"A credit card has eliminated the fear that my child will die"

A white plastic card, tomatoes, potatoes and a couple of wooden stalls will stem sickness, malnutrition and death among children.  A credit card for refugees has created a relief breakthrough for families fleeing from war.

By Nikolaj Albrechtsen

The tremendous downpour during the night has turned the normally very dry ground to mud and the air as muggy as in a green house. Nyajuok Bituang is one of the first this morning who has left her hut, walked along the narrow paths in the camp and out onto the open, wet ground that separates the camp from the market. Now she is there.  The braids are tight on her scalp, and a shawl wrapped around her narrow figure.  Opposite her stands a man in a grey undershirt.

On the table between them is what Nyajuok has come for, and in her hand the white card that will grant her wish.

The card is held up against the man’s telephone and the screen reveals that Nyajuok is thrifty.  50 of the currency birr is left – about 2.2 US$  The man on the other side takes a weight out and puts it on the scales while Nyajuok reaches out for her first priority that goes on the other side of the scales; tomatoes.

Nyajuok shops at the market. A kilo of tomatoes costs 10 birr, corresponding to about 0.5 US$

©Mathilde Utzon

Nyajuok shops at the market. A kilo of tomatoes costs 10 birr, corresponding to about 0.5 US$

Far from easy

The situation can seem ordinary for most people around the world; a market with a buyer and a seller who offers fresh fruit, vegetables and meat.  In Gambella in western Ethiopia, where there are five refugee camps, this is a revolution. The reason is the white plastic card that Nyajuok holds in her hand.  It’s called a smart card.  It can be compared to a credit card.

The fact that Nyajuok, who has fled from South Sudan and now lives in the Kule refugee camp in Gambella, has money on the card means that she can select both tomatoes, potatoes and carrots.  A situation that, according to her, is vital for her son Bhan.  Otherwise he would risk dying of malnutrition.

But to really understand why it is so important here in Gambella, why carrots can be a matter of life or death, the story has to rewind a couple of years.

To before the smart card and back to Nyajuok’s home town of Malakal in South Sudan.  There were neither carrots nor credit cards there and Nyajuok didn’t know anything about nutrition and a good diet. But she did know that her life was in danger when Malakal was attacked one day.

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Saw her brother decapitated

Nyajuok Bituang grew up in Malakal in the northern part of South Sudan.  At the time, in December 2013, when riots broke out in the young country’s capital Juba, she was just a young girl of 18 who went to school and lived with her family.  Four months later the unrest rolled in over her own home town.

Nyajuok remembers how soldiers from South Sudan’s army, the South Sudan Liberation Army (SPLA) killed enemies and civilians, and rushed in the door of her house where she was together with her brother and his wife.  The soldiers were Dinka and in conflict with Nuer which was the brother and Nyajuok’s tribal background.

Death sentence

After that it happened fast.  The brother’s wife told the soldiers that the brother treated her badly and that he in fact was a Nuer.  That statement was a death sentence and the method brutal, Nyajuok tells.

The soldier rested a large machete on the brother’s neck, swung it through the air and the head was chopped off.

At that moment Nyajuok stopped thinking.  She had seen people killed before, but when her brother had his head chopped off in front of her all thoughts stopped, her brain stalled.  Time stood still.  Her entire world stood still.

©Mathilde Utzon

Nyajuok fled as a teenager and ended up in Kule Camp, one of five refugee camps in western Ethiopia.

Nyajuok escaped with her life.  She fled when the soldiers let her go.  First five days on burning hot ground with no shoes until she found temporary shelter.

After two months she ended up finally in Ethiopia, in Kule Camp in Gambella and was in safety.

Malnutrition stopped by card

When Nyajuok arrived in the camp she lived on the food rations from the United Nations World Food Program.  Nyajuok’s boyfriend from back in South Sudan found her in the camp and during her first year in the camp she became pregnant.  She hasn’t seen him since, because he went back to South Sudan to fight as a soldier in the war.

Nyajuok gave birth to Bhan but the boy’s first year was difficult.  There wasn’t much food, she had too little milk and Bhan didn’t grow as heathy children should.  Nyajuok lived with the old traditions from South Sudan where one usually ate the same thing at every meal and Ban’s health got worse and worse.

