When the contractions set in, Mary Nakany weighed her options. She could walk to the closest maternity ward, where a midwife and medicines awaited, but the trek would take at least 45 minutes—without stopping for the pain of contractions. If she didn’t make it in time, she’d be giving birth along the way. The privacy and safety of her own home, a round, traditional house with dirt floor she had built just months earlier, seemed a better choice.
In South Sudanese culture, women are to give birth in silence, so Mary didn’t even whimper. The first sound that pierced the night was the cry of her baby, a girl she would later name Monday Kadong, after the day she was born. For a moment, Mary rested against the cold brick wall. Then she cut the umbilical cord with her only knife, blade dull from use, and walked to the maternity ward in Pagirinya, a refugee resettlement camp in northern Uganda.
On her walk down the camp’s straight, red dirt roads, she passed boreholes that produce opaque water and latrines too few to accommodate the population of more than 30,000. Two years ago, she would have also passed a sea of white, makeshift tarpaulin tents emblematic of communities who have fled war and disaster. Now, however, they’ve been replaced with traditional South Sudanese houses. Built of mud bricks and spanning a diameter of about 13 feet, the new tukuls—conical homes with thatched roofs through which heat rises—have given Pagirinya an air of permanence.
About 2.5 million survivors of South Sudan’s civil war live as refugees in neighboring countries like Uganda. Another 2 million more remain in the country but were driven from their homes as rebels and government troops ransacked and razed villages. At age seven, South Sudan, the world’s newest country, has known more war than peace: When the nation was barely two years old, rival politicians plunged the infant country into civil war. Sometimes peace seemed within reach, but in 2016, fighting erupted once again. Peace negotiations are ongoing, but among experts and refugees, hope for a resolution has long faded.
The UN expects a large portion of South Sudan’s first generation of natural citizens to grow up in displacement camps. In Pagirinya alone, about 40 babies are born each month. Turning the camp into a home is a task largely up to South Sudan’s women: Overall, 85 percent of refugees are estimated to be women and children, and in Pagirinya, there are about twice as many adult women as men, according to the UN.
Their perseverance can be measured by the tukuls they’ve built. There’s Grace Ondoa, for example, who says she fetched firewood to sell at the market for 18 months to save enough money to build a house. It needed to be big enough for her three children and her nine orphaned nieces and nephews. “My husband left,” she says, “because he saw that there are too many children, and that it is too difficult.”
A few houses over, Sharon Kide, whose husband left to find work elsewhere, estimates she sold 5 percent of her meager food rations for an entire year to afford the four poles that now carry her house. It’s a home for her little girl and boy, whom she saved, one in her arms and one tied to her back, when she ran from soldiers raiding her village. “This is our house, and I built it,” she says.
In South Sudan’s deeply patriarchal society, houses were typically built by men. But now women are also taking charge, says Andrea Cullinan, coordinator on gender-based violence for the UN Population Fund in South Sudan. “It becomes an opportunity for women’s empowerment,” she says, explaining how the lack of support from men hasn’t been for the worse. “Sometimes out of some changes comes some good. And one of the things that can come out of it is that women can participate more in decisions over their lives.”
That’s certainly true for Mary. Back from the maternity ward, where she was given painkillers and baby Monday’s umbilical cord was cleaned, she starts preparing porridge on an open fire inside the house. Thick smoke billows inside the narrow space, captured despite the small, triangle-shaped slits that serve as windows.
“I did everything for this house,” she says, stirring. “I built it without any help.”
She dug up soil and mixed it with water and grass, forming the muddy mixture into bricks that she baked in the sun. She cut swaths of grass in the forest, carried it in a bundle on her head. She laid the bricks and thatched the roof herself.
She had to buy ropes to tie the roof to the walls. From each grain ration, she sold a handful. A month of bare subsistence earned her 5,000 Ugandan Shillings—about U.S. $1.35.
By carrying jerry cans of water from boreholes to the market, she made another 500 Ugandan Shillings per day. Three months later, she was able to start construction.
The First Sudanese Civil War broke out in the 1950s and conflict continued to grow between the country’s northern and southern regions until the secession and creation of South Sudan in 2011. Juba, South Sudan’s new capital, lured Mary and her husband with the promise of a better future.
Her now five-year-old son was born on the capital’s outskirts, in a cramped hut built by her husband, roof and walls made of straw. “It wasn’t nice… not like this one,” she says looking at her own brick house.
But Juba offered opportunities the farmers’ daughter didn’t know existed. With a small investment from her husband, a soldier, she bought onions and tomatoes, displayed them on a paved road—which was still novel to her—and sold them for a profit.
She dreamt about “all the things that could be,” she says. “My business, a school for the children, money that I could send to my parents.”
In December 2013, the sound of gunfire jerked her out of sleep. Troops loyal to the president had clashed with those loyal to the opposition leader. In Juba alone, hundreds were killed.
“Now, my dreams are nightmares,” Mary says. The family fled to the safety of their village, deep in the country’s southeastern mountains. There, Mary gave birth to a girl.
In 2016, the violence spread. Soldiers attacked her village, torching the tukuls. Separated from her husband, Mary ran with her two children, her sandals falling off her feet. Nine days later, she reached Pagirinya. There she reunited with her husband, but he returned to South Sudan shortly after. Last year, she heard he had been killed.
Just a few hours after Mary and Monday returned to her tukul, the sky darkens. Gusts whip around the camp’s cornerless houses. Her two children, who were playing outside, scream with excitement as they run back to their house. They arrive just before a monsoon sets in.
The porridge is done, and the smoke dissipates. With a wooden spoon she carved herself, she feeds the children.
From the thatched roof, small spiders descend on threads of silk.
“Looking at this house, I am thinking a lot,” Mary says. “I am thinking about how my husband built our first house, and how I built this one on my own.”
It’s not the life she dreamed of in Juba, and not the one she would have had in her own village. But as the family huddles together amidst the storm and she brushes dirt off Monday’s tiny face, it’s clear the house she built is more than just protection from rain and wind: it’s a home.
This story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.