Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What Lies Ahead?

     In the last blogpost, I gave a brief history of South Sudan up to the date of independence – July 9, 2011. In this post, I would like to give some background information on some of the bigger issues the new country faces as it moves into the future.

Issue 1:  South Sudan is one of Africa’s least developed countries.
     Health and education statistics show there is much work to be done. Tropical diseases and diseases resulting from unclean water and poor sanitation are common: malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, tuberculosis, acute respiratory disease, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, guinea worm, meningitis, measles, typhoid fever, cholera, and many others. Water-borne diseases are common because boreholes and open, unprotected wells are the main sources of drinking water. Sanitation is largely absent and few people have access to toilet facilities. Chronic malnutrition, which weakens resistance to disease, is common. There is not enough food and people are very dependent on food aid.
     Infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world. In South Sudan, one in ten children die before their first birthday, and one in seven dies before their fifth birthday. One out of seven women who become pregnant will probably die from pregnancy-related causes. There are simply very few medical facilities and trained medical professionals. 75% of the people do not have access to even basic health care. Many South Sudanese must walk for days in order to reach a clinic. Most of the medical care that is available in South Sudan is provided by international aid groups.
     Government officials estimate that only 27% of adults can read. Among women, the figure is even lower – 84% of South Sudanese women cannot read or write. In nine of the ten South Sudanese states, less than 5% of children finish primary school. Only 6% of girls who start school ever finish.

Issue 2: The oil issue.
     Sudan and South Sudan produce 500,000 barrels of oil daily, and 75% of it comes from the South. However the refineries that refine the oil and the pipelines that carry it to shipping ports on the Red Sea are in the north. Since the Peace Agreement in 2005, oil revenue has been split equally between northern and southern Sudan, but there has been no agreement on how to split oil revenues after southern independence.
     (North) Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir threatened to shut down the pipelines carrying South Sudan’s oil if an agreement on sharing oil revenue was not reached before independence on July 9. So far that has not happened, but if oil exports are discontinued, the southern economy will collapse. Almost all the government income of South Sudan comes from oil exports – a whopping 98%. The government will not be able to pay its soldiers, and peace will be threatened. A new pipeline has been proposed that would run from Juba to Lamu, Kenya, bypassing northern Sudan, but it would take a few years to build. So it is likely that the south will pay to continue using the pipeline through the north for some time to come.
     In any event, South Sudan does not have an infinite reserve of oil, and unless new deposits are discovered, it is likely that supplies will run out in 20 to 30 years. In the long term, the South will need to diversify its economy away from oil. Two areas that look promising are agriculture and minerals.

Issue 3: Border disputes and conflicts with Sudan.
     There are several areas in which an agreement has not been reached on where to draw the border between Sudan and South Sudan. The main dispute is over the region of Abyei, which is an oil-producing region and a valuable source of water for the north during the dry season. Conflict over Abyei arose because two different ethnic groups claim the region: the Dinka Ngok, a southern group, and the Misseriya, who are northern Sudanese nomads accustomed to moving through the area each year in search of grazing land for their cattle. Tensions grew when the referendum vote which took place in the rest of southern Sudan in January of 2011 did not take place in Abyei because the two sides were unable to agree on whether the nomadic Misseriya should be able to vote. Fighting broke out in Abyei in May, a few weeks before southern independence, and large parts of Abyei town were burned to the ground.
     Though not the subject of a border dispute, another region of conflict is in the Nuba Mountains, which lie in (northern) Sudan’s South Kordofan state. The Nuba people who live there are black and largely Christian who feel they have more in common with people in South Sudan than with the Arab-dominated North, and would prefer to be part of South Sudan. Many Nuba fought with southern forces during the civil war, and the tribe is now facing retaliation from the northern army, which has dropped bombs on areas they inhabit. Aid workers there say ethnic Nubans are also being targeted by northern and Arab militias. The Nuban people are retreating deeper into the mountains in an attempt to escape the persecution.

Issue 4: Rebel forces inside South Sudan.
      There are at least a half-dozen rebel forces inside South Sudan that are opposed to the South Sudan government, which is largely controlled by members of the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement). The SPLA/SPLM was the most powerful insurgent group during the fight for independence from the north. The largest rebel group is the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), led by Peter Gadet. The SSLA says it is fighting corruption within the government, lack of development in the country, and domination by the Dinka ethnic group. They are concerned that the new government is spending more money on the army than on health and education, and that members of the Dinka tribe hold a majority of positions in the new government.
     The South Sudanese government claims that these rebel groups are being funded and supplied by the (northern) Sudanese government in an attempt to weaken the new government of South Sudan. It is a fact that the Khartoum government did fund rival groups during the long civil war in order to weaken the SPLA. The rebel groups have engaged in fights with the South Sudanese army, and represent a threat to peace and stability in the country.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Brief History of South Sudan

     This coming Saturday, July 9, 2011, South Sudan will become an independent nation. The southern portion of Sudan, around one-fourth of the total land mass, will separate from the northern part. It will be a big moment in history for the people of this land, to be sure. It makes me wonder: what has their history been up to this point?

