Dozens of children at a small orphanage in the Central Equatoria region of South Sudan have been left in a desperate situation after the death this autumn of its main supporter, the Bishop of Rokon, the Rt Revd Francis Loyo.
At the orphanage outside the former garrison town of Rokon, nearly 40 children and their caretaker, Joice Kiden Peter, were last week meeting community-liaison teams from the Manchester-based Mines Advisory Group to learn how to identify and avoid explosives left from decades of war.
Afterwards, they scattered to rest, kick a football, and play with nuts left to dry in the sun, possibly their only food for a while. One tiny boy who had fallen asleep during the lesson did not stir as he was carried to a quiet room.
Noel Malish, a 19-year-old orphan, said that, on good days, the children shared a meal. The “black days”, on which there was no food at all, could stretch to three or four at a time.
Young girls have to share shoes, and taking turns going to the lavatory, wearing the same pair of sandals. Clean water is scarce, evidenced by a large water tank turned on its edge to get every last drop.
Bishop Loyo, who had connections with both Salisbury and Durham dioceses, originally donated the land for the orphanage, a missionary who helped to establish the facility, Maria Alfons, said. His death has now left the orphans without their main supporter.
The orphanage’s precarious situation will prevent Mr Peter’s taking in any more children, although one boy whose mother died just two days earlier was welcomed at the end of last month.
The children come from different ethnic groups across South Sudan. Their parents were lost to conflict and disease, or are too poor to look afte them.
Ms Alfons, of the True Light group, who is now on a year’s sabbatical in Egypt, said that the orphanage was still receiving money raised by churches in Egypt.
But food prices in South Sudan have rocketed, as record-breaking floods hit the north of the country and the rainy season stretched later than usual.
This has delayed the harvest and limited sorghum and other staple crops. The effect of climate change has already been visible in East Africa.
Mr Peter and Mr Malish said that the orphans had been largely left to rely on the generosity of people in the town or to search the surrounding fields for food; but the grass conceals danger from snakes and unexploded weapons.
Children have accounted for 78 per cent of landmine victims in South Sudan since 2017, the chief of Mine Action for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, Fran O’Grady, said.
“This involves, in many cases, boys playing with dangerous explosive items such as hand grenades, the explosions of which often result in multiple casualties involving girls and smaller children,” he explained.
The orphans have discovered at least one explosive in Rokon this year, and two children were killed by mines in 2013; but they have no choice but to continue combing the land for food.
At 19, Mr Malish would prefer to complete his schooling, but he has chosen to stay and help to raise the younger ones. When there is no food, he helps to encourage the others to trust that “God will provide tomorrow.”
He and Mr Peter have to discourage the older children from selling charcoal or tea on the side of the road like others their age. Instead, they walk a few kilometres to the primary school in Rokon. “That child will not be a child again” if they have to work to survive, Mr Malish said.