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“There’s nothing good in cooking, but there are no other options.”

Inside the women-owned restaurants of Yida, South Sudan’s largest — and most tenuous — refugee settlement

A gentle breeze slid in the doorway of Rosa Abdu’s restaurant and escaped through the spaces in the walls. Like many structures in Yida, the largest refugee settlement in South Sudan, the restaurant was constructed from sticks bound together by homemade rope made of woven vines; they’re quick to put up, and quick to take down. Early morning sunlight slipped between the sticks in slices, but the compounding heat was kept at bay.

Rosa sat on a small stool, with her tools in front of her, getting ready to open for the day. From a small jug, she poured water onto dirty dishes, washing them with a sponge she’d fashioned from a big knot of shredded plastic. She rinsed a pink plastic pitcher and placed it on a small, heart-shaped metal table, along with a single cup. Like many restaurants in this refugee settlement, there’s just one communal cup for water. Though clean water is available at pumps throughout the camp, it has to be carried in 20-liter containers that, when full, weigh as much as a five-year-old child.

While it was cooler inside the restaurant than outside, hot coals burning on the stove sent waves of heat across the room. The stove had been made by a local handyman out of repurposed aluminum cans, cut and unrolled into flat sheets of metal. It resembled a stool: The coals rested on what would have been the seat, their ashes falling through knife-punched holes onto a shelf below. Atop the coals sat pots and pans made from tins that once held tomato paste and USAID oil rations. Now outfitted with handles and spouts, they were full of simmering stews and boiling water. I pointed to a covered pot, and Rosa slid off the lid, revealing a bubbling dish of meat and okra.

To the side of the stove sat a small table, bearing jars large and small filled with ingredients: coffee, tea, dried hibiscus, spices, and seeds. Rosa purchased her ingredients in tiny quantities, spending only as much as she needed to make a few cups of tea or a pot of coffee. Her restaurant opened just two weeks ago, and with its bound-stick walls and open layout, it looked like many restaurants in Yida. Though compared to others, it couldn’t be more different: Places to get a cooked meal in the camp range from simple structures of tarp, sticks, and grass, like Rosa’s, to stately concrete edifices with tables and seating areas, and even TVs and sound systems.

Rosa Abdu preparing coffee (left); Rosa at work in the restaurant

I

n 2011, the Sudanese government began an aerial bombardment of the southern states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, home to a militarized rebel movement. The bombing is ongoing, and in South Kordofan — home to the Nuba Mountains and the people who live among them, of many cultures and languages but collectively called Nubans — the government has dropped over 4,000 bombs on its own citizens, with targets including hospitals and schools. In the last five years, thousands of Nubans whose lives have been violently torn apart by this conflict have fled the region on foot, walking for days in search of safety in the neighboring country of South Sudan.

For most Nuban refugees, Yida is the first stop after crossing the border — it’s situated along the main road that runs from the mountains to Juba, South Sudan’s capital and largest city. When I visited in May, the camp was home to over 70,000 people, making it the largest refugee settlement in the country. As is the case in most countries around the world, refugees in South Sudan aren’t legally allowed to work, so they must depend on a combination of support from NGOs and their own ingenuity to survive.

Once the bombings in Nuba began, Yida grew organically as a refugee community, well before the UN had an official presence on the ground, and the relationship between the Nuban refugees and the UN is tenuous. When the official UN refugee camp, Ajuong Thok, opened in 2013, the UN started strongly encouraging residents of Yida to resettle there. "The UN told us that Yida is too close to the border and for that reason it is insecure. That is why we must move," Ali Kuku Mekki, Paramount Chief at Yida, told Radio Dabanga, an independent Darfur-based news organization, in July of this year. Yida is 14 kilometers from the Sudan-South Sudan border, significantly closer than the 50-kilometer minimum recommended by UN guidelines; even though Ajuong Thok is nearly 70 kilometers away from Yida, it’s only two kilometers more removed from the border.

Rosa began selling tea and coffee under a tree in a corner of the camp, but the money didn’t go far enough. So she opened the restaurant.

Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) head of operations for Yida, gave me a slightly different reason for urging residents to leave. "We’ve seen from several incidences that there is military activity," she said, explaining that "This is not something you can do in a refugee settlement; it’s supposed to be arms-free." But many refugees living in Yida dispute the UN’s characterizations of violence, and prefer to remain where they’ve built homes and established communities — and also where their movements and daily lives aren’t as restricted as they would be under official UN governance.

In 2013, to encourage refugees to leave the settlement, the UN stopped issuing ration cards in Yida. This meant that newly arriving refugees from Sudan could only get food if they registered to live in Ajuong Thok or in Pamir, a yet-unopened camp. Yida’s residents still receive emergency services through the UN, including clean water, healthcare and — for those with ration cards — a monthly food allocation from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Each person receives the same allotment, with special fortified rations for infants and pregnant women. The provisions can vary depending on what’s available: The WFP once replaced sorghum, a traditional Sudanese grain, with maize, a food that isn’t normally eaten in the region, until complaints prompted its return.

With other supplies, the refugees have found ways to adapt novel ingredients into something familiar. They often cook and grind their rationed lentils into a thick paste for making a variant of tamia, airy falafel-like fritters that, in Nuba, are commonly made with black-eyed peas. These lentil tamia can be found all across Yida, cooked in homes and sold by young women who set up shop wherever people gather, in front of water pumps or at intersections, serving their freshly fried wares in hand-sized clear plastic bags, the fritters doused with a splash of lemon-chili water.

Yida residents picking up sorghum, lentils, corn oil and salt rations from World Food Program

The WFP’s rations are generally determined based on a target of delivering 2100 calories per day for adults. In August 2015, however, the UN diverted resources away from South Sudan to crises elsewhere, and Yida’s rations were cut by 30 percent. Now, rations provide just 1470 calories a day of nourishment. In May, a typical individual monthly ration in Yida included 10.5 kilograms of sorghum, 1.05 kilos of lentils, 0.6 liters of oil, and 105 grams of salt.

Because Yida is an open settlement, unconstrained by UN movement limitations, refugees can go freely in and out of the area. Even before the decline in WFP rations, people supplemented their diets through farming or foraging. There is a large lake, Jau, a few kilometers away, where people often go to fish, bringing their catch back to eat and to sell. In the markets, piles of dried fish sit on mats on the ground; split open and braided together when fresh, they dry in the sun into long, sinewy plaits. Many tend gardens around their homes, or negotiate with South Sudanese landowners for access to nearby farmland.

When Rosa started her restaurant, she had no capital, so she made the risky decision to use her family’s spare rations to provision her business.

And for some people, there are restaurants. Rosa arrived in Yida two years ago with her family after walking for two days from Nyakuma, their village in the Nuba Mountains, and then catching a ride in a truck packed with other refugees that was headed toward the settlement. A year after they arrived, Rosa’s parents died. At twenty-four years old, Rosa was the oldest, and it was left to her to support her four brothers and four sisters, in addition to her own three young children. Though the ration program kept Rosa’s family fed on a meal or two a day, other necessities were more difficult to secure. Her family needed clothes, shoes, and beds to sleep on, and cash — let alone the resources to educate the children — was scarce. She began selling tea and coffee under a tree in a corner of the camp, but the money didn’t go far enough. So she opened the restaurant.

The second week of every month, Rosa and her family would go to the airstrip in Yida to collect their monthly WFP allotment. When she started her restaurant, she had no capital, so she made the risky decision to use her family’s spare rations to provision her business. As she started to generate cash flow, the money allowed her to buy foods from the market, including staples of Nuban cuisine like goat, beef, okra, and beans.

The WFP sorghum ration is distributed as whole grains, which must be milled into flour at mills or ground at home with heavy stones. It’s most commonly used for a thick, nutty, tangy porridge called asida, a staple dish in Sudanese cuisine made by fermenting the sorghum flour overnight with water, then steaming the mixture until it becomes dense. At home, Rosa and her family would eat their asida with water — or milk, if they had the money — but when I visited the restaurant, she served it alongside a meaty soup, or stewed okra. (Okra, called wēka, grows wild in the Nuba Mountains, and when it’s not stewed, it’s dried, and ground into a savory, thickening powder that’s added to nearly everything.)