     By 8000 B.C., people had moved into what is now northern Sudan. They lived in villages made of mud-brick buildings, and supported themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering wild grains and herding cattle. Northern Sudan, then known as Nubia, came under the rule of ancient Egypt in 2600 B.C., and Egyptian culture mixed with Sudanese culture to eventually produce the civilization known as Kush, which flourished until 350 A.D.  Less is known about the people of southern Sudan, but they are believed to have lived in semi-nomadic tribes.

     Arab miners searching for gold and emeralds began moving into the eastern part of northern Sudan in the A.D. 600’s and brought Islam with them. Much later, in 1820-21, the Ottomans conquered northern Sudan and unified the country. However the Sudd, the vast swamp in southern Sudan, prevented them from expanding into the southern part of the region.

     In 1874, Egypt conquered Sudan again, however it was not able to establish control over southern areas. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Britain and other European colonial powers became interested in moving into the region. The British army overthrew the Egyptian government in 1882, and began to occupy Egypt and Sudan. At the same time British missionaries began moving into southern Sudan from what is now Kenya, attempting to convert people there to Christianity.  In 1924, the British divided Sudan into two separate territories: an Arabic-speaking, predominantly Muslim north, and the South, which was chiefly Animist and Christian, and where the use of English was encouraged. Then in 1946 they reversed this policy and decided to merge northern and southern Sudan into one country, with the government located in the north, and using Arabic as the official language. Southerners were largely excluded from the new government.

     Sudan became independent of Britain in 1956. The government remained Arab and in the North, and southern dissatisfaction with northern rule ignited a civil war which lasted for 17 years, until 1972. At this time an agreement was reached which allowed southerners a measure of self-rule, and a period of peace began which lasted ten years. In 1983, the northern government instituted the fundamentalist Islamic law Sharia, which exacerbated the differences between the peoples of the north and south, and the fighting commenced again.  

     A compromise was reached between the Khartoum government and southern groups in 2004. They agreed that the south would live autonomously for six years, then vote in a referendum on independence. During the vote, which took place on January 9 of this year, southerners chose by a majority of 98.8% to become independent from the north. The new country will be officially known as the Republic of South Sudan, and its capital city will be Juba. Salva Kiir Mayardit, who was a high-ranking officer in the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) during the civil war and who has been the president of Southern Sudan during the autonomous period since 2004, will be the first president of the new country. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Beaded Jewelry

     Beads were brought to Africa by traders from Arabia, Europe, and India, where they were exchanged for goods, slaves, and services. The Arabs traded mainly in northern Africa, while Europeans and Indians traded mostly in the western parts of the continent. African tribal lords and chiefs who obtained these beads began making decorative jewelry out of them. Wearing the jewelry was, in fact, wearing one’s wealth, and it became a sign of social status to wear a large amount of beaded jewelry in different colors.

     The original African beads were made out of gold, silver, or glass. The material was melted and then poured into a clay mold that had compartments in the shape of beads. After the beads were formed, they were processed in a kiln to make them hard and durable.

     Today, there are hundreds of different kinds of African beads. Most are made of glass, with plastics and ceramics added to the glass. People of different tribes in southern Sudan wear their beads in different ways. Women of the Dinka tribe, for example, often wear a long string (or strings) of rather large beads that are black on one side and white on the other. Toposa women sew small, multicolored beads in intricate rows onto the goatskin skirts they wear, and like to adorn themselves with thick rings of beads as necklaces and headdresses woven from beads of many different colors. Boys and men wear beads too, though not in such great quantities as the women. In some tribes, the style of beads worn indicates the wearer’s marital status and place in society.

     Below, a Toposa woman appears in her beaded finery.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cattle Raids

     In the last post, I wrote about cattle camps in southern Sudan. The camps are an important part of the culture of South Sudan, and generally people look forward to going to the camps where they can be close to each other and to their beloved cattle. But there is a downside to the cattle camps: deadly raids take place there, in which one group tries to steal another group’s cattle.

