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How canoes are saving lives in South Sudan

By Oxfam

Nyal, South Sudan, was once a quiet town known for its mango and palm trees. Two years of extended fighting in the surrounding areas however, has forced thousands of people to seek refuge in the town and the islands surrounding it.

Many of those who have found refuge in Nyal, including women and children, must regularly walk long distances alone in search of aid and food. Even then, food is scarce. Famine has been declared in South Sudan.

Oxfam provides assistance to displaced people and the communities that host them in and around Nyal, both on the mainland and remote islands. With support from Irish Aid, we are able to offer a free canoe transportation program to those people who need to journey to Nyal for food distributions or medical treatment.

We provide transportation vouchers to those in need and train canoe operatives. The program also extends to assisting communities to seek refuge rapidly in an emergency and helps the canoe operators earn the money to support their families.

Meet Our Canoe Operators

Gabrial Puol Thiel

Gabrial has been with Oxfam for the last 2 years transporting the vulnerable to and from the islands. Photo: Bruno Bierrenbach Feder/Oxfam

Thiel has been with Oxfam for the last two years.

“I have been transporting vulnerable people since I started working with Oxfam, including their food and NFIs [non-food items], to and from the island. We have about 37 or so such islands here. My main motivation is the fact that I am doing this to help my people during this crisis in South Sudan. I feel some sense of achievement when I carry a sick person to the hospital in the mainland and they get treated, or when I get some food to an elderly person who could have died of hunger. There are children who have been separated from their parents since the conflict and without this little assistance it would have been hard for them to do anything. This is what motivates me doing this job.”

Jal Banyiei

Banyiei is motivated by his need to build a better future for his children. Photo: Ashley Hammer / Oxfam

With six years’ experience, Banyiei is one of the many canoe operators that work with us in Nyal, Panyijar, and one of the many displaced in Nyal trying to carve out a living from the little he has left. A devoted husband and father, he is motivated by his need to contribute to building a better future for his children.

“Many people travel to Nyal on a regular basis. Some, like me, were forced to move here because of the conflict, and some come because they can access hospitals, markets, food distribution, education, and many other things. If there is a medical emergency, people use vouchers to pay for a trip to Nyal. If there is another crisis, we are more prepared to take people to safety, and they are more confident because they have come to know us. With the regular income [I get from my canoe], I am able to support my family. I can also put some money aside in case there is another emergency, something I have not been able to do since the crisis started in 2013.”

Martha Nyabany

When Oxfam put out a call for skilled canoe operators, Nyabany was at the top of everyone’s list. Photo: Stella Madete / Oxfam

A mother of five, Nyabany is driven by the need to serve her community. Born and raised in Nyal, she lives by the shores of the expansive Sudd swamp, where she cultivates crops. She is also an experienced canoe operator, having driven one for over 10 years, travelling to the various islands, and also fishing for food.

“There are many female canoe operators in Nyal. We have been doing it for many years, and are well respected in the community. Some people had doubts initially because of the strength required to steer a canoe, but we proved them wrong. After we were selected to be a part of the voucher system, we were trained on locating and supporting people in need, and how to use the vouchers. It is a very easy system, and has linked us to many people we did not know, and places we had not been. The work is very tiring, especially when the water level is low. Sometimes it takes a lot of strength and time to reach a destination, but so far the people I have carried have been patient. Sometimes the canoe is overloaded, and at times people fall into the water, but these are common risks we face and warn our customers about.”

Elizabeth Nyajoka Gai

For Gai, earning an income from the canoes has been a lifeline as she waits to cultivate her land. Photo: Stella Madete / Oxfam

Gai lost her husband in 2015 during the conflict in Nyal. Like so many other women, she was forced to be both father and mother to her children.

“The attack took place at four in the afternoon in Guak. The soldiers took everything we had: cows, beds, chairs, and even mosquito nets. Luckily we had escaped to the islands before as we had been warned about the attack. Our cows had been taken to Leer for grazing, but we never saw them again. I am happy to be working and taking care of my family. My husband died last year, so I am the only one they have left. I am strong and have travelled to many islands – Payat, Meer, Nyuat in the swamp. I have been called when there is an emergency and someone needs to go to hospital, and also during the food distribution when many people need help transporting the food they received to far away areas. The vouchers have introduced me to new areas and people, and I am earning more money than I did before.”

Thomas Boum

According to Boum, his physically demanding job keeps him looking young. Photo: Stella Madete / Oxfam

Boum, 45 years old, is a veteran in the field. He has been operating a canoe since 1991. Following the breakout of a previous conflict in South Sudan, his herd of cattle was stolen and he was forced to run to escape death. Unable to support his family, he learned how to steer a canoe and has been doing it ever since.

“The canoe business was good before the crisis in December 2013. I travelled through the swamps, taking people to their homes, visiting their families, buying or selling things to the market. It was safe to move around. After the crisis, everything got spoiled. Security became a problem and there was no money. People would prefer to walk and buy food or medicine than spend money on a canoe ride. The canoe vouchers have really helped people in Nyal. Now that there are food distributions, we are able to take people home instead of them walking with the heavy loads on their back. We are also able to help people in need, who don’t have the means to travel to get help. I am happy that I can make money on a regular basis. I don’t have enough money to buy cows, but even if I did, I would not spend it on them. The country is not stable, and we don’t know when the next war will come. If I spend money on cows, they might be taken, and I will lose again. The only way to survive is to work, feed and educate your children, and hope for peace and a better future.”


In 2016, Oxfam helped over 600,000 people in South Sudan with food, water, and protection. We are now scaling up to address the thousands of lives at risk from deadly hunger, and we need your support.

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