Today, South Sudan is celebrating its fourth Independence Day, but almost no one there is celebrating. Instead they are trying to avert a famine.
Last month I was at a nutrition center in the city of Kuajok in South Sudan where I measured the circumference of the upper arm of Riing Ayii, a 15-month-old boy, in order to determine his level of malnutrition.
With skin hanging off his bones the little boy easily fit the U.N. definition of severely malnourished. Riing's upper arm measured no more than the circle you could make with your thumb and index finger. I couldn't help but think of my own healthy 15-month-old grandson toddling around the backyard at twice Riing's size.
We shouldn't need a fast and easy way to determine degrees of starvation, but in South Sudan — a country struggling with what the United Nations calls acute hunger — there are so many children in desperate need.
Right now 3.5 million people in the country are in need of emergency food assistance. The only redeeming aspect of wrapping the measuring tape around a starving child is knowing that here in this camp, where the measurement takes place, he will finally receive some food.
American Christians are in part responsible for the creation of South Sudan. During the '90s, advocacy on behalf of southern Sudan resulted in the 1998 passage of the International Religious Freedom Act and ultimately pushed the George W. Bush's administration to take an active role in the Sudan conflict. A peace deal was reached, and in 2011, a new country was born.
Yet today, we are failing our moral responsibility to sustain this infant country as it struggles to walk on its own. We have moved on to other concerns before the job was done here in South Sudan. Christians need to stay the course on this issue that once galvanized churches, because lives are at stake as South Sudan struggles toward real independence. Eighteen months ago, conflict broke out in the capital, and it hasn't stopped. Nearly a fifth of the population, 2 million people, have been displaced, roughly 13,000 children have been recruited into armed groups — a 40 percent increase since last year.
The conflict is now leading to food shortages. With so many people fleeing, bad harvests last year, and limited planting this year, people are running out of food. The World Food Program says that "unrelenting conflict and the onset of the lean season are intensifying alarming levels of hunger" across the country. As much as 40 percent of the country will face "acute hunger" requiring lifesaving food intervention. In June, World Vision staff were running out of essential packets of peanut paste. These packets are lifesaving to malnourished children. For now, these courageous staff are still saving lives but the future is uncertain.
Riing's family returned to South Sudan in 2011 in hopes of the promise offered by the country's referendum on independence.
"I am happy that I am now back to my country," his mother said. But she continues, "I hardly get food for my six children."
For now, Riing is recovering and gaining weight with his peanut paste. But this little child, nearly the same age as the fragile country he lives in, faces a hard future. Riing and the rest of South Sudan are in urgent need of aid.
Now more than ever, American Christians — who helped midwife this country's birth — need to finish the job, nurturing South Sudan into a fully developed country. We owe it to the thousands of children like Riing to finish what was started.