     The need for young men to raise dowries drives much of the cattle raiding. In southern Sudan, when a man marries, he must pay a dowry of cows to the bride’s family. Typically around 30 cows are paid, but in some cases as many as 100; the groom negotiates with the men of the bride’s family to decide the exact number. By the time he is ready for marriage, a man will have acquired a small herd of cows of his own. To collect the rest of the dowry, he asks his relatives to contribute some of their cattle to his herd. After the wedding takes place, the cows are transferred to and distributed among the various members of the bride’s family. This procedure bonds together all the members of each family who have participated in the exchange.

     In recent years, families have been requiring increasingly large numbers of cows for dowries. Young men often cannot obtain the required number through peaceful means, so they stage raids to steal each other’s cattle. During the dry months from December to May, when herders must compete for smaller amounts of resources and also move their cattle toward the Nile River in search of water, the raids increase. Cattle raids have become very violent since the early 1990s, which was the height of the civil war in Sudan. At that time civilians easily acquired guns from soldiers, and began using them when seizing cattle. People of both sides in the attacks are often maimed or killed, and the raids ignite feuds among the different tribes which last for years. Some tribes abduct young children as well as cattle during the plunders.

     Occasionally, when a young man cannot raise the demanded number of cattle, he will choose to elope with the girl rather than conduct raids to try to obtain more cows. However this choice often generates even more conflict than cattle raiding. Because of the dowry she will bring, a girl is a source of wealth to her family. So when she elopes, her father may organize a rescue party to go after her and try to bring her back.

     Pictured below is a patient who suffered gunshot wounds while raiding cattle, being tended by nursing staff at the Peace Village Clinic in Kuron. This small clinic is not prepared to treat wounds of the severity he has, so he was encouraged to seek treatment at a better-equipped hospital perhaps 75 km away. The patient was fearful of doing so, because the hospital lies in territory claimed by the tribe whose cattle he was raiding, and he feared retaliation if he ventured there to seek treatment. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sudanese Cattle Camps

     Cows are at the center of life for the people of South Sudanese tribes. Cows provide milk for food, and in a society that has little use for money, a family’s wealth is stored in its cattle. The number of cattle a family owns determines their worth and standing in society.
     In South Sudan, families traditionally keep a permanent home in a small village-like setting. Crops such as maize, sorghum and millet are grown nearby these permanent communities. But they keep their herds of cattle on the plains, in cattle camps. In order to protect the animals from predators and cattle raiders, a large number of herders will band together to form a cattle camp, and hundreds of animals will be kept in each camp. The head of the camp identifies a good location for the camp: one that is near good grazing land and a source of water, and able to be defended from cattle thieves and predatory animals. The herders carry spears and guns to protect their livestock. During the dry months from November to May, when water is scarce, the herdsmen move their camps toward the Nile River.
     The most capable of the young men are sent to the cattle camps to care for and protect the cows. Older men, women and children also go to the camps. For young boys, the camps are a kind of school in which they can learn the skills necessary for their traditional way of life: how to milk cows, how to give commands to the cows, how to help cows give birth, how to castrate a bull that is not desirable for breeding, how to burn cow dung to keep away insects and use the residual ash as a skin protector. They also learn how to make a paste from ash, dirt, and cow urine, and spread it over the horns of the cows to prevent insects from biting the cattle, and how to fish. When not learning how to care for cows, they are busy tending sheep and goats. Women and girls in the camps take care of young children, prepare food, and do the majority of the milking. They make butter and yogurt from the milk in large gourds, and take the surplus milk they collect to nearby towns to sell or trade for other goods.
     The camps are rough settlements: full of dust, and teeming with cattle, cattle dung, and insects. People sleep on thin mats under the stars and make do with very few possessions. In the evenings when the youths return with the cattle from grazing, the community gathers together and the camps take on a party-like atmosphere. Men decorate the horns of their cattle with tassels and other ornaments, and parade them through the crowds. There are wrestling and jumping contests, singing, and dancing to the beat of goatskin-covered drums. Stories are told, which teach morals and other lessons. Boys and girls are free to flirt, and often engage in sexual activity.
     Today, the youth of Sudan increasingly must choose between going to the cattle camps, or staying in town and getting an academic education. The long wars are over, peace has returned, and oil has recently been discovered in South Sudan. A new way of life may soon take hold there. Sudanese elders must decide whether to continue passing down the traditional skills and rituals, or help the young prepare for urban life and modern jobs. In a few decades, life in the cattle camps may be a thing of the past.

