Tonga traders hope for peace to revive local business
On the West Bank of the Nile in the Upper Nile region of South Sudan lies Tonga. As civilians are slowly returning to what fighting had turned into a ghost town, so is life and some sort of normalcy.
Tonga is a small town that has witnessed horrors of death following an outbreak of violence between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO).
Once a bustling trading post, Tonga was deserted when civilians fled the fighting to seek refuge at UN protection sites, or across the border in neighbouring Sudan.
Now, however, Tonga is experiencing a mini revival. As the security situation in the area is improving, former residents are becoming more confident to return home to rebuild their lives.
As the sun rises, the local market in the town’s centre is coming to life. This is where locals and nomads from Sudan meet to trade.
The revving sound of a boda-boda (a motorcycle taxi) and chatter from patrons at a nearby tea shop can be heard as 45-year-old John Lang Deng gets ready to open his shop.
After staying for a year at the UN protection site in Bentiu in the Unity region, John said he came back to Tonga to start a business. That way, he wants to provide for his seven children, who remain in Bentiu.
“It was not an easy journey getting back to Tonga,” he recalls. “We walked for a night to reach the river then we got on a canoe for hours to reach this place.”
“Big canoes with motors make noise and attract unwanted attention from armed forces. We were forced to use slow pedal canoes.”
John sells goods such as sugar, tea and onions, mostly imported from Sudan. However, the war has caused markets to collapse. Previously cheap, Sudanese commodities have become very expensive, making profits significantly smaller.
“Prices have gone very high and we have to sell expensively and yet only get a very small profit. If I’d try to maximize the profit it would have a negative impact on the community, and they may not end up buying. Work is not as it used to be, and business is not going very well,” John laments.
Following a recent three-day needs assessment visit to opposition-held Tonga, the UN Mission in South Sudan is looking into ways to support development in the area so that traders like John can succeed and revive the dwindling economy.
It is hoped that the ongoing meetings between political leaders from across South Sudan and international actors at the High Level Revitalization Forum in Addis Ababa will bring durable, genuine peace and development to this young East African nation.
John shares that hope.
“I pray for peace so that my family can be reunited. I miss my children. It is hard to live without them.”