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!

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