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South Sudanese Women Are Making Moonshine to Survive

Barely able to feed themselves and their families, South Sudanese women in refugee camps are swapping their rations for ingredients to make siko, a highly alcoholic spirit. But selling it means they have to endure harassment and verbal abuse from their customers.

Written by Siobhán O’Grady Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Oyella William makes extra cash by distilling and selling the local spirit siko at home. But she often has to suffer harassment from her customers, who sit drinking in her backyard all day. Siobhán O'Grady

JUBA, South Sudan – Every few weeks, Mary stands in line alongside thousands of other displaced people at the United Nations Protection of Civilians Camp in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, hoping aid workers will hand out enough food for her to take home a small share.

On a bad day, the 30-year-old mother of six returns to her tent empty-handed. On a good one, she heads home with her scant food supply – two small containers of sorghum grain, one small bottle of cooking oil and one cup of salt – and promptly divides it in two.

She sets one half aside, knowing she will need to ration it out to cook a watery porridge for her children once a day for as long as the sorghum can last. But the other half she wraps up and takes to the market in the middle of the camp, where she sells it for 50 South Sudanese pounds, or less than $1. That gives her just enough to buy one small bag of sugar, a key ingredient in siko, the spirit she distills and sells in secret from her tent.

“I have no other opportunity, there is nothing else,” she says, as she breastfeeds her young daughter in front of her makeshift home. “We are starving.”

Like most residents of the camp where she lives, Mary belongs to the Nuer ethnic group. Born in the northern town of Leer in Unity State, she moved to Juba to search for work before South Sudan’s civil war broke out in December 2013. The conflict, sparked by political infighting between former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, and President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, quickly spiraled into raging ethnic violence.

Tens of thousands of civilians fled to U.N. camps for protection, and years later, the camp in Juba is still overflowing with those who do not feel safe enough to return home. Although Machar and Kiir signed a peace deal in August 2015 and briefly installed a unity government in April 2016, their troops opened fire on each other again three months later. Government forces then bombed the rebel camp where Machar was staying in the capital, forcing him to flee the country.

Since the start of the conflict, troops loyal to both Machar and Kiir have carried out horrific atrocities against civilians, including rape and mass murder, leaving more than 50,000 people dead. Mary’s husband joined the opposition fighters early on in the conflict, and was soon killed by Kiir’s forces, leaving her to raise their children on her own.

The moonshine that Mary makes to survive is illegal in certain communities in South Sudan, including in the U.N. camps. Made with dates and sugar, it was far more popular before South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, when alcohol was illegal under Khartoum’s Sharia law. But it’s also highly alcoholic, so those who drink it have a higher risk of liver damage than with factory-produced spirits and they get drunk faster. Fearing the consumption of siko could prompt dangerous behavior in the camps, U.N. police patrol the muddy lanes between the tents and try to stop women from selling it.

But with no hope of returning home any time soon, Mary feels she has no choice but to sell her limited food rations to be able to make the alcohol, which earns her around $2 a day. Then she can spend the extra cash on vegetables, soap and other necessities that are otherwise hard to come by in the camp.

“I have no other opportunity, nothing else at all,” she says. “I only want to go home when the situation is more secure.”

Gany Machar, a displaced civilian who serves as chairman of the camp where Mary lives, says residents there are lucky if they even get a food handout at all. “There are a huge number of people who do not even have ration cards and who do not get food,” he says. Some 4.8 million people across the country are in emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity, according to a recent World Food Program (WFP) report.

But even those who manage to get food from the WFP and other agencies say what little they receive is not enough to survive. Nicola, 30, lives in a tent just a short walk from Mary’s. The first few months after she moved into the camp in 2014, she would often try to pick up her food ration only to find that supplies had already run out.

Originally from the town of Bor, north of Juba, Nicola, like Mary, also lost her husband as he was fighting for the opposition. His death left her with four children to support on her own, and she says that as food shortages continued, she feared for her children’s lives. So she, too, started divvying up what little she had so that she could buy supplies to make siko out of her tent. She now earns around 10 South Sudanese pounds, or 15 cents, a day. But with the extra money comes a dangerous dilemma: The men she sells to often come back at night, drunk, putting her and her children at risk.

“When they drink, they come back to bother me, and I have to call for help from my neighbors,” she says.

It’s not just in the camps that women are turning to moonshine to make ends meet. The economic situation in other parts of Juba is getting increasingly desperate, and many South Sudanese women are distilling siko in their backyards to earn additional income. Oyella William, 41, grew up in South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria state, near the Ugandan border. She married her husband when she was only 15, and they had 14 children – 10 are still alive and eight of those are still in school. Her husband grinds sorghum grain at a nearby store, and money is tight.

In 2009, William began setting aside small amounts of change from her market expenses until she could afford to buy a large vat that allows her to distill a few days’ supply of moonshine at once. Each batch costs her around 300 South Sudanese pounds ($6) to make, and she sells enough to turn a profit of 1,625 pounds ($20) a week, thanks in large part to a group of regulars who spend all day sitting on a smattering of plastic chairs in her yard and drinking. They have more money to spend than the men living in the U.N. camps, so William earns a bigger profit than Nicola or Mary. But as the day wears on, the men she sells to usually descend into belligerence.

“They insult me. They say they are the ones who help me and that without their money I would not be able to do anything,” William says. That doesn’t bother her husband, who often isn’t home to witness her or their young daughters being heckled by the drunken men who linger around their yard. He’s just happy to have the extra cash.

As for William? “I keep quiet,” she says. “It’s work.”

In order to protect their identities, Mary and Nicola requested that their last names not be published.

Reporting for this story was made possible by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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