Representing a newly independent country ravaged by decades of war, Dr. Akec Khoc, South Sudan's ambassador to the United States, is concerned about many basic needs his countrymen struggle to meet on a daily basis. Safety, infrastructure, education and employment are among his country's current challenges.
So why was he wandering through stalks of corn in a greenhouse in Durham this week? The sophisticated greenhouse, Duke's Phytotron, is able to simulate tropical growing environments such as those found in South Sudan. It is where Duke biologist Mary Eubanks developed a new species of maize that may help address another of South Sudan's urgent needs: a stable, nutritious and plentiful food supply for its citizens, half of whom do not have an adequate access to food and nutrition.
Khoc visited Durham this week to participate in "Food Security for Africa: The Case for South Sudan," a symposium organized by Eubanks and Duke colleague Ellen Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School, in partnership with the Duke Africa Initiative.
Eubanks, a plant geneticist who has devoted her career to the study of maize, has never visited South Sudan. But Davis has been there many times since 2004. In 2009, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited Davis to London for a roundtable that resulted in a new holistic model for the church in Sudan, one in which the role of the church, and theological education, was explicitly defined as including responsibility not only for theological matters, but also for community health and community agriculture.
That's when Davis' friendship with Eubanks evolved into a professional collaboration to work through the church to bring a new form of agricultural opportunity to the town of Renk, along the northern border of the territory that became South Sudan in 2011.
Eubanks, who has a longstanding interest in using her research to alleviate hunger, had witnessed many efforts of agencies providing crop seed for impoverished areas of Africa fail because the seeds weren't suitable for growing in the African climate. Working from seeds a student brought her from Africa, Eubanks developed a new type of maize suited for the hot, humid climate of Africa, resistant to pests, and higher in protein and other nutrients than existing maize varieties.
With a presence in every village in South Sudan, and counting 90 percent of the country's citizens among its membership, the church is ideally positioned to serve as a source of infrastructure and stability. In Renk, the theological seminary is now home to a small plot of maize created by Eubanks and farmed by students that provides food for students at the seminary and many local villagers.
For a country whose people have spent their lives fighting wars and living in exile, the opportunity to farm a staple crop on a small scale provides nutrition, a degree of self-sufficiency, and a new way of life.
In opening remarks at Thursday's symposium, Duke President Richard Brodhead emphasized the role universities can play in addressing food security challenges around the world, specifically noting the collaboration Davis and Eubanks have forged. "Interdisciplinary research and expertise generated at universities provides approaches to many dimensions of this problem," Brodhead said.
Photo below: Mary Eubanks, left, and Ellen Davis listen to comments from Ambassador Khoc during the symposium. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography.