Category Archives: South Sudan

Sudan’s Lost Generation

Over greasy McDonald’s French fries and soda, a meal we could never have shared in his native Sudan due to international sanctions, I sit down with Nabeel Mohamed to hear the story of his descent into fanaticism, and his escape out of it. “See, I was tolerant, then I became fanatic, and now I’m tolerant again,” he says in measured tones as we eat lunch at the Voice of America office where he works. His story is not an action-packed thriller of terrorist networks and grandiose plots to change the world order, but a story of insidious forms of extremism that emerge from intellectual repression and social restriction.

Gentle-mannered and quick to laugh, Mohamed, 23, always has a book tucked under his arm as he moves through his temporary home of Washington, DC. Currently, he is reading a history of Eastern Europe, simply because he realized that he knew nothing about that part of the world. Mohamed carries on Sudan’s history of a vibrant intellectual life with his love of books. At a reading in Sudan in the 1960s, the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani paid homage to this tradition with the saying: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Khartoum reads.”

However, the generations who have come of age under the 24-year-long rule of autocratic President Omar al-Bashir, like Mohamed, are the “lost generations.” Their exposure to the outside world has been limited due to conscious self-restriction and circumstances resulting from growing up amid censorship; an onslaught of government propaganda; religious and social close-mindedness; and sanctions by the international community. Those who have struggled to find and keep Sudan’s intellectual tradition alive have done so out of sheer determination in the face of social and political obstacles.

“My father and his generation used to read all sorts of books – foreign ideologies, stories, all sorts of things. I don’t know if it’s from the government, but the west has been characterized in our minds as bad and evil – that they want us to abandon our culture, our religion, so we’re not even open to reading their books. Even the ones translated into Arabic, we put labels on that author – he’s a communist, he doesn’t believe in God, or he’s an agent, so why would we read that,” Mohamed says.

While much of Sudan, including Mohamed’s own family, follows a more mystical form of Islam, Sufism, Mohamed grew to follow an ultraorthodox version of Islam thorough the Salafist group, Ansar as-Sunnah, or “followers of the Prophet Mohammad,” during his teenage years in Khartoum. The group is known for its commitment to preserving the “authentic” ways of the Prophet, relying only on the religion’s doctrinal foundations: the Quran and hadith, or teachings of the Prophet.

Mohamed’s involvement with Ansar as-Sunnah was a drastic departure from his childhood life. He was born in the border town of Wau, a major trading post between northern and southern Sudan, where his extended family was made up of both Christians and Muslims. While he attended a Quranic school from the age of three onwards, he also sometimes attended church with his relatives.

In 1998, the civil war, which had been raging since 1982 between southern rebels and the northern government, came to Wau displacing the imaginary creatures of Mohamed’s childhood stories with dead bodies. The onset of government and rebel fighting in Wau sparked a campaign of indiscriminate violence by the government against the southerner population, many of whom had sided with the rebels.

Growing up, Mohamed avidly watched the ruling regime’s television shows of the epic heroism of northerner martyrs against the unruly, rebellious southerners, but the northern-southern divisions were more ambiguous in Mohamed’s own life. His father is a northerner, and his mother a southerner from Wau. While his paternal uncle left Wau to join the war on the government side, his father helped save a southern schoolteacher from possible death at the hands of the army. As the onslaught on Wau worsened, the family eventually fled to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, which remained untouched by the fighting.

Early within the regime’s grasp, Khartoum had willingly caved to the Islamization and Arabization policies of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), which was intent on building an Islamic state. Unlike the NCP, which fused religion and politics, Ansar as-Sunnah often shied away from politics. Instead, they were committed to gradual systemic reform through education and proselytizing. Entering his teenage years, Mohamed attended the Ansar as-Sunnah mosque at the invitation of a neighbor. The more he started paying attention to the preachers there, the more fanatic he became.