That is, until November 2016 when life in the camp changed completely for the little family.  DanChurchAid started up the project with smart cards.  A group of 800 pregnant and nursing mothers in the camp were selected.  Nyajuok was one of them.  They all got a plastic card that became their personal proof of a new start – a start with fresh food, healthy nutrition and training in cooking and an end to a monotonous diet, malnutrition and fear of sickness.

©Mathilde Utzon

The market in Kule is open from 9 – 16 on weekdays. When the day is over, many of the goods are locked up in a room, if they aren’t too old.

Salesmen apply for stalls

Every week DanChurchAid puts a certain number of birr in on the participants’ card.  The amount depends on the size of the family.  The women can use the card at the market which is located on the outskirts of the refugee camp where local salesmen are ready with smart phones.

The salesmen, like the fellow in the undershirt that Nyajuok trades, with have all applied for one of the 16 stalls at Kule market, and everything that they sell is fresh produce selected by DanChurchAid so that the vendors only sell the most nutritious vegetables, fruit and meat.  Among the produce are carrots and beets which neither Nyajuok nor the other women had seen before they arrived in the camp.

The most popular items in Kule

1. Onions

2. Tomatoes

3. Potatoes

4. Fish

5. Bananas

Statistics from January and February 2017

©Mathilde Utzon

The cook has fled too

A blue tarpaulin is unfolded on the brown ground in the shade of the treetops above the women.  Nyajuok sits down and begins to peel.  21 young mothers take turns washing the dishes and peeling and chopping the fresh vegetables that have arrived in plastic bags.  It is the day before Nyajuok uses her last 50 birr at the market and she is among those who are preparing potatoes.

“Welcome to cooking class,” says an erect lady who is wearing a neon yellow vest over her good dress. 

©Mathilde Utzon

When the women have been through a cooking course the instructor, Chol, will visit them in the camp and help them along with their cooking.

Chol Wal Gaach is a refugee herself from South Sudan but has been given the job of teaching because she used to be a cook.  Chol teaches the women, who all have a smart card, about nourishing food.  Most of the produce is new to the women.

That’s why the course helps them to expand their cooking skills.  And that’s what they are doing this Wednesday while long knives go from hand to hand and the women concentrate on chopping potatoes, carrots and red onions into small, fine pieces.

The smell of hot charcoal in the camp

On the slope nearby the children watch with interest andto the right of  the blue tarpaulin two women dig five small holes in the ground the size of a football.  In the holes they put charcoal from a white bag and that way create five cooking fires that are the next stage for the young women. 

©Mathilde Utzon

The women cannot buy charcoal at the market so they buy it themselves for the money they often get by selling part of their food ration.

Several of them say, like Nyajuok, that all this is completely new to them and that it is essential to learn what the vegetables can provide in terms of extra nourishment for their small children.  Because otherwise they would just have continued as at home in South Sudan and that would lead to malnourishment and at worst even death, they agree.

That’s why Nyajuok in her beige shawl and the rest of the women gather when the smell of warm charcoal and the sound of sizzling oil spreads in the area.  The charcoal has heated the pots and the oil sizzles so now they gather the vegetables and meat in the pots.

The result is enjoyed by the women 10 minutes later sitting on the blue tarpaulin while the children from the slopes come closer to get a bite of food too.

Obligatory cooking courses

The nutrition project is active in three refugee camps in Gambella and Nyajuok is just one of 5,000 women with children up to two years old who get a card and a cooking course.

Teaching the women new dishes is far from just expanding their culinary horizon or just giving their small children better nourishment. That is something that isn’t so easy in refugee camps where food is scarce and every refugee only gets around 18 kilos of food a month from the UN – an amount that may be reduced in the near future.  The 18 kilos consists mainly of corn, biscuits and items like salt, sugar and oil. 

©Mathilde Utzon

Before the women start to cook they also get a course on hygiene.

The credit card also has another crucial effect that people in the project are proud of and that Nyajuok and her friends speak of as important:

That they decide themselves what they will have.  After fleeing from war, constant nightmares about beheading and years of monotonous food rations Nyajuok can suddenly point to just exactly the things she wants and then buy them

Earlier, before the cards came, many refugees sold their food rations right away to get cash to buy the things they preferred. Now the women sell much less of the food they are given every month.

