Taking responsibility: Abeba Amene where she feels most at home – with communities in Africa
Despite being known as one of the most neglected countries on earth, our humanitarian workers remain
Abeba Amene could have had a successful career in international development in the United Kingdom, having studied there. But, she says: “Africa is where our responsibility as Africans lies.”
So, she headed home and joined the International Resources Group. Here she worked with retired ambassadors on various issues from conflict resolution to resilience and climate change across the borderlands of South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.
“I learnt how extreme weather patterns like droughts can ravage community livelihood assets and push them to hunger. I have been around people who have gone days without a meal. It seems an injustice to me,” she says.
Abeba is now Chief Programmes Officer at ForAfrika. As the former country director of South Sudan, she ran what is arguably the organisation’s most ambitious programme in some of the most difficult terrain on the continent.
Severe flooding has hit the East African country hard in the past three years. This has caused the displacement of more than a million people and some disruption to the organisation’s service delivery.
It has also added to the existing food insecurity and loss of livelihoods caused by droughts, war, inter-communal fighting, cattle raiding and rivalry over scarce natural resources such as pasture and water.
Operating in the red zones
“We do not exist in an easy area, we take on the worst of food insecurity. We operate in all the red zones,” she says. She adds that her staff consistently punch above their weight in a region now considered the largest refugee crisis in Africa.
Violence in some areas has led to staff evacuations, the destruction of nutrition clinics and staff having to perform emergency medical treatment. Drivers regularly come under attack from rebels.
“But, we understand the context in which we are operating,” Abeba says and this is what she appreciates most about ForAfrika — the organisation’s determination to employ local people who are well acquainted with the area, the situation, and who speak the language.
“When you work to alleviate suffering for people who look like you and who you could really have been were it not for good fortune or luck then you tend to dig in a little deeper and a little bit longer,” she says.
Loathe to accept praise for her own role, however, she immediately makes mention of her “frontline colleagues” in South Sudan, Stella Elias and Susan Alobo Toolit whose childhood experiences influenced their decisions to become humanitarian aid workers.
Susan’s suffering motivated her to help others
Pay it forward: Susan Toolit with mothers and children at the clinic in Pibor
As a child, growing up in Uganda, Susan watched mesmerised as Sudanese refugee families lined up for food and clothing that were delivered by Oxfam and the World Food Programme in huge trucks. But it was only after being severely injured by a bomb and gunfire from Ugandan rebels and losing her parents that her path towards humanitarian aid was laid.
Being orphaned and forced to look for work in the conflict-hit north — near the border of what is now South Sudan — Susan encountered immense suffering and was compelled to volunteer, helping victims of war.
“I had the opportunity to get another job elsewhere but I imagined the mothers I was working with, the landmine survivors and other war victims who relied on me for the services they needed, what would happen to them? So I stayed and, to date, I am still in the humanitarian field.
“Seeing the changes in their lives, from sadness and a loss of hope to vibrant spirits looking to reclaim lost chances gave me the impetus to do more,” she says, adding that she retrained as a project management specialist in order to be able to adjust and cope with the demands of humanitarian work. She now works as ForAfrika’s gender specialist in South Sudan.
Stella’s passion is motivated by her life story
Once a refugee: Stella only goes home to Uganda every now and then as she is dedicated to her work
Meanwhile, Stella and her family had fled to Uganda when she was 11 to escape war in Sudan: “Little did I know I was a refugee… it was only when I reached secondary school that I was able to understand my status,” she says.
It was the humanitarian care that she experienced as a child that encouraged her to start thinking positively about her future and return to Sudan to take up a role working with internally displaced people. She has worked for a number of aid organisations and is now a nutritional co-ordinator at ForAfrika.
“My passion for serving humanity is motivated by my life story. I am challenged by this memory; I was once a refugee and was served by others and I have to give back to the world that saved my life,” she says.
“Providing dignified life-saving nutrition services, restoring hope and putting smiles on children’s faces are the success stories I celebrate daily,” she says.
Abeba says: “This narrative of suffering, hunger, famine, displacement is not our story. Our story is of resilience, creativity, commitment, hard work, vibrant energy and wanting better for all our people.
“We soldier on.”
Leizl Eykelhof is Communications and Content Manager at ForAfrika