He started to view his father’s Sufi religious beliefs as wrong; he refused to greet female relatives with a handshake; speaking to women outside of the family was unthinkable; and Christians became categorized as “non-believers,” instead of family. Drawn to their fierce devotion and tradition of religious knowledge, Mohamed came to refuse everything outside of Ansar as-Sunnah’s narrow paradigm. His mentor at the mosque often spoke about the vitality of educating the people to eventually build a nation, and Mohamed became determined to fortify himself with the knowledge to defend his beliefs.

Insatiably curious, he mastered formal and Quranic Arabic, which differs significantly from spoken Arabic dialects. Mohamed learned that even speaking English, which was haphazardly taught as a second language in schools, was against Islam, since it was believed that knowing a foreign language might taint the purity of one’s Arabic.

However, as he entered his late teen years, a childhood best friend and competitor had started to study English and was excelling beyond Mohamed’s rudimentary grammar school knowledge. Egged on by his best friend, Mohamed, too, began attending English classes.

When pushed about why he pursued English, he simply responds, “I felt the need.”

At the mosque, Mohamed’s best friend, who loved to practice, would push him to converse in English. “We caused a big scene the first time, people were very curious, people would come around and keep staring. But he didn’t care, and with time I learned not to care,” Mohamed recalls.

Starting to learn English unleashed a torrent of irreconcilable confusions for Mohamed. Contrary to the idea that learning English caused demise, he realized, “It’s just a language. People communicate ideas with it, what’s wrong with that?” On the one hand, Mohamed felt plagued that he was doing something wrong by learning English, especially as it was starting to undercut his religious beliefs. On the other hand, he could not understand how he could be dismissive of something he knew nothing about.

Initially, Mohamed was condescending when he read through his English-language coursework, which focused significantly on the western lifestyle. “At first I would think I know for sure that our lifestyle is better, that they don’t know what they’re doing. But I started to be challenged when I would be struck by a statement or have an epiphany, and something would make sense, but it’s not supposed to make sense, but it does.”

Reflectively he adds, “It was thought provoking for me. I started thinking and thinking. People are free, they travel, they do this and that. We’re not free. We’re not even free to express ourselves. Intellectually we weren’t free. Socially we weren’t free. Growing up, I had always wondered about the existence of God, and I always feared that deep down inside, I was a nonbeliever. But shaitan, the devil, was always to be blamed for sowing the seeds of doubt.”

Pursuing his study of English, Mohamed became involved in an English language book club and open microphone nights at the German Goethe Institute. There were few places for Mohamed to feel he could discuss and think freely without a filter for social and political reasons. Khartoum’s youth have almost no cultural gathering places, and those that do exist are on the National Intelligence’s radar as possible hubs of political dissent.

All of these gatherings and discussions challenged Mohamed’s thinking far beyond what his religious books had taught him. He describes the transformation from “fanatic to tolerant again” as gradual. An event he would react to in real time could provoke weeks of contemplation. “When I thought about my life, I realized how unfulfilled I was, how closed off, and how there was an entire world that I pretended I didn’t care about, and without being conscious of it, I started slipping out of it,” he adds.

Mohamed now finds himself in the bureaucratic center of the Western world where is he is on a fellowship dedicated to a year of building non-profit leadership skills. Although the freedoms and opportunities of D.C. are coveted, Mohamed finds it difficult to not be preoccupied with recent events in Sudan.

On September 22, President Bashir mandated the removal of fuel subsidies, a measure supported by the International Monetary Fund as part of its austerity plan for Sudan. The cutting of subsidies has caused the prices of fuel and food to almost double, and an already beleaguered population from the worsening economic hardship has taken to the streets in the latest round of anti-government demonstrations.

Far from Khartoum’s dusty, broad avenues, Mohamed works to verify the death tolls in the anti-government protests rocking the streets in Khartoum. Amnesty International has reported more than 200 killed and 800 arrested since the protests started on September 23, but the actual numbers are believed to be higher.

