How ‘planting grass’ saved a village from hunger

Rice Farm - Action Against Hunger

Action Against Hunger Program Co-ordinator Joe Joe Zubahyea teaches local women in Paguir, South Sudan on how to plant rice properly. Photo: Peter Caton, Action Against Hunger South Sudan

‘Who is this person that Action Against Hunger brought who is planting grass!?’ is the first thing people thought after seeing Head of Base, Joe Joe Zubhayea, spearhead the first-of-its-kind rice farm in Paguir.

For three years the farmland has been under flood water forcing the community of Paguir to rely on wild food like water lilies. Fishing became extremely important, yet not every family had a fishing net or a canoe.

“Before the floods we had big gardens where we grew maize and also sorghum together with my husband and children…It was very good for us. It is only during this crisis that we suffer,” says Nyaok Dieng who is part of the team learning to grow rice in Paguir.

Finding food became the biggest worry for the women of Paguir these past years. But unable to ever gather enough food for large families, the community as a whole experienced a long period of hunger.

Moreover, in the past year many people have left their homes and villages because they have been taken by the water. Many of these people have come to Paguir looking to start a new life.

“This is not my home…I came to Paguir September last year…because of the floods,” explains Nyagai Malual who traveled for three days in a narrow local canoe with her three children behind her as she rowed. Once Nyaroi arrived in Paguir she noticed that many women of the community were busy doing something that she had never seen before.

Rice Farm - Action Against Hunger Canada
Locally trained women advise each other on the straightness of their rows of planted rice at the end of each day. Photo: Peter Caton, Action Against Hunger South Sudan

“I became happy because I saw a rice farm, which is a very new thing for me. I looked at it to see how it is and I felt very happy because I thought that this could be God’s plan. God closed the option of growing sorghum and maize, but opened the option of rice.”

Nyagai is a member of the first group of women who are part of the groundbreaking rice project. In the face of floods that won’t go away and farmland that will not come back, Action Against Hunger’s Head of Base, Joe Joe, thought of turning the plot on its head and use the flood to the people’s advantage.

“I was only doing this to see how we could teach people who were interested in learning how to plant rice. Then, to provide an alternative livelihood for the people of this region and then for them to take on the idea and move on to have their own farms,” explains Joe Joe about a project so unique and bold that would put in the people’s hands a new skill to maneuver the crisis.

The project is also completely different to Action Against Hunger’s usual approach. But encouraging creativity is a sure way to promote innovation, a value that Action Against Hunger has historically supported.

With Joe Joe’s expertise on the ground and the eagerness of the first group of three local trainees, the only challenge was making the community believe in rice and that they could grow it themselves.

“The major challenge was to convince people that this is something that they could do. When I first started people were saying, ‘who is this person that Action Against Hunger brought who is planting grass?!’ Because for them this was the first time seeing the rice plant. Never in their life had they seen a rice plant,” recalls Joe Joe.

“‘This is not grass, this is rice.’ Only after the first harvest people joined us and said, ‘oh wow, this is how rice is!’ Then they wanted to join.”

It was a risk worth taking and the effort has been greatly rewarded. Dozens of women have gotten their feet wet and their confidence boosted after learning the skill that could turn life around in Paguir for the better.

Trained by a group of community members who were themselves trained by Joe Joe, many women are mastering the art of seed broadcasting, nursery preparation, transplantation, and harvesting.

“We’ll take this experience to our families…I’ll make my rice farm because rice grows in the flood,” says Nyaok Dieng who struggled to feed her seven children in the past years. “I can make my plot, prepare it and use the skill that Action Against Hunger gave me so that my family can benefit from that farm, but it will be my own.”

“It’s hard work,” says Nyagai Malual with a smile. “[But] even if we stay here from now up to the evening, I won’t get tired because I need to have more experience. In the future, I’ll carry this experience and I’ll make something for myself.”

It is still too early to see the results of giving the community new skills to cope with the flood and food crisis. But, already an air of hope and a sense of self-sufficiency are flooding the streets of small Paguir.

“I feel confident about how to cultivate rice and the other women also feel the same,” says Nyadim Mawich, one of the most passionate women trainees in the group. “For us women this knowledge raises us in the eyes of the community. It makes other people trust us more and also respect us more because we have a new skill brought from outside. This makes other people respect us. When we walk here many people say, ‘these are the people who know how to grow rice.’


Donate to help us reach more children and families suffering from drought and hunger.