     Below, a family heads off to cattle camp near Kuron, South Sudan.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Landmines in South Sudan

     During Sudan’s 21 year long civil war, armies on both sides – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan Armed Forces - planted landmines thickly near major battlefields. Mines were laid on main roads, in villages, near wells and across fields. This limited people’s ability to travel from place to place and restricted their access to drinking water, grazing land for their cattle, and farmland. All aspects of life were affected: women were afraid to go out and collect firewood, children could not go to school, people could not trade with each other, hospitals and other infrastructure could not be built. After the war ended, the fear of stepping on mines blocked the return of refugees and interfered with the delivery of humanitarian aid.

     Today, 19 of the 25 states in southern Sudan are still strewn with explosive devices. The densest presence of mines in South Sudan has been found in Eastern Equatoria and Central Equatoria, the states which share borders with Kenya and Uganda. It is also believed that a high concentration of undetonated charges exists along the borders with Eritrea and Ethiopia in the east, but these areas have not yet been surveyed to determine the extent of the problem.

     In 2010, a study was conducted to determine the extent of the damage that had been done by landmines. Between the signing of the Peace Agreement that ended the civil war in 2005 and 2010, a total of 661 persons were either killed or injured by mines and other explosive devices in Sudan. 41% of them were children, and 13% were women or girls. These numbers do not include the number of people killed or maimed by landmines during the long war.

     Clearing mines from a space of ground is painstaking work. De-mining teams mark out a small area, then work their way across it inch by inch while listening for a beeping sound coming from their monitors that indicates the presence of metal parts in devices buried under the ground. They work 45 minute shifts at a time in the burning sun, wearing plastic face shields that make it impossible for them to drink water. They must work in the dry season, when the soil is so compacted they cannot activate a mine by stepping on it.

     Since 2005, efforts to clear the most densely contaminated areas have been in progress, and a whopping 19,000 landmines and 800,000 other unexploded ordnances have been found and destroyed in southern Sudan. Many kilometers of roads have been cleared, and assistance has been provided to large numbers of people who are victims of mine blasts. In addition, over four million people have received mines awareness education. Nevertheless, explosive devices still pose a significant threat to the safety of people in South Sudan: it is estimated that only 20% of the total land has been cleared of mines, 64% has yet to be cleared, and 16% still has not been assessed for the presence of such devices. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hair Braiding

     Hair braiding has been around for many centuries – in Africa, it can be traced back as far as 3500 BCE. It was practiced by the ancient Egyptians and is still a popular activity today in many parts of Africa, including South Sudan.

     Hair braiding is done to enhance a woman’s – or a man’s – beauty, but it is also a social event among women. It can take a long time to complete a hairdo – up to several hours – so there is plenty of time to talk. Girls learn the skill by watching as older women in their communities make knots and braids in the hair of young children. They practice the designs on each other, learning traditional patterns and inventing new ones. Some of the styles are tribe specific, and often the length of the braid is extended with string-like materials. Sometimes colorful beads or other materials are woven into the hair.

     Micro braids, or invisible braids, are a popular style among girls in South Sudan today. These are braids that are very thin - from a distance they appear to be threads woven into the hair. Once in place, micro braids will stay in place for months if left untouched. Below, students at St. Bakhita School in Narus, Sudan, are engaged in the art of hair braiding during their free time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

HIV and AIDS in South Sudan

     Sudan lies on the boundary between sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS is rampant, and North Africa where it is relatively rare. The civil war, which lasted more than two decades and only ended in 2005, effectively isolated the country and shielded it from the AIDS epidemic which affects neighboring countries to the south. Hence the HIV infection rate is comparatively low in Sudan. It’s estimated to be about 1.6% nationwide; however it is higher in the south, where it is estimated to be about 3.1%, and in some areas – particularly crowded towns located near the border with Uganda – it is much higher, possibly as high as 10%. Ironically, the coming of peace seems to have also brought changes that have increased the frequency of HIV: refugees and internally displaced people have returned to their homelands, and trade across the borders with neighboring countries has increased.

     Besides refugees and internally displaced people, the populations most at risk for HIV infection include sex workers, soldiers, truck drivers, and women and girls generally. Commercial sex work is common in many parts of South Sudan, especially in urban areas. Many of the prostitutes are from neighboring countries, but the ones who are Sudanese are mostly very young girls who have little knowledge of HIV and are unlikely to use condoms. Condoms are not available in many parts of the country in any case, and are often unaffordable.