The protests are a continuation of previous demonstrations, which erupted in January 2011 as the Arab Spring swept through the region, and then later during the “Sudanese Summer” of 2012. The root frustration for many, including Mohamed, is with the ruling Islamist regime of the NCP, which took power in 1989 after overthrowing a democratically elected transitional government. Marginalization, war, growing inequality, and a sophisticated brutality have marked the regime’s decades-long rule.

“It’s weird,” Mohamed says, “to be covering the protests. I struggle to stay professional and not get carried away. It’s one thing to watch on the news, Egypt or Syria, but when it’s happening to your people, and you’re making sure that your younger brother wasn’t out, you feel the weight of it.”

When asked if he will go back to Sudan, Mohamed, goes quiet for a minute, “I might not be able to live comfortably in Sudan, or with the mentality in Sudan. It’s just the way people are. Having to repress yourself, your thoughts, your views, is just not something I can live with.” His family, who he speaks with regularly, still does not know fully about his reformed views out of his desire to maintain a harmonious relationship. While they are relatively open in their religious views, Mohamed’s growing distance, if not altogether departure, from religion, may not be taken well.

As we click through pictures of bloodied-bodied protestors on Flickr, Mohamed expresses hope, if not belief, that just maybe, these protests might lead to something different. “After these protests, I want to be part of rebuilding Sudan, regardless of whether or not they’re successful. If Bashir goes, then it’s more important. If he doesn’t, then we’ll keep doing what we’ve always been doing.”

Due in part to his frustration with Sudan’s politicians, and in part to his training under Ansar as-Sunnah, he prefers an unassuming, subversive form of rebellion.

“For me that means becoming a teacher, to have a chance to give students what I didn’t have in many ways. Through education, you’re giving them the tools to see for themselves.”

A shorter version of this article was originally published by Al-Monitor on October 24, 2013. 

Nothing Comes to Those Who Wait

The meeting place of the Blue and White Niles, Khartoum, derives from two different linguistic traditions. From Dinka, part of the Nilotic dialect cluster, “khar” are the  branches of a river, and “toum” means meet. In Arabic, a Semitic language, “khartoum” is the trunk of an elephant. This convergence, known as the longest kiss in history, fuses what exists with those who have existed here.

Half an hour outside of the capital, far from the banks of the river, are the settlements of Jabrona, Mayo, and Soba.  There are people here who just sit and wait. Under blue tarps, they take shelter from the scorching sun eager to set flesh smoldering – the way red-hot coals glow in the shishas of smokey men tucked away in back alleys, hidden from the morality police.

Skeletal figures, sunken eyed emerge from modernity’s art of plastic chairs, tables, and beds amassed together by rope and protected from the dust by blue tarp. This is where they sit and wait, where they have sat and waited since last November. Last November was when they first received word from their “chiefs” or “sultans” to prepare for an organized exodus to South Sudan. It is now March.

Power lines stopped snaking alongside the road long ago. Boys on donkey carts deliver water to people’s houses, at least for those who have houses. There are tall Dinka men missing their front teeth, Nubans from South Kordofan with their squashed noses and high cheekbones, and lanky, slit-eyed Darfuris adorned in abayas. Almost every group that the government has fought, and who has fought the government, has found its way here.

A family of elders from Warrap have given up their home and their land in preparation to travel south. They squat on someone else’s land fearing everyday, that today, they will be thrown off the cracked, barren earth.

The South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC), responsible for transporting the returnees is currently negotiating with international agencies and embassies over money in the donor basket fund. Already contributed funds have disappeared plagued by a hushed up scandal. The government in Khartoum has made vague promises of assistance to transport people as far the border, but wants nothing to do with the whole exercise.

Every so often, Bashir scapegoats the Southerners to rile the sodden spirits of the rest of the country. Those who do not “return” to the South will enjoy no rights of citizenship, jobs, or benefits after July 9th. For many Sudanese classified as Southerners, the term returnee is problematic. Their supposed return home may in fact be their first trip to South Sudan. For those born in the North, they have known no other home.