Traditionally, Nubans eat communally, serving a meal with the main course — generally a stew — in the center of a platter with asida or kisra, a flatbread that, like asida, is also made from fermented sorghum flour. In restaurants like Rosa’s, though some customers share their meals, others eat alone.

Rosa Abdu (left); Nagwa Ibrahim (center); inside Rosa's restaurant

V

isitors to Yida arrive via a dirt highway lined with homes constructed of tightly bound sticks, mud, and UN tarps, with termite hills taller than the cars climbing up between the houses. At the edge of the settlement’s central market, mechanics hammer away at car parts; deeper in, vendors sell packaged food and groceries, soft drinks, and household goods, all brought to Yida either from Khartoum in the north or Juba in the south. Juice shops rattle with the whirring sounds of blenders liquefying baobab, and women sit under airy tents made of tarp and wood, brewing hot drinks on charcoal stoves or frying little balls of dough, called zalabiya, a perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee.

Brightly painted restaurants dot the market, advertising their offerings with tables piled high with meat, both cooked and raw, in front of the entrance. Many people live in their shops or restaurants, so when dark falls, business in the market closes down. As music drifts out from boomboxes, the owners sit outside, preparing meals for themselves under colorful lights.

Rosa opened her restaurant in a smaller market, where she would have less competition from more established operators. In the main market, businesses are owned and run by refugees, but also by non-refugee entrepreneurs from the north and south who have decided that selling to Yida’s residents presents a robust opportunity; the influx of non-refugee operators reflects the importance of Yida as an economic hub in the region while highlighting its potential political insecurities.

A restaurant like Rosa’s relies on those outside business owners to bring literal currency into the economy. Cash is scarce in Yida, and most of the settlement’s residents are largely self-sufficient. Beyond the outsider entrepreneurs, only those who work in cash businesses as traders or vendors — or those who happen to luck into an NGO position and earn a stipend — have money, and can shop or dine in the market. When I visited, all the money Rosa earned went directly back into supplies and ingredients for her fledgling operation, but she hoped to eventually earn enough to improve her family’s quality of life.

A man mills sorghum; grinding mills like this are found across Yida

Yida’s restaurants and other food businesses are generally run by women, but their customers are almost exclusively men. I was the only woman to place an order during the morning I spent in Rosa’s restaurant. I asked for a coffee, and watched as she emptied a small, clear plastic bag of green coffee beans onto a flat metal disc that rested atop the blazing charcoal on her aluminum-bench stove. She stirred the beans with a spoon as they grew hotter; as they darkened, the smell of roasting coffee wafted through the room.

After the beans turned a dark, nutty brown, Rosa took them off the stove, letting them cool for a few minutes before transferring them into a deep, heavy wooden mortar the size of a small flowerpot. With her pestle — a hefty metal bar that looked like it fell off an old truck — she pounded the beans by hand into powder, releasing a burst of coffee aroma with every strike. She poured the pounded coffee into a jar, and then dropped a few cardamom pods and some sugar into the mortar and ground them together. She set that mixture aside, and added to the mortar some cinnamon sticks and more sugar. Finally, she crushed a couple of knots of dried ginger into a prickly powder.

Rosa’s mise en place assembled, she spooned the coffee grounds into a tin of boiling water that she’d set over the coals earlier. She stirred the coffee, then added the freshly ground spices to steep. After a few minutes, she poured the dark liquid through a sieve into a tiny glass cup half-filled with sugar, and handed me the finished coffee on an aluminum plate, along with a cup of extra sugar and a tiny spoon. The vivid aroma of the spiced coffee overwhelmed the small room, and it only seemed to intensify when Rosa placed a little bowl of coals topped with frankincense onto the floor. The tradition of lighting incense when eating or drinking is common among Sudanese and Nubans. Some say it keeps away flies; others say it attracts customers walking by.


D

espite opening a restaurant, Rosa doesn’t like to cook. "There’s nothing good in cooking, but there are no other options," she told me, shaking her head. Nagwa Ibrahim, a woman who runs a restaurant not far from Rosa’s, shares her sentiments. She explained to me that even though she doesn’t find cooking enjoyable, she realized once she got to Yida that her kitchen knowledge — gleaned from watching her mother prepare meals — would give her the ability to make money to support her family.