     Knowledge and awareness of HIV is very low in South Sudan generally, with many people never having heard of the disease and most unaware of steps that can be taken to prevent the spread of it. In Sudanese culture, contracting a disease is often blamed on witchcraft or superstition. The spread of HIV is also aided by the practices of polygamy and widow inheritance: if a polygamous man contracts HIV, infects his wives and subsequently passes away, his widows will then be inherited by other polygamous men who will in turn contract the virus and spread it to their other wives.

     HIV is also passed from mothers to their babies. Without intervention, an infected mother will pass the virus to her baby 24-45% of the time. Many women in South Sudan don’t know that HIV can be passed from mother to child, and few of them are able to give birth in a facility equipped to do HIV testing.  

     A particularly deadly obstacle to the treatment and prevention of HIV is the characteristic of the disease that once infected, individuals generally appear to be healthy for some time afterward. They may remain apparently well for 8 or 10 years, and during this time infect many other people. Because of this, many healthcare facilities in Sudan have begun testing all incoming patients for HIV, regardless of the reason they come in for treatment. Early detection of the disease is key to preventing its spread.

     Pictured below is a patient at the Mary Immaculate Hospital in Mapuordit, who is dying of AIDS. This is one institution that tests all patients for HIV, and about 5% currently test positive. Many of the affected individuals identified refuse treatment however, presumably because they don’t understand what the consequences of this choice are. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Mapuordit, South Sudan

     Mapuordit (Mah-poor-deet’) is a small town located in central South Sudan. Twenty years ago, no one was living in Mapuordit. But in 1993, during the civil war, government soldiers bombed the town of Yirol, 80 kilometers away. People fled Yirol and went west, and eventually found a forested area safely off the main road, where they settled. The trees in the area obscured their huts from planes passing overhead and provided some security and peace during the war. After choosing the place where they would stay, the people sacrificed a grey and brown bull. The name of a large bull with this coloring in the Dinka language is “Mapuordit”, and the people named their town after the sacrificed bull.

     Today more than 30,000 people live in Mapuordit. They live clustered together in small  “compounds”, or groups of tukuls (huts), which are connected by a network of dirt footpaths. The tukuls are constructed by packing mud around a framework of sticks and adding a grass roof, and are sometimes raised six feet or so off the ground. Often a family will construct a small platform outside their tukul for preparing food, and store their pots and cooking equipment on a shelf made of sticks above the platform.

     While in Mapuordit, we visited a family living in a small, square tukul. Inside there were two twin-sized beds outfitted with mosquito netting along the side walls, a narrow space in between the beds with the door at one end of the space and a small table at the other; a radio/CD player sat on top of the table. Several suitcases were neatly piled up behind the heads of the beds; presumably the family’s possessions were stored inside. The family did their cooking outside, over a wood fire. Washed clothes were spread out on the roof to dry in the sun. There was no running water, no electricity, no toilet facility inside their tukul.  

     The small neighborhood-like compounds always seem to be full of people: older adults sitting under trees in the shade, women and children carrying water or loads of firewood home on their heads, individuals busy with household chores, and invariably lots of folks holding small children and babies. The photo below shows women and children gathered in a typical compound scene:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Shea Butter and Oil

     The shea tree (in Arabic, the lulu tree) grows across Africa in a narrow band lying south of the Sahara Desert. The tree lives for a long time – between 200 and 300 years - and grows abundantly in South Sudan, where it is revered. Lulu trees provide shade, their fruit is edible, and the nuts of the tree are used for oil and food. During Sudan’s long civil wars, when food was very scarce, the nuts helped many people survive. Children would collect the nuts, and their mothers made oil out of them. The calories and nutrients in the oil helped people stay alive. The nutritious oil is still a main source of food during the yearly dry season that lasts from November to May there.

     Today, some women’s groups in South Sudan have started businesses to make and market shea (or lulu) butter and/or its refined counterpart, shea oil. There are now a few dozen lulu nut processing centers in South Sudan owned and operated by women, who are considered to be the traditional guardians of the lulu tree. Typically each center employs about 20 women, who are often from different tribes. In order for their business to be successful, they must overlook their tribal differences and learn to work together and cooperate with each other. In return, they are building a peaceful living situation in their communities and enjoy a dependable and substantial source of income for their families.

     Typically, women now working in lulu nut processing used to eke out a living by selling meager produce from their gardens in the market, or by making beer and alcoholic drinks to sell. These activities did not produce enough money for them to send their children to school. With the extra money they earn from lulu nut processing, they can send their children to school and also enjoy a somewhat higher standard of living.

