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Help Needed in South Sudan

Skilled Volunteers and Students Can Help Shape Country’s Future

Volunteer in Dharmasala Volunteer in Dharmasala Volunteer in Dharmasala
(Left to right) Among the many SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) soldiers in southern Sudan is this man herding zebu cattle; with buses in short supply, bicycles are the main method of transportation: a man poses with his bicycle in Rumbek, the administrative capital of southern Sudan.

Sudan is the largest country on the African continent, but it does not attract the largest number of tourists. While neighboring Kenya draws multitudes with its spectacular wildlife, southern Sudan has been off limits to most travelers because of its long-running civil war. More humanitarian workers are entering Sudan since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in January 2005 in Nairobi. In July 2005 I attended a Rift Valley Institute field course in Rumbek, the current southern administrative center.

The course was for diplomats, aid workers, academics, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders. The information for this article is based on what I learned during this trip and on my intermittent work experience in East Africa starting in 1987.

My goal is to provide you with some background and contacts to get started on a search for volunteer positions in south Sudan. The country is entering an exciting—and uncertain—period of change. Though Sudan is far from conflict-free, I was struck by the feeling of optimism. Skilled volunteers and energetic students can potentially play an important role in shaping the country’s future.

Sudan’s Civil War

For the past 22 years the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and an amalgamation of southern groups have been at war with the Sudanese government-backed militias. Western media often describe the war as one that pits the Muslim (Arab) north against the Christian (African) south. The reality is much more complex, with colonial history and natural resources (such as oil) also playing an important role in shaping the conflict.

July 9, 2005 marked the start of the 6-year interim period prescribed in the Peace Agreement between the Government of Sudan (GoS) (.PDF) and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Though the current period is often referred to as one of “post-conflict” reconstruction, rehabilitation, or development, there are a number of remaining conflicts. There is still violence in Darfur in western Sudan and militia activity in southern Sudan.

The devastation caused by the war cannot be overstated. Areas that require immediate attention include education, medical clinics, agriculture and livestock, private sector development (small, income-generating businesses), and infrastructure—from pit latrines to roads and peace-building.

Finding Volunteer Positions

Skilled volunteers interested in working in south Sudan can either arrange for a volunteer position in advance or show up on-site, in Rumbek, to check out the possibilities. I recommend the first approach since it is expensive and difficult to get to Sudan. A pre-arranged volunteer position may lead to a contract for long-term paid work.

Students can explore resources available through their college or university. Good places to start include study abroad offices and international or area studies programs including African studies. Meet with professors and program administrators who promote service-learning and international research.

Non-students face more challenges but may be able to raise funds through faith-based or civic organizations or even individuals. Use the Internet and library resources to find volunteer funding opportunities.

Preparing for Volunteer Work

Volunteers should prepare themselves to be flexible. For example, if you are assigned to do medical work you may learn that the organization actually needs help with fundraising. Things can move slowly and be unpredictable in south Sudan. Be patient, be patient, be patient.

Assess your skills and be honest with potential host organizations if you do not have much experience.

Gender Empowerment for Sudan

Gender Empowerment For Sudan Organization (GESO) was formed in 2003 by Sarah Nyanath, a former female child soldier. Nyanath is an articulate, powerful woman: tall, lean, dark, with long plaited hair and a slight gap between her teeth. She exudes strength and charisma and is filled with lively stories about her experiences in Sudan—some of which are heartbreaking. This is a woman who survived civil war and her husband’s death but remains optimistic about the future of her children and her country.

Nyanath says, “volunteers can be of all types ranging from fundraising, medical, education, agriculture, professional.” She adds: “such skills are highly needed in south Sudan, particularly by GESO.”

Contact: or GESO, P.O. Box 42714, 00100 Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa; Mobile tel. 011-254-723499005, 733704812, 724846715, 722418076.

Southern Sudan Education Project

Two dynamic young people, Abraham Gai and Kristy Swap, started Southern Sudan Education Project to create educational access for south Sudanese children. They maintain a close alliance with this government to ensure that their projects are supported within the country.

When I met with Gai, he said that their main objective is to provide basic education supplies to children in southern Sudan and construct a boarding school in southern Sudan for reintegrated child soldiers, girls, and orphans. Barriers to school attendance include lack of supplies and clothing, dilapidated buildings, and cultural issues. An additional goal is to raise global awareness of Sudan’s history and current affairs through educational forums and fundraising.

Kristy Swapp is a U.S. citizen and Abraham Gai is a Sudanese refugee living in the U.S. Gai was part of a group of Sudanese youth who fled their southern Sudanese villages under attack by militia. In the late 1980s these children completed an extraordinary journey across East Africa that took them to Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps. Humanitarian relief workers named them the “lost boys,” in reference to the Peter Pan characters who were orphans. Nearly 3,600 of the “lost boys” (now found men) were resettled in the U.S.—the largest resettlement of unaccompanied minors in U.S. history. For various reasons, only 89 “lost girls” have been resettled in the U.S.

Travel to Southern Sudan

You need to get permission from the Sudanese Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Committee (SRRC) office in Nairobi before entering south Sudan. If you are working at a volunteer agency in south Sudan your organization may be able to assist you in getting SRRC approval. The application requires a $50 fee and passport photos. Contact: Sudan Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Committee, P.O. Box 39892, Nairobi, Kenya 00623, East Africa; Tel. 011-254-0-20-570156 or 011-254-0-20-570148.

Flights to Rumbek are from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta and Wilson Airports. In July 2005 commercial flights cost around $700. Though East African Safari Air Express (EASAX) flies to Rumbek from Nairobi, I had difficulty communicating with them. I had a good experience with Delta Connection (Queensway Air), which operates out of Wilson Airport: or ALS Building 2nd Floor, Wilson Airport, P.O. Box 42627, 00100 Nairobi, Kenya; 011-254-20-608622/ 606548, fax. 011-254-20-608619, mobile 011-254-722-204405 or 011-254-735-340958.

Where to stay:

The pleasant tented-camp run by Africa Expeditions Ltd. (AFEX) has flush toilets, showers, and electricity. AFEX is located next to the airstrip in case there is need for emergency evacuation. Meals are served buffet style; there is a bar, computer room, television viewing area, and bikes for rent: or Africa Expeditions, P.O. Box 24598-00502, Nairobi, Kenya East Africa; Tel./fax. 011-254-20-578313, 578314, 57873;

Volunteering in Southern Sudan

If you are interested in volunteering in southern Sudan and have teaching or fundraising experience, or are willing to get training, send an email message to Abraham Gai or Kristy Swapp at:

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