While walking through the maze of plastic-sheeted tent shelters that make up the Tomping PoC (Protection of Civilians) site for internally displaced people in Juba, South Sudan, it does not take one long to realize how vital UNICEF’s work is for displaced children. Vital because UNICEF’s work in Tomping covers a diversity of health, immunization, water, sanitation, child protection, shelter and economic activities – and in some cases, just good, plain fun for children.
During a recent two hour visit I quickly saw how much UNICEF is part and parcel of the daily life and rhythm of the site, currently the temporary home for up to 20,000 internally displaced people who fled the violence that erupted in South Sudan in December 2013.
At the water point in Tomping, I meet Rita, a 14-year old girl who was carrying home a bucket of water. “Do you want to see my home?” she asks. It takes about 10 minutes winding our way through a maze of plastic sheeting to reach the home that Rita shares with her family. It’s warm under the tent, but cooler than being out in the direct sun. We sit down on a large straw mat and Rita is happy to practice her English, which she tells me she learnt in Uganda before her family came to South Sudan.
“We’ve been here since December,” says Rita. “It is bad that there is fighting and we all have to live like this,” waving her hand around the small area where she, her little brothers and her aunt are sitting. “My day is very busy, but I am not learning. I have to get up and get water to wash myself and my little brothers. Then I have to wash all our clothes and then I help with the cooking and cleaning of the pots. There’s no time for me to learn or to play like my little brothers. I’m a big girl now so I have to work all day.”
It is clear that Rita is a very good, big sister to her little brothers who hug her and laugh the whole time we are talking. They obviously feel safe with her, even with a stranger around. “It’s important to help out, but I want to be in school again because I want to be a doctor soon,” says Rita.
While there isn’t a formal school at the Tomping site, UNICEF has helped establish Child Friendly Spaces – large, tall, white tents that serve as a place for children to get together with volunteer teachers to play, sing and engage in basic learning activities, including life-skills like the importance of hygiene, in a safe environment. When I reached one of these spaces, about fifty children sat on the floor, singing songs as a boy pounded out the rhythm on a home-made drum. The teachers – who are trained in basic psycho-social support – were not only teaching them uplifting songs in near-perfect harmony, but were also teaching them how to dance. It is not hard to find the tents amongst the thousands that make up Tomping, not only because they are bigger and taller than the rest, but all you really have to do is follow the voices of children singing.
The rainy season has begun in South Sudan and the rains bring with them flash floods that inundate the muddy site, carrying the risk of deadly diseases, like cholera. Elevated latrines in Tomping help ensure that sewage doesn’t mix with the floodwater, thereby helping to reduce the spread of disease. There is a large blue water tank truck busy filling up a huge, elevated water tank. The temperature on the afternoon I was there was about 38 Celsius so this daily provision of clean, drinking water by UNICEF and partners serves several purposes – combating dehydration; cooking; bathing children; washing of cooking pots, utensils and clothes, and a constant source of fun for children who want to escape the heat.
Along the ‘high street’ in Tomping plastic sheeting provides shelter to women selling vegetables, cell-phone battery charging shops, tailors, and small restaurants selling street food and everything in between. It is occasionally bordered by rows of rolled, barbed razor wire, which serves two purposes: security and as a clothes-drying line. Posters along the ‘high street’ raise awareness about a recent emergency immunization campaign for all the children in Tomping against polio and measles. There’s lots more happening in the camp that UNICEF and partners contribute to, including garbage collection, nutritional screening of children for malnutrition, and a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) health clinic.
When I reach another side of Tomping and see another group of kids dancing, singing and laughing together outside another large tent, I decide it’s time to try and find Rita again. I want to let her know that when her chores are done, it’s important for her to go to the Child Friendly Spaces every day so she has a chance to play and learn with other children living in the site. With up to 20,000 internally displaced people in Tomping, it takes me quite some time to find her again, but when I do, it is well worth it. Rita is very happy and excited, and promises that she will go to the Child Friendly Space tent tomorrow.
Kent Page is UNICEF’s Strategic Communications Advisor for Emergencies