     Converting lulu nuts into butter and oil is hard work, and in Sudanese women’s cooperatives, it’s done by hand. First, the fruit which surrounds the nuts is removed, and the nuts are spread out to dry in the sun. Then the hard outer shells of the nuts are broken with sharp rocks and removed. The inner parts of the nuts are then pounded with heavy wooden pestles in a funduk to crush them. The flour formed by crushing the nuts is then roasted in huge pots over a fire, and during this process it must be constantly stirred. After roasting, water is added and the nuts are pounded in the funduk again to form a smooth paste. The paste is kneaded by hand, and then the oil is separated from the butter. Water is added to separate out the oil, which floats to the top of the mixture, where it is removed and the excess water is squeezed out. The oil is then boiled slowly over a fire, which evaporates any traces of remaining water. Meanwhile the butter, which remains in the roasting pan, is cooled and then formed into balls to be sold.

     In Africa, shea butter is used as cooking oil, as a wax for water proofing, for hairdressing and in making candles. It is said to have anti-inflammatory properties and so is also used in medicinal ointments. Companies outside Africa buy shea butter and oil to use in products such as skin moisturizers, salves, and lotions. It is also used in preparing foods - occasionally even the chocolate industry uses it, substituting it for cocoa butter!

     Some of the women in the women’s literacy groups supported by Mercy Beyond Borders in Rumbek, South Sudan, are experimenting with shea butter production in an effort to generate money and raise their standard of living. Below, a woman uses a pestle and funduk to pound the nuts into flour. If you haven’t seen shea butter for sale in the stores, perhaps you will soon – and maybe this woman will have had a part in making it! You may want to buy some and try it – shea butter goes on nicely, as it melts at body temperature and absorbs rapidly into the skin without leaving a greasy feeling, and is reported to be very good for the skin. Be sure that it carries the “Fair Trade Certified” label, which ensures that a fair portion of the proceeds go to the people who produced it. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Early Marriage of Young Girls in South Sudan

     Girls in South Sudan marry young – typically, at 12 or 14. In many tribes, girls are considered to be ready for marriage as soon as they reach puberty. Sometimes girls who do not feel they are ready for marriage will try to hide their periods for as long as possible. By the age of eighteen, a woman who is still single and without children will often be stigmatized as unmarriageable.

     For people living in South Sudan, marriage is generally not a choice, but an obligation. Everyone is expected to marry and raise a family. Men are generally encouraged to marry as many wives as possible toward this aim.

     Marriages are arranged, and there are several reasons parents may want to marry their daughters early: The groom’s family pays a “bride price” in cows to the girl’s family (the number of cows paid varies according to the tribe and region). Sources of income in South Sudan are limited, so there is a financial incentive to marry off daughters in order to collect the bride price.  In a poor family, an older girl may be seen as an economic burden for the family. Early marriage is also seen as a strategy to prevent girls from becoming pregnant outside of marriage, which is not well accepted. Parents may also think that marrying their daughter will help protect her from sexual assault, which was a common tactic during the civil war.

     Not uncommonly, girls are married to men much older than they are, or to men who already have one or more wives. Marriage nearly always means the end of education for girls who are attending school. It can lead to other problems too, such as complications of pregnancy and domestic abuse. Young girls whose bodies are not fully developed are more likely to develop problems during pregnancy and childbirth.

     The Child Act was passed into law in South Sudan in October 2008, which technically makes it illegal to force a girl under 18 to marry, and also illegal to prevent a girl who is a mother from continuing her education after one year of lactation. It does not prohibit early marriage per se, only forcing the girl to marry. However, many early marriages continue to take place despite the girl’s objections.

     Pictured below is a girl from St. Bakhita Primary School in Narus, Sudan. For now she remains unmarried and in school, but every year several of her classmates leave school at term breaks, are married off during the brief interval, and do not return when the school reopens. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Accelerated Learning Programs in South Sudan

     School in Southern Sudan is divided into two levels: Primary School, which consists of grades 1 through 8, and Secondary School, which includes Forms 1 through 4. In all states of South Sudan except Western Equatoria, less than five percent of children have completed Primary School; in Western Equatoria, the number is between 5 and 10 percent. Some of the reasons so few have completed even eight years of school include: a large number of people having been displaced from their homes due to war, famine, or poverty; a large number of people living a semi-nomadic lifestyle and the expectation that boys will spend time away from home in cattle camps; the need for girls to take responsibility for household chores; cultural attitudes and beliefs which do not emphasize academic learning; and a lack of schools, teachers, and supplies.

     In many parts of Africa including South Sudan, people who have had to leave school for a period of time – even for several years – and then desire to return to school go back to the same grade they were in when they left, even though they may now be many years older than other students in that grade. This results in undesirable situations in classrooms such as having 7 year olds studying alongside men in their twenties.