Some of the state branches of the SSRRC responsible for receiving the returnees upon their arrival in South Sudan have flatly informed international agencies that the returnees are not their problem. They are the responsibility of the international community. South Sudan’s government at all levels will continue this trend of disowning responsibility for its people, whether returnees or IDPs.

Yet, from the streets of Khartoum, the presence of Southerners has still quietly disappeared as July approaches. Better off returnees have started to ship their families and belongings back on the numerous flights traversing between Khartoum and Juba each day. Airfares have hiked up, and tickets that could once be purchased days before, must now be bought weeks in advance. Children attired in their Sunday best – frocks of frilled lace and dapper suits – bumble along between the suitcases and plastic carrying bags plastered with images of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and President Obama.

Those with meager resources, but intent and lucky enough have made it to the river port city of Kosti, crowd into transit centers. From here, the International Organization for Migration operates cavernous, rusted barges in conditions worse off than Gordon Kitchener’s. In the next week, seven barges – three packed with human cargo and four with material belongings – and donkeys – will begin the journey southward on the White Nile, leaving behind forever the longest kiss in history.

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.

Why?

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!


Sarsibo

Leisurely approaching the half-dozing wildlife officer with a wide smile, I casually introduce myself. We exchange greetings over our handshake, and I curiously inquire about the officer’s wide-eyed, hairy companion.

Cautiously, I hold out my hand Aladdin-style (“do you trust me”), but Sarsibo’s not shy at all. Carefree, he takes my hand, drops it, puts two little hands on my lower thighs, and then plasters his entire body against my calves in a half-hug. He pushes back a bit and lifts up both arms, a two-year-old child insistent on being picked up. Hoisted up into my arms, he settles at my hip, locks his arms and legs around me and contentedly snuggles his head into my chest. Gently stroking his coarse (and likely flea-ridden) hair, I inquiringly peer into cognizant hazel eyes. More overwhelmed by curiosity and awe than him, I pry open his hand and wonderingly compare it with mine. Long, brown, wrinkled, furry fingers tangle with stubby, tan, Coke-bottle shaped fingers. They really are the same.

Unhesitatingly trusting, he stays put in my arms, securely nestled in, and enjoys the loving as though it is the most natural occurrence in the animal kingdom for him to be wrapped in my arms. While my distinctive skin color inspires frightened tears from human children and cruel mockery from adults in South Sudan, in this three-year-old chimpanzee my unfamiliar appearance evokes absolutely nothing.

Are we humans equally capable of accepting differences?

Predictably cliché, Abbas, our goofy-grandfatherly driver, holds out a small banana from afar. Is it really possible to meet a monkey and not offer it a banana?

Abbas, who has been watching me with a disgusted frown-smile, thinks I’m a khawaja (foreigner) out of my mind with no standards of cleanliness. A chimp after my own heart, Sarsibo loses all interest in anything but the food. He grabs the banana, rips into it with teeth and hands, and hops out of my arms to devour the banana alone. Sharing is not on the agenda.

Banana finished, playtime commences. He grabs my hands, and my body becomes the launchpad for his acrobatics of somersaults, side-flips, and handstands. He ends up cradled in my arms like a docile baby, and we begin a face-making war – sticking out tongues, opening mouths full of matching teeth, and scrunching up noses. A furry little hand moves up as though to sweetly caress my cheek, but mischievously detours and tries to lodge a finger in my nose instead. Unhappy at being refused my nose, Sarsibo flips sideways, uses his hand-like feet to hold my arms while his hands dangle at my feet; then bored, he jumps away altogether.

Sarsibo follows the rope around his neck to its wooden post, scares away the little kids surrounding him merely by approaching them, mock karate fights with the wildlife officer, and then lops back to me swinging on his fists. He pulls on my hands, leads me a short distance, lies down, and then tries to tug me down while swinging a fist. My genetic cousin seems to need a sibling for a wrestling match as much as I do.

