CBS News

July 5, 2022



Kueryiek, South Sudan — There hasn’t been much to sing about for months in the village of Kueryiek. But all that could change: A marriage is at hand.

Wearing a green dress and an ill-fitting wig, bride-to-be Nyekuoth Manyuan is treated like royalty. By getting married, she can save her community from starvation.

But as CBS News foreign correspondent Debora Patta reports, it comes at a terrible cost: The bride is a child, just 14 years old.

Two months ago, she had a future outside of her small village in South Sudan. She was in school, where she received not only an education, but a meal every day. But the cost of food and fuel has sky-rocketed, thanks in large part to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and that has brought the school food program to an abrupt halt.

Like much of the emergency food aid provided to the millions of people on the brink of starvation in drought- and flood-wracked South Sudan, the school meals were supported by the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP).

The WFP’s acting country director told CBS News the organization had to suspend aid to nearly 2 million people in South Sudan recently because the war is pushing costs up, while also sapping donations.

“It’s because there are so many catastrophes blowing up across the world,” Marwa Awad, the WFP’s head of communications in South Sudan, told CBS News.

She said the humanitarian crises in AfghanistanYemen and now Ukraine have been a double-edged sword, leaving WFP with “less money to feed more and more people.”

Many in Nyekuoth’s village have been surviving by eating water lilies, but at least the kids were being fed at school. When the cash-strapped WFP had to suspend that program, it left parents like hers to choose between food, or an education for their children.

While Nyekuoth’s father negotiated with the prospective groom’s family over the value of his daughter’s hand in marriage, the village women waited for news and Nyekuoth herself sat looking tired, seemingly resigned to her fate.

“I know I’m young,” she told Patta. “But the food’s been taken away, and I want my family to survive on the dowry they will get.”

Her father Manyuan Kerena laid a row of sticks down in front of the head of the other family, each one representing a cow. He wanted 100 in exchange for his daughter.

“It hurts,” admitted the father. “The cows we are getting are hardly worth it. But we are afraid. We don’t have anything to eat.”

After several hours a deal was struck. Cow bells rang out and there was dancing and singing. But times are tough. The family agreed to marry Nyekuoth off for just 60 poorly fed cattle.

In exchange, the groom — more than a decade older at 25 — got to take Nyekuoth home that night.

Patta asked her if it would be difficult to go with her new husband.

“No, it will never be difficult,” she said, “because I want them to be alive.”

“You should not choose between food — your right to food — and your right to education. This must not be a choice facing a child at 14 years of age, or her family or her larger community,” the WFP’s Awad told CBS News. She knows that Nyekuoth is not a unique case.

“There’s so many others,” she told Patta. “We’re noticing a big drop in attendance in the schools.”

“It makes me feel partly ashamed that I’m unable to help as an individual, and at the same time as an organization,” Awad said. “We’re doing the best that we can, but honestly, the solution is that people do not forget South Sudan. This is the solution, because there are still many lives that can thrive if help is given.”

It costs only about $15 dollars per month to feed a school child in South Sudan. For the price of four or five cups of coffee, a child can be ensured an education, and options beyond early parenthood.

Nyekuoth loves science and dreams of being a doctor, but her story is evidence of the many ways that hunger can destroy a life.

c. CBS