Serving tea in South Sudan: Mary’s story

By Mawa Seme, Program Officer, CARE South Sudan

The sun is scorching hot, with temperatures reaching 35 degrees Celsius in the town of Pagak, Upper Nile State in South Sudan. A crowd of women and men is patiently waiting to be served the traditional South Sudanese spiced tea and coffee common to the area.

In Pagak, like many towns in South Sudan, tea is served all day. Mary Nyapour is one of those taking advantage of this national custom to try and make a living for herself and her family. The lines of customers inspire her to work even harder and be the best tea vendor around. Tea and coffee in South Sudan has a strong aroma, served with variety of spices, including fresh mint, ginger, cinnamon – and cardamom, which is Mary’s secret ingredient.

“I have many customers and they mostly come in the morning and evening,” says Mary. “I come to work every day and make sure tea, coffee, and porridge are available.”

The 27 year-old mother of four makes a living out of this small business she set up after joining a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) group in her community. The money she makes supports her family’s basic needs, including paying for her children’s school fees. Her husband lost his job when conflict broke out across South Sudan, so Mary is now the sole breadwinner for the household of 16, which includes other relatives and three strangers she took in after they were displaced by the fighting.

Before the crisis that engulfed South Sudan in 2013, Mary was already part of a village savings and loans group, and she had a shop selling milk. She used to walk for three hours from Pagak to the Pinythor cattle camp and then back again in search of cheaper milk. She would do this three times a week, and it earned her about $15 each week – an amount too small to cover her family’s needs.

When civil war broke out, the cattle camp where Mary bought the milk was soon destroyed and turned into a battlefield.

“We had to stop our VSLA group, and divided our savings because of the fighting. We didn’t know what would become of us” she says.

But Mary refused to give up. She started a new business from scratch with the help of the VSLA, this time selling teas and coffees. With training provided by CARE on income generating concepts, leadership skills and governance, among other things, Mary became the group’s chairperson. Within just three months, the group had saved a substantial amount of money which was added to the individual loans provided by CARE. CARE’s support of small business development is part of a wider peace-building initiative aimed at stimulating South Sudan’s economy after three years of war, and to provide employment opportunities for the people of Pagak.

Mary’s hard work has paid off. Her active participation in business is encouraging many women to join savings groups and she has already helped many others set up their own businesses.

“I am very happy with CARE for giving me knowledge to start a business. I get appreciation from women who ask me how I made it” she says.

Mary has big dreams besides her tea and coffee business. She hopes to involve other members of her family to earn more income and expand on her business.

“My plan is to have a big restaurant with many employees and customers. My husband is currently unemployed, so I have to work hard and run this restaurant on my own. Getting this far has not been easy. I established my restaurant after a long struggle” she notes with pride.

Four million people in South Sudan are in need of humanitarian support due to the conflict. CARE is providing both emergency support as well as long-term training to women like Mary and their families, but we need your help to continue to meet the need.