An iPod for a Cow?

Ambling under the shade of a tree canopy on Yirol’s main street, we lazily ‘observe’ the struggle of a hulking disgruntled cow against a tall, thin, distinctively Dinka man fighting to reign it in. The trees, like much else here, were brought by the British from one of their many eastern colonies. Nepal, Burma, Malaysia? Almost all of the permanent structures in Yirol, the second largest town in Lakes State, are remnants of British colonization. Weathered stones, missing glass panes, thickly rusted screens. These severely dilapidated buildings are the primary structures utilized by government authorities. A pragmatic decision to employ already existing structures instead of starting from scratch.

While South Sudan relies on the UN as life support, one continent over, this approach of advancing what already exists may lead to the UN Security Council’s newest member.

One of the reasons given for the success of India’s thriving economy is the institutional and infrastructural penetration of British colonization. When transitioning to independent statehood, the structural skeleton needed for modern day statehood was already in place, but required takeover by already British-trained Indian elites and civil servants. The project inherited was not so much of state-building, as state-molding – with the goal of reshaping the system to suit the desires and needs of an independent India.

As the Crown’s jewel, the nature and extent of colonization in India drastically differed from Britain’s other colonies – places like South Sudan where a more indirect model was used. Here, ‘chiefs’ were either selected or created by the British in communities where such hierarchies did not exist in order to collect taxes.

This historical lack of involvement in Yirol is evident. Colonization here does not appear to extend beyond the bare bones necessary for revenue extraction, along with some minimal agricultural and forestry endeavors.

Now, as South Sudan struggles for the independence to form its own state, the legacies of a ‘traditional’ system are vying against the ‘bureaucratic’ system for authority. Academics and policy-makers are struggling to fashion a functional governance system by fusing the two.

The present day Dinka, the dominant tribe in South Sudan comprised of numerous sub-clans, are stuck in this perceived dichotomy between tradition and modernity.

It is not uncommon to find a naked man, topless woman, or Dinka of any age going about their daily chores covered in ash left over from cow dung fires as cows are highly revered. The Dinka creation myth tells that as a gift, God offered the first Dinka man and woman a choice between cows and a mysterious object called the “What.” In their wisdom and gratitude, the Adam and Eve-like figures chose the cow which would provide them with meat, milk, and wealth.

Crucial to survival, cows are the source of both wealth and honor in society. If money is somehow acquired, it is normally used to purchase more cows. As cows are the currency, they are absolutely necessary to reach the goal shared by all life forms, reproduction. Dowries must include a cattle payment, if not be the sole form of payment.

Cattle-raiding between neighboring tribes, or sub-clans in the case of Yirol, occurs frequently. The causes are unclear and differ in each region – local rivalries, rising dowry prices, bored and armed young men. Currently there is a standoff between East and West Yirol counties; residents of one county do not enter another county for fear of being shot.

Barring the political elite and some of the people living in town, many of the Dinka have resisted integration into the cash-economy. Even the assimilated keep a stock of cows cared for by brothers, cousins, and uncles in their village. Businesses are owned and managed primarily by Kenyans and Ugandans.

Some of the Dinka are geographically isolated from the cash economy because they live in inaccessible places. However, large groups of cattle herders often travel in and out of towns moving their cattle with them. They set up temporary cattle camps assembling tents of twisted branches and tattered scraps of vibrant cloth. When the water supply finishes, they move on to the next place with their herd of hundreds if not thousands of cows (no exaggeration). An average cow is valued at SDG1000 (roughly $300); yet, there are people who bathe in mud puddles on the side of the road, at least look as if they barely have enough to eat, and can carry their few belongings with them.

In an era where authoritarianism was acceptable, whether from a local or outside ruler, a population could have been forcefully integrated (i.e. had their mode of life disrupted) in the name of modernization. In the era of human rights and protecting indigenous populations, people are, to some extