Hellen Taban, the iron lady at the helm of South Sudan Pensions Fund

Hellen Taban, the iron lady at the helm of South Sudan Pensions Fund
Hellen Taban,, chairperson, South Sudan Pension Fund

When I finally showed up for a scheduled interview with her, at the South Sudan Pensions Fund offices where she is the Deputy Managing Director, there are a handful of members of the public who had made a beeline for her office. It is clear that they want one or two things sorted, and so I join the modest queue.

An infectious smile slapped disarming smile, as I would later establish, masks the torturous journey she went through in her quest to acquire education, and anything else that is unpleasant but life threw her way.

“Welcome, my son. It is good to see you after the telephone conversations,” she says, and I sink into one of the sofas right opposite her.

The mother of four has a lot in her in tray. The country is only a decade old, following her separation with Sudan in 2011. A number of documents regarding pension funds for those who worked in the civil service long before independence are yet to reach her office for action. But she is determined to deliver on her mandate as the pension funds boss.

“My roles here entail overseeing the planning process and ensuring that we are all working towards set objectives. We award pension to pensioners, fast track contributions so that pensioners get their dues after being in the service up to the retirement age that is currently capped at 65 years, though there is the option of early retirement,” she says with a smile.

But the journey to her current position, where she is the first woman to hold such a prime position, did not start here, in this air conditioned office space, with a modest refrigerator for those who wish to take water offered to them cold.

“I came from a very poor family in South Sudan in Kajo Keji County. But the first place I knew was northern Uganda, where my grandparents had run to seek refuge during the Anyanya War,” says Hellen.

Born 60 years ago, she would find herself in a family where her father and mother were sharply divided over the relevance of education, particularly if the subject in question is a woman. They were literally pulling from different directions, her father, Daniel Telei Sasuk insisting that she needed to be in school, a position that her mother, Lydia Poni, objected to.

“Both my parents had never attended any school. According to what my dad told me, he was kept out of school to take care of cattle. But as I grew up, he said he soul not want his daughter to be like him. He wanted me to be an eye opener to him and to many,” she says.

“I went to Busaan Primary School in Uganda, Kyunga District. It was until 1974 that I would come to Sudan. All along I thought Uganda was our country,” she says.

And true to her father’s word, she has become an eye-opener to many. She was appointed as Board of Trustees for Central Bank of South Sudan by President Salva Kiir between November 15, 2018, to May 2021. But 50 years ago, her own mother, could not believe that education could take her daughter to such heights.

“My trouble with mother started when my father came back to the country to join the fight for liberation struggle. To ensure that I got discouraged with going to school, my mother would first take us to the farm where she would give me a portion that I needed to dig first before I could go school. The portions were pretty big, meaning I would finish it by midday. Technically that would mean being absent from school,” she says.

Her story resonates with thousands of others not just in South Sudan, but in the whole of Africa where for a long time, most societies did not want to educate the girls because, among other reasons, they would be married off anyway.

“I followed him (father) to Sudan to look for a Junior Secondary School to further my education. My father enrolled me at Abba Junior Secondary School in Junior 2. In 1976 I completed Junior with First Grade that earned me a slot at the coveted Juba Commercial Secondary School,” she says.

But the challenge was getting the required school fees. Her father was equally passionate, as before, in seeing his daughter achieve the highest level of education. But there she was; helpless as days to join the prestigious school kept counting.

Young Hellen got angry, and depressed. She was not going to see that opportunity slip through her fingers like that. Life was not worth living. She attempted suicide. Not once, but three times.

Hellen Taban

“My mother, who was against girls education wanted me to go back home, sit and wait for a man who would show up looking for a wife. I took a cousin, Samson Duku who was a merchant in Juba to come to my rescue, and from there everything went on smoothly,” she says.

Meets husband

She met her future husband, Eban Taban Tycoon, while she was nearing completing Senior Secondary. At that point he was a medical statistician in the Ministry of Health.

When Hellen cleared her Senior Secondary education, she had done exemplarily in Accounting and Economics. Taban, her husband had promised to fund her further education, and that is how she would end up taking accounting classes at Atlabara Gym in Juba, before later joining her husband who had joined a Non-Governmental Organization in Nairobi.

“But his work would later take him to Tanzania for some few years, then Beirut for his Masters Degree, then back to Nairobi,” she reminisces. In all the instances, she was always with her husband.

It is while in Nairobi that she developed interest in fashion and design.

“I was doing so well. It actually got to a point where I was training South Sudanese and Kenyan women as well on entrepreneurship. When what I was doing started getting recognition from the press, we got funding from a Canadian organization. In total, I managed to train 264 women on entrepreneurship,” she says.

But when the same organization wanted her to expand to the US, her husband would hear none of that. Instead, he asked her to identify an undergraduate program, of her choice.

“I enrolled at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa for a Sociology program (Anthropology minor), but after completion I continued with my fashion design work and raising my children, until 2014 when I was first appointed by President Salva Kiir to be a board member of South Sudan Pensions Fund,” she says.

But the board would be dissolved, and she had to go back to Kenya and continue with what is at her heart – fashion design.

In 2016, she was called again together with some other members. She was appointed acting Deputy General Manager for a period of two years.

“We launched the fund on January 31 2019,” she says.

But her office has not been without challenges. Some of the files during the war are missing. While some are in Khartoum, others cannot be traced. That means in several instances they cannot establish the arrears that were accumulated.

“The good news is that my office is doing follow up. We are working on how some of these liabilities can be brought to the country. Though our scope is from the time South Sudan became independent. Those records are with us so no South Sudanese in public service should worry about it,” she says.

She says what kept her going all through the years is that she does not look at herself as a woman. Instead she focuses on the work that is there to be done.

“Delivery has never been a gender issue. Whether you are man or woman, you have to put your best foot forward and deliver to the people, or that organization that has contracted you,” she says.

Unfortunately, in 2018 she lost her husband. But she is grateful to him for the foundation he made in her family.

“We were blessed with four sons, and they are all graduates,” she says with a smile.

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