Around 60,000 people are thought to be mining gold in South Sudan, using the bare hands they once used to harvest crops. In the new nation's east, where poor rains have caused widespread hunger, women, children and the elderly have joined the hordes of people seeking their fortune through this back-breaking labour.
Like many of the ethnic Toposa people living in Eastern Equatoria State, Adele Natogo came to Nanakanak, an area of scrubland with just a few stick houses, one month ago, after walking five hours from Lomeyen Village, in Kapoeta North County.
She left her nine children at home, hungry, after hearing that the earth around Kapoeta was filled with gold. "I'm here because of hunger, because there is nothing for my family and no food to give the children," she told IRIN.
Miners say the area of Greater Kapoeta started to suffer from drought and erratic rains around five years ago, around the time Africa’s longest-running civil war ended and there were hopes that, finally, peace and prosperity would come.
During the war, finds were great; gold was sold to Sudanese traders for as little as US$1 a gram, and was used by Southern rebels to fund their fight against the north. But life has been getting harder here since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
"During the time of the Arabs and at the start of the mining, there was a lot of gold here - too much," said Angelo Longolaleyang, paramount chief for the whole Greater Kapoeta area. "Right now the situation has changed. Gold is not much available."
The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) says "poor climatic conditions, inaccessibility, poverty and underdevelopment, and occasional insecurity" have pummelled the area, driving food insecurity.
"Many parts of the Greater Kapoeta are semi-arid, receiving low rainfall with some extreme cases where there is less than 200mm of rain per year. This makes it a difficult environment for agricultural production without a huge investment in issues such as irrigation," said WFP public information officer George Fominyen.
In February, local officials appealed for aid after reporting deaths from widespread hunger.
"Last year when we cultivated, we got nothing from the ground. The sun came and burnt everything, and so we were left with nothing. We decided to come to Nanakanak to do some mining, just so we can find something small to buy something to eat," said Natogo. "But there is so little gold, and even the wild fruits we used to survive on have now gone."
Natogo says that in a "lucky" week, she can make $34 from selling a gram of gold, but most of it goes to food.
"There are many children doing this. If you come in the evening, you'll see the sheer number of people mining here who come back to the camps," said Nanakanak community leader David Headboy.
Peter Locebe, who thinks he has been digging for 19 years, says he used to find up to 30g of gold a day.
"Before, there was a lot of gold and few people, because that time there was food and people didn’t care about gold. Right now because there is hunger all over, people have come from all around to mine and [are] competing, and even walk away empty-handed," he said.
His children have also joined the dig. Like countless others, they have missed out on education in the world's least literate country, and are hoping for a golden ticket out of poverty.
Leaders fear for the future of their communities. When food is too expensive, the lure of local moonshine is strong, they say.
"This work is very hard to handle. You go and dig the hole to find this soil, and you get such back pains. Your whole body hurts, and your stomach is always empty so you have no energy, and you get so sad and tired," said Locebe, himself under the influence of moonshine, despite it being only mid-morning.
Kapoeta Commissioner Martin Lorika says alcoholism levels are high - the booze is brought by women from the town every day, and causes more mayhem than merriment.
"They quarrel and fight sometimes. Sometimes they dance. Sometimes there are small arms," he said.
"I just want to go and drink alcohol in the market," slurred one woman in Kapoeta market, demanding US$0.25, South Sudan’s smallest denomination.
And while some families are using their money to put their children through school, most is sunk back into the country's most trusted currency: cows, which are only used for dowries and are increasingly the cause of deadly cattle raids.
"The community, their mind is very limited. They don't know anything unless it's cows only, for marriage," said Lorika of the cattle-keepers and subsistence farmers turned gold-diggers.
Headboy hopes that humanitarian assistance will "resolve this situation of hunger in the community" or for at least provide enough food "to give people some strength so that can at least look for gold."
Boosting food security
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is already assisting 3,500 households "in a very difficult area for agricultural cultivation", giving tools and seeds for "an improved variety of sorghum, allowing harvest within three months of planting, as well as cassava cuttings, maize, sesame, cowpeas, and ground nut seeds," says communications specialist Sally Cooper.
Heavy rains cut off Kapoeta for several months of the year, also causing "chronic food insecurity where households that depend on markets for food can't access the food," or cannot cope with inflated prices from transportation costs, WFP's Fominyen says.
Assessments of four counties around Kapoeta showed that the lean season, when families are running out of stocks from the previous harvest, may come earlier than the usual March/April timeframe in this area.
While providing food assistance, WFP is also working on a food-for-assets programme to try to counter the climatic and conflict-related shocks, such as cattle-rustling, that can disrupt livelihoods.
"These involve clearing and construction of community access roads that help connect communities to markets and social services in exchange for food," says Fominyen, adding that finding technical partners in the region to implement projects is another challenge. "The Governor of Eastern Equatoria has often urged international partners to work on conditional food assistance programmes - such as our food-for-assets projects - to avoid encouraging a culture of food aid dependency."
However, he added, a lack of technical partners to carry out nutrition and livelihoods projects was a problem.
"We have dispatched aid agencies to deliver food from their warehouses, but some of these places are very far and we cannot reach," said South Sudan's Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Joseph Lual Achuil.
Other hopes rest on a mining law hoping to attract investment and development.
"What we need are international investors to come in and mine for gold and benefit the community," said Chief Longaleyang.
South Sudan's Minister of Petroleum and Mining Stephen Dhieu Dau says it would "help South Sudan… It will diversify the economy, moving away from just relying on oil", which makes up 98 percent of the government's budget.
"It will provide some jobs to the local community and some basic services, and provide some revenue to the government by collecting revenues and taxes."
But even if exploration permits are rolled out this year, Dau admits that "it will take some time to realize the benefits".
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.