     The Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) has been developed as an alternative, faster system of learning for older children and adults. Eight years of primary school are condensed into four, with students typically attending school for only 3 to 4 hours per day. The condensed timetable enables older children who are studying in the lower grades to catch up with their peers, and girls are attracted to the reduced hours, which allows more time for them to complete their duties at home. As a result, a higher percentage of girls study in ALP programs than in normal primary school. This includes girls who are already mothers, which is notable – because traditionally, mothers attending school would not have been acceptable in their communities.   

     In addition to the regular syllabus taught in South Sudan Schools, the ALP curriculum also teaches life skills such as vocational skills, parenting skills, leadership, health education including HIV/AIDS, gender issues and peace building. ALP programs are resulting in rising literacy rates of young people, especially girls. They are also contributing to increased confidence, in particular for girls, and to youth of both genders being better prepared to be productive members of society. Mercy Beyond Borders is a proud supporter of ALP programs in the towns of Mapuordit and Boma, South Sudan.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Polio in South Sudan

     Polio is an infectious disease that is transmitted when one person ingests viral particles from the feces of another person.  This can happen when drinking water is contaminated, or when flies that have lit on feces then land on food that is subsequently consumed. In most people polio infections cause no symptoms, but if the virus enters the blood stream a variety of symptoms can result. If it enters the central nervous system, paralysis can occur. About 1 in 200 polio cases results in permanent paralysis and of those, 5 to 10 percent result in death.

     No new cases of polio were seen in Sudan from 2004 until 2008, and the country was considered polio-free. Unfortunately in 2008, an outbreak resulted in 27 cases of the disease. Refugees returning from other countries were probably responsible for re-introducing the disease to Sudan. After the polio virus re-emerged, UNICEF and WHO initiated a program to vaccinate nine million Sudanese children. Along with the polio vaccine, Vitamin A is administered, which helps to strengthen their immunity against all diseases.

     In 2009, 45 new cases of polio were registered – 40 of them in South Sudan.

     In southern Sudan, it is very difficult to reach many of the children living in remote areas – less than 50 km of paved road surface exist in the whole region. In addition, it is hard to keep track of who has been vaccinated and who has not, because many people move from place to place often in order to find good grazing land for their cattle or in search of more fertile land to farm.

     One duty of the nursing interns at the Kuron Peace Village Clinic is to walk up to remote Toposa villages in the hills surrounding Kuron, bringing polio vaccinations to administer to the children who live there. Some of the interns can be seen below, marking the fingernail of a child who has been vaccinated to distinguish him from those who have not yet received the vaccine.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Holy Trinity Peace Village

     In 1997, Bishop Paride Taban started the Peace Village in Kuron, which lies close to the Ethiopian border in the extreme southeastern corner of Sudan. The name of the village, Peace, was chosen because it was his dream to promote peace among the various tribes living in the area. The tribes are descended from common ancestors, speak related languages and live by similar customs, but consider each other traditional enemies because of competition for natural resources – water and grazing land for their cattle – and because they regularly conduct raids to abduct each other’s cattle.

     The main activities of the Peace Village are a school, a farm, and cultural and sports activities for youth. There is also a clinic on the Peace Village property, which provides the only medical care for many miles around. People from different tribes participate in these activities together, providing an opportunity to build peaceful relationships and trust among one another.

     Below is a photograph of women learning to farm at the Peace Village. Traditionally people in the area lived as nomadic pastoralists, a lifestyle that limits the foods that can be cultivated to eat. By learning new farming methods, it is hoped that the people will be able to grow more to eat, will have better health as a result of a more balanced diet, and will be able to earn some money by selling surplus food – which should reduce cattle raiding activity. Some of the farming skills taught are using oxen to plow the land, improved varieties of seeds that can be used, and animal husbandry.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

South Sudanese Cities Bracing for Influx of Returnees from the North

     During the 21 year-long civil war between the north and south in Sudan, about four million people left their homes in the south and fled to northern Sudan or neighboring countries. Following the peace agreement in 2005, about half of these returned to their home territories in the south. Many of them are still living in makeshift homes fashioned out of scavenged materials and have no regular employment. Of those southerners who left the south during the fighting and did not return immediately after the peace agreement, large numbers began coming home in late 2010, shortly before the referendum vote which they expected to result in a free South Sudan. Among them are many people who may have difficulty adjusting to a new life in the south: young people who were born in the north or who lived most of their life there, and grew up speaking Arabic and living according to the customs of the north; children who are returning home without adult family members accompanying them; and elderly and disabled people who have special needs.

     Many of these people had been living in Khartoum for many years and are used to urban life, and so are choosing to settle in cities when they return to the south. Southern Sudanese cities are preparing for a massive influx of people: Rumbek, for example, which has a population of around 100,000 people, is expecting 30,000 new arrivals.

     Such a huge increase in population so suddenly is expected to put a lot of strain on southern cities, which already have very weak infrastructures. The UNHCR is working to provide some support to both the returnees and the communities that are receiving them. Southern cities are also doing what they can to prepare to receive them – we were awakened early in the morning by the shouting of hundreds of new police recruits as they participated in a hasty training course across the road from our compound in Rumbek, for example – but there is still concern about problems that so many new inhabitants may create.

     The photo below shows a family returning home via a main road in Rumbek – however these people are probably returning home from the market, not from Khartoum.

Friday, January 28, 2011

First Impressions of South Sudan

     In November and early December of 2010 I went to Sudan with Sr. Marilyn Lacey, who founded Mercy Beyond Borders - a nonprofit organization that works to improve education and business opportunities for girls and women in South Sudan. We traveled around to visit some of the projects the organization funds, including St. Bakhita School in Narus, the Peace Village and clinic in Kuron, Rumbek town, the schools and hospital in Mapuordit, Don Bosco School in Tonj, and also spent time in Nairobi before returning home. Probably the most extreme experience we had was visiting the Toposa people in southeastern Sudan. Many of the Toposa live in isolated villages in their traditional lifestyle, which includes living in small huts made of sticks and grass, tending their goats and cattle, wearing lots of beadwork, and intricate body scarring. The Toposa lifestyle is completely different from ours but they were very welcoming and happy to see us.

     We stayed in Rumbek for a week and a half; it’s a few hundred miles to the west, out of Toposa territory - most people around there are Dinka. Like the Toposa, the Dinka are goat and cattle herders. Rumbek was bombed during the war and you can still see the bombed out walls of brick buildings surrounded by rubble, but now the dominant structures are the small huts most people live in. From the air, you can see that Rumbek is surrounded for miles by these small, hand-built huts. The population has swelled since the end of the war with many displaced people moving into the town, and several tens of thousands more were expected to move into Rumbek from Northern Sudan when the vote for separation took place January 9 - 15, 2011. Many southerners who had sought refuge in the north were expected to move back to the south for this event.

     There is also a very noticeable presence of foreign workers in Rumbek, riding in trucks with names like U.N. or World Food Programme or UNHCR painted on the side. I got the impression that everything in South Sudan is run by foreigners – from these aid agencies to the clinics to the schools. Rumbek is a large town – about 100,000 people – but it doesn’t have a single paved road, not even a small section of road. In town the dirt roads are graded and maintained but outside town the roads are in bad shape, with many big potholes, so there are no cars there - all the vehicles are trucks or Land Cruisers, along with a few motorbikes. And there are always lots of people walking along the road.

     Returning to development and cleanliness in Nairobi after a few weeks in Sudan seemed strange. I found I missed Sudan, where so much building is makeshift, where dirt is everywhere because it blows into all the buildings through the pane-less windows, where everyone is very thin and most people are wearing worn and somewhat dirty clothing, where it is always very hot and there are insects everywhere, where we ate the same food all the time because it is so isolated and hard to get food supplies in. What really hooked me in Sudan was the extreme friendliness of the people and their spirit. People will walk up to you on the street to shake your hand and say “hi” – and almost everyone does this. Their spirit shows in their singing, drumming and dancing, which they do with great energy and feeling, in church and whenever they get together. We ran into a surprising number of people who spoke English - anyone who has completed primary school is reasonably fluent in English - but only a small percentage have completed primary school.

     I am eager to return to Sudan in the future. I’d like to go to a school for a month or so and help out with English classes, tutor students, and make myself useful in any way I can. Sudanese are eager to learn and make contact with the rest of the world. We’ll see how the referendum vote goes and whether peace prevails afterwards. No one I met was planning to vote for unity - the southern Sudanese are tired of being second-class citizens and they want their own country. There are fears for violence, however, if the vote is for separation. Many better-off southern Sudanese were moving to Kenya or Uganda, fearing violence; and almost all the foreign workers I met were leaving before the vote, planning to stay out of the country for a while to see what happens before returning. I hope with all my heart that it works out well and they do not return to war.

     If you are interested in learning about South Sudan, take a look at my blog periodically. I’ll be posting bits and pieces of my experience, along with some background information about Sudan. Welcome and Enjoy!