Nagwa arrived in Yida three years ago, after walking with her five young children for nine days to escape Nuba. Her husband had died in the war, and bombs had destroyed their home. The family could move only as quickly as her smallest child, who at the time was six years old.

Young women with pots of lentils for making tamia (left); chopped organ meats for stews

Nagwa’s shop was busier than Rosa’s when I visited — she even employed another young woman to help out making coffee and tea — but then again, Rosa’s restaurant had only been open for a short time. Nagwa was boisterous and confident, moving in a flurry and laughing with her customers as they ate. Like Rosa’s customers, her clientele was mostly men: traders who move goods through the camp, businessmen, NGO workers, or travelers — the only ones with money to spend.

Nagwa was serving fuul, a bean stew, a traditional dish in the Sudans and throughout much of East Africa. Nagwa boils her beans until they’re falling-apart soft, then mashes them into a rough paste. She pours sesame oil on top, and serves the mixture with steaming, pillowy pita bread, freshly baked. Nagwa told me that back in Nuba, she would make fuul with black-eyed peas that she grew herself, but now she uses whatever types of beans she can get. Beans are precious in Yida, brought from hundreds of miles away by traders from the south and north.

Perhaps someday Rosa will be as successful as Nagwa, growing from a one-woman operation to one with an assistant and a bustling crowd of regulars. But the stability of Yida is perpetually in question: The UN has recently threatened to shut down all of the limited services they currently provide to the settlement, which would include food rations, effectively forcing everyone to move to Ajuong Thok, or to return to the instability of the Nuba Mountains from which they fled. And South Sudan itself may not be the most secure place to stay. A few weeks ago, gunshots were fired between the two main political factions in Juba, potentially tipping the country back into civil war.

In February of this year, the UN announced that they would be officially closing Yida at the end of June, relocating all residents to Ajuok Thok or Pamir. But Yida is far from "closed": The June UNHCR fact sheet for South Sudan puts Yida’s population at 60,288, down from a high of 70,826, and according to a recent conversation I had with the coordinator of a major NGO based in Yida, 99 percent of ration-card holders in the settlement received their allotment in July.

Yida’s restaurants and other food businesses are generally run by women, but their customers are almost exclusively men.

It’s the nature of a refugee settlement to be in flux. While Yida’s unofficial status means it’s had an opportunity to grow a stronger economic and social core than most refugee communities, people flow in and then out again. More restaurants like Rosa’s and Nagwa’s open as new refugees arrive; others close, as their proprietors depart Yida to return to the Nuba Mountains, or to resettle in other camps, drawn by the promise of steadier rations, or UN schools for their children.

It can be nearly impossible for someone not on the ground to find a person in Yida: The region has no cell reception, and while not being under official UN governance means that residents are afforded freer lives, it also means that it’s harder to keep track of who currently resides where. I left the settlement after two weeks in mid-May; I don’t know if Rosa or Nagwa and their families were among the thousands who left at the end of June, or if they remained in their temporary home, their restaurants still open, serving stew and coffee to hungry traders and NGO workers.

When I spent the morning in Rosa’s restaurant, I watched her make kisra, the sorghum flatbread. She expertly poured a thin batter onto the edge of a large metal disc set on top of the coals. Using a tool that looked like a dough cutter, with a few flicks of her wrist she painted the batter out into an enormous, translucent circle, its surface a criss-cross of crispy, stretchy spiderwebs. Though the batter is fermented, cooked kisra crepes have only a hint of sourness; most of their flavor comes from the hot surface of the pan.

Rosa delicately lifted the kisra from the cooking surface and placed it on a platter next to her, covering it with a thin cloth. She poured more batter and started another. I sat and watched as she made more and more. By the time she opened for business, she had accumulated a pile to serve throughout the day.

Sandra Zhao is a Nairobi-based writer and food entrepreneur.
Roopa Gogineni is a photographer and filmmaker based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera.
Trevor Snapp is a photographer based in East Africa, focusing on conflict and its aftermath.
Edited by Meghan McCarron
Additional editing by Matt Buchanan and Helen Rosner
Designed by Helen Rosner
Fact checked by Muna Mire
Photos of organ meats and incense by Trevor Snapp; all others by Roopa Gogineni

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