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A Lodge 'Bigger Than The Hilton'

South Sudan, February 11, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps provided Jacklin with funds to purchase a refrigerator and generator so they could offer cold drinks to their guests. "My dream," she says with a laugh, "is to have it be bigger than the Khartoum Hilton." Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Twic County, Sudan — Civil war forced Jacklin Akual Longar's family to flee their home here when she was six years old. They spent 18 years in Khartoum before Jacklin felt it safe enough to come back. Today the 28-year-old, who's married with a baby of her own, works as a community health nurse in the town of Wunrock. But the return hasn't been easy.

"When I came back to Twic," says Jacklin, "life was hard for me. No roads, no vehicles, hard to find water." But she's the type of person who sees opportunity in problems. In addition to her nursing day job, she heads the Mada Women's Development Center, a community organization launched by eight female professionals to advance the status of women in postwar Sudan. And she noticed that visitors to Wunrock, where the Women's Development Center is located, could not find a place to spend the night.

So Jacklin and the other members decided to start a business to help fund their fledgling organization: a lodge to house traders, government officials and other visitors passing through. "My dream," says Jacklin with a laugh, "is to have it be bigger than the Khartoum Hilton."

With the help of a World Food Program food-for-work initiative, Jacklin and her group started building tukuls — round mud huts with conical grass roofs that are common in southern Sudan. Mercy Corps provided the women with trainings in business planning, financial management, leadership and group dynamics, and purchased a refrigerator and generator so they could offer cold drinks to their guests.

At the end of 2007, the lodge opened with four tukuls and a covered lounge on the large, bamboo-fenced compound a short walk from the town market. Near-term plans call for six more huts and a second latrine. The lodge is one of 15 women-owned enterprises in Twic County — others include restaurants and tea stalls — that Mercy Corps has supported with trainings and grants over the last two years.

But Jacklin's dream didn't end with the lodge's successful opening. She wants the lodge earnings to expand the Mada Women's Development Center in several ways: A new training center would be rented to NGOs for meetings and for her own organization to host weekend sessions for women, teaching such practical topics as sewing, handicrafts and health awareness. Eventually Jacklin wants to add a nursery and a beauty salon.

"The biggest problem here," muses Jacklin, "is education. Women didn't get an education during the war. So they don't have knowledge about how to start a business. Meanwhile, all the men are in the market playing cards. We're going to change things by helping them learn about health, children, business. And the women will learn how to make life easier for themselves."

Already the cash box Mercy Corps gave the entrepreneurs is filling up. How much have they made? "A lot," Jacklin affirms with a smile. "I don't count guests - I count money." Those funds will be reinvested in the best business plan of all: the children's futures. "I hope all our members' children will be graduated," says Jacklin, "because with this business they will afford school fees, and many will be doctors and engineers."