by Kelli Ross
LIETNHOM, SUDAN — For Deng Agei conflict is a part of life.
After living through two decades of civil war in South Sudan, relative peace had come to his village of Lietnhom, where he opened a microbusiness and sold a variety of household goods and food items. But conflict found him once again when a clash between clans devastated his village last year.
When the market in Lietnhom burned so did his shop leaving him with virtually nothing. Both his inventory and his monetary savings were in the grass-roofed shop. He estimates his losses were about $2,500. But, he decided to rebuild and start his business again thanks to the local village bank. This bank, a concrete structure that held $4,000 of members’ savings, was one of the few buildings in the village that was untouched during the clash.
“I was only able to rebuild my business because I could take out a loan of $75 from the village bank,” he said.
Now, one year later, he says his business has grown larger than it had been before the market went up in flames.
To celebrate their successes, their perseverance and the obstacles they have overcome, Lietnhom residents recently held a dedication of the bank building – the first village bank in South Sudan. There are now more than 460 members and savings of $12,000 in what has been named the Amat Wuot Community Bank, which means “a union of communities” in Dinka, the local language, because it is bringing together members from various clans, including the two clans who fought last year.
“We are kinsmen, and this bank will bring us together,” said Vincent Bol Yak, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Secretary Gorgrial East County.
“The idea that a bank could bring together a community is a compelling story,” said Craig Cole, Five Talents President and CEO. “To think that economic development is happening in an isolated village is awe inspiring.”
Five Talents is working with a consortium of partners, including the Episcopal Church of Sudan, to provide business skills training to beginning entrepreneurs. The village of Lietnhom is made up of members of the Dinka tribe, who are traditionally pastoralists. Therefore, they are having to learn for the first time how to save and use money and how to start and manage a microbusiness.
“The local church is working in a practical way to help its people and its communities come out of a desperate situation,” Cole said. “The church is carrying out its mission of reconciliation in a profound way.”
The bank’s concrete structure has become a symbol of stability and reconciliation in an area that has a history of conflict and volatility.
The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south Sudan in January 2005 marked the end of the Second Sudanese Civil War, which had lasted more than 20 years. An estimated two million people were killed and four million displaced during the second civil war, which began in 1983. In comparison, an estimated 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur and another 2.7 million forced from their homes since violence erupted in 2003, according to the United Nations.
“My hope for southern Sudan is to see sustainable development and lasting peace,” said Rev. Thomas Anei, Five Talents Fellow and project officer. “I have a heart for the people of southern Sudan. I want them to be really transformed, to come out of poverty and to create more jobs. We have been in war for all these years, and this is our chance to rebuild our own lives.”
And, not only is this the first village bank in South Sudan, but it is also being led by a woman.
Ahok, who was recently named chairlady, has also taken three loans to start and expand two businesses – a household goods shop and a restaurant – in Lietnhom. She now has an income of $1,250 per month, which allows her to pay school fees for her five sons, including her oldest who attends secondary school in Uganda because there are none in Lietnhom.
“I want to make sure my children are in good health and go to school,” she said. “I don’t want them to be like me. I cannot read and write.”
Due to decades of war, entire generations did not have the opportunity to receive an education. It is estimated that 80 percent of south Sudanese cannot read or write. Therefore, this multi-layered program has introduced literacy, business planning, savings and credit training and small business development into the Lietnhom community.
Established in 1999, Five Talents provides funding for business training and thousands of loans, ranging from $50 to $300, across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Each loan finances a microbusiness that, in turn, supports up to nine other people. A majority of the loan recipients are women.
Five Talents is based in Vienna, Va., with an office in London, England. For more information, visit http://www.fivetalents.org/.