A Referendum

After almost three decades of fighting and two million dead, the people of Yambio joyously, laughingly, grinningly rush through the red earthen streets – skipping, scurrying, running, crawling, dancing, shaking – releasing puffs of red fairy dust after each buoyant step. The UN’s Radio Miraya blares away on the radio, and R. Kelly bellows, “I see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I can feel heaven in its place, and that’s the sign of a victory.”

Jubilation is a tangible force moving among us. The long awaited purging of too many emotions – nervousness, hope, sorrow, fear, joy, liberation, longing, expectation, disappointment, anticipation, excitement, weightlessness, weightiness – culminates into a rumble, tumble, jumble of infectious feeling floating in the air molecules.

Our landlady vowed to be waiting in line at the polling center next to the Governor’s office by 3am. Kampala, Khartoum, Nairobi. Veronica is one of the lucky few who left Yambio to study in faraway places. Now, she’s finally returned to South Sudan to build a small real estate empire and become an MP in her family’s locality, Tambura, hundreds of kilometers away from the county seat.

With the characteristic childish enthusiasm for the not-quite-comprehensible-things of the adult world, her three children, on Christmas holiday from their Kampala boarding school, toppled over themselves with promises to accompany their mother. For this, they can even manage a hiatus from their Nollywood addiction. 

Since I first stepped foot in South Sudan a year ago, freedom has been the appetizingly sweet savory glorious word on everyone’s tongue. Everything that came before – the war, the peace agreement, the election – it was all for liberation from the deathly shackles of the ‘racist, enslaving, dishonest Arabs.’ The more politically correct still distinguish between the northern regime and the citizenry, but in hushed voices, they reiterate that all of the Arabs – a questionable classification considering the diversity of northern Sudan’s inhabitants – are the same.

Through beaming grins and radiant faces, even as they professed their hatred of a neighboring tribe, everyone in South Sudan will tell you the same thing: once the South Sudanese are free on July 9th, everything will be fine. The more attuned politicians from Rumbek to Yambio remind me confidently, as I am an American, that once the South Sudanese vote for separation, that we, the Americans will come to help them.


Irritated by my question, they ask if I really am from America. My hair is black, my eyes brown, and I look suspiciously Arab.

Persistent, I press. So, why will we, the Americans, come to help them?

Because the South Sudanese and the Americans are brothers, and the South Sudanese need help. Besides, as the Yambio County Commissioner impatiently explains to the idiotic foreigner seated in front of him: the Americans wanted the South Sudanese to vote for independence from the North so they could come to help them.

We watch as another haboba tediously places her thumbprint next to the lone hand, the symbol of separation. Unity is represented by the interlocking of two hands, but everyone knows not to pick that.

On the chalkboard behind the polling staff are lines written by some unfortunate person being disciplined. In this classroom turned polling center, they are a reminder of old legacies and new precedents: ‘All the fathers of Bishop Comboni, stand up right now to praise Comboni. Bishop Comboni, he love Africa, he come to Africa, to save Africa. He love Africa, he come to Africa, he die in Africa to save Africa.’

To save Africa.

South Sudan ooooooyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyye!


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