same tribes or even the same tribe, for example the Dinka. Their clans do a lot of fighting over resources. Pasture lands, they need grazing grounds, they need water, and there are a lot of cattle raids across the borders.
How have the Dinka people been affected by the decades of displacement and civil war and what impact does that have on the current situation?
The many years of civil war obviously did destroy the social fabric of the people of South Sudan in that the war didn't give them the opportunity to grow their economy. It destroyed their social structures, how they govern themselves, their animals, their crops, their local economy.
Currently, they are trying to rebuild their lives from scratch. We're talking about a place where they had no infrastructure, no roads, no hospitals, no schools. They had no capacity to respond to natural disasters like drought.
And now what VSF Germany does is to look at how do we enhance, how do we encourage people to build their social assets so they can move forward.
How important are animals to the Dinka people?
For the communities of South Sudan - and not just for the Dinka people - the animals are the core piece of their livelihood structures. It's everything - from their social status to their economic status. Any household that does not have animals finds it very difficult to feed its people.
What kind of projects do you have to help improve their situation?
We have a number of projects in South Sudan, but let me tell you about the one for Warrap state, which is funded by the EU. This project focuses on improving their social assets so that they have the capacity to initiate their own food security programs like livestock, agricultural production, encouraging rural finance - we call it micro finance.
But most important is the capacity-building aspect of it, ensuring that the local government - which is new - has the capacity to offer services to its citizens as spelled out in the interim constitution of South Sudan.
In these programs, we work very closely with the local government and local partners, but also with the local traditional leaders. Because over the years, VSF Germany discovered, unless you work with the traditional mechanisms, you will not introduce anything new. You will not encourage the community to take up new technologies unless you respect first and foremost what they already have and built on it.
But there seems to be a lot more aggression now in the communities you work with, particularly from young men. They don't really respect traditional chiefs anymore. Why is that and how do you try to help young men find their place again?
There are those young people who remained in South Sudan and their lives revolve around cattle camps. And there are those young people who moved out of South Sudan during the war as refugees and they had opportunities to study abroad or across the border. Now they are coming back and they look at resources differently. The ones who remained are still looking at the cattle - it's only the cattle they know - whereas the ones who came back are looking at improvements in the NGOs, improvements in the government, or small businesses which they learned in the refugee camps.
An animal is sacrificed during a reconciliation ceremony to end a dispute between members of the tribe
Now we are talking about young people in the cattle camps not respecting their traditional leaders or not respecting their chiefs. They are seeing themselves as forgotten. Everything's moving forward, new things are coming up. For jobs, once you didn't need education and for them, they don't have education. And now, they have to find a way to survive - and the way to survive is to look at how they can increase their herds of cattle and of course through raiding.
And (young men) are seeing that the chiefs are responding more to the government than to their needs. They are trying to fight the new way of life. And of course, the old way of life is the one for the majority.
So there is a struggle between those who've returned who were educated abroad and the ones who stayed in South Sudan?
Yes, because during the war, they were promised that when peace comes, when independence comes, they will have opportunities to improve their lives. And now, independence has come, but independence has come with another way of life. Imagine someone who has been in war for 25 years, the only thing the person has known over those years is a gun, is about raiding cattle. And now, all of a sudden, you are telling this person to put down the gun?
But how do you deal with those left behind that are used to solving problems with guns?
We try to show them that it's not only the animal - there are other ways to make a living. We work with the government, and we really encourage the ministry of education to offer alternative education like vocational training.
So your organization tries to include those young men with education so that they will find their place again in society?
It's about offering opportunities to the South Sudanese who are returning. So it's to ensure that the returning youth have something to do, but also ensure that the youths who were in the camps, who are the real forgotten youths, they find space in the new environment by acquiring a certain skill like carpentry, machinery, so that everybody feels on board.
And how much impact do you feel your different projects have in South Sudan?
It's difficult to quantify the impact, but obviously, if you take a walk, you see the impact which we, our projects, have brought to the people of South Sudan. And we do not take this credit alone. We have succeeded in providing not only the physical working environment, like the buildings, but also soft skills like skills in management, skills in computer usage.
Look at women's groups - they are able to produce vegetables they were not able to produce before. And these vegetables don't only earn them an income, but also improve their nutritional status. Look at the chicken project we introduced which ensures to empower the women, because in these communities the woman really has no control over the cattle. The cattle belong to the men.
Do you think the communities you are currently working with will soon stand on their own feet again?
Maybe not too soon, but for sure they are on their way. The country is very rich, they have a lot of natural resources. They have a lot of fertile land. We're not even looking at oil, we're looking at production at household level. The households can produce enough food to feed themselves and the surplus can find its way to the local markets. Over the past five years, we have seen it very clearly: things are progressing, slowly with patience things are changing.
Tinega Ong'ondi is VSF Germany's project manager for South Sudan.
Interview: Sarah Steffen
Editor: Saroja Coelho