Based on simple technology

The technology behind it all is built into the telephone and both the sellers and the women are taught about the smart card and the use of smart phones.  The idea is that it reduces the risk of corruption and cheating.  There is no money to steal. 

©Mathilde Utzon

The bottom of the phone reveals that Nyajuok has 50 birr left. She gets 150 birr every week.

Every day the staff from DanChurchAid deliver the telephones when the market opens, they help with the technology if anything goes wrong and when the day is over they collect them again.

In the middle of the market, where Nyajuok trades twice a week, there is a white wooden box.  A complaint box that the women can use.  And they do.

Temesgen Moroma, who is the coordinator of the smart card project, saw a woman crying one day at the market.  She was crying because before she went shopping she had a balance of 150 birr on her card, and now that she had bought 40 birr worth of meat there was suddenly a balance of zero.  The crying woman and Temesgen Moroma found the local market worker who could see all the data and sure enough, the seller had taken all her money. She got her money back and found a new seller.

©Mathilde Utzon

Monday is always the busiest day: that is the day money is put on the cards.

Not everyone is economical

There is competition for the stalls at the market because the sellers there have more stable customers than before when they had a shop in the local community.  The negative aspect for them is that the trading uses cards and not cash.  If the system is slow they don’t have any money, but on the other hand they have a chance to save up.

Also it is not all the women who are as economical as Nyajuok, and that frustrates the sellers who may have to stand and wait a long time for customers when it is Thursday or Friday because the refugees have spent all the money on the card long since.

Money on the card
  • To get a credit card the mother must have a child between 6 – 23 months.
  • If the family has five or fewer persons, 150 birr (about 6.5 US$) is put on the card every other Monday.
  • If the family is over five persons the amount is 200 birr (about 9 US$).
  • Most recently the cards have received money every week.
©Mathilde Utzon

The card assures Bhan a furture

Nyajuok isn’t like that.  That is why she now wanders home after having used her last 50 birr this Thursday.  The rain has left the rolling country damp with puddles of rain spread all over and the fertile mountain tops appear even greener than the day before.  Nyajuok carries the bag with her shopping in one hand and greets people with the other when she passes two of her friends who come toward her with white cards in their hands.

When Nyajuok gets out to the road where the huts appear and the bare landscape has changed to a village, she stops briefly and goes in under one of the roofs.  She needs charcoal.  Pays with the money she got by selling some of her food ration, says thank you and heads home again.

©Mathilde Utzon

Nyajuok on her way through the Kule camp to get to her home.

Produced too little breast milk

Outside on the road she sees a group of boys where the smallest is trying to carry a dog that is just as big as he is and from one of the neighbouring huts the stereo blares American hiphop from the scratchy loudspeakers.  Black and Yellow fills the landscape for a couple of minutes before Nyajuok after no more than 20 minutes walking arrives inside her own little courtyard and begins to peel potatoes and carrots with her niece.  Children come and go. Also Nyajuok’s only child, Bhan.  And he is the proof for Nyajuok that the card has been life-saving.

“When I had the child I didn’t have enough breast milk, but after I have had better food and nourishment there is more milk.  I was worried about the food ration because my husband wasn’t here and couldn’t help.  Before I got the card I was afraid that Bhan would die.  I don’t any more.

Left all worries behind

Bhan’s monotonous and limited food meant that the fear of death or malnourishment grew on her until she became a part of the project in November.

“When I got the card I forgot all my worries, because now there are opportunities,” she says. 

©Mathilde Utzon

Nyajuok looks after Bhan with the help of her niece who also lives in the camp.

Nyajuok has got the finished stew ready and serves it on a plate together with flat bread she has baked in one of the huts.  Bhan sits on her lap and eats the food containing both potatoes and carrots.  A sight that seemed unreal for her a year ago, but now has given her hope for the future.

“Now I will just bring up my child as well as possible even though my husband isn’t here.  Now I don’t have to worry about whether he gets enough food, even though my husband isn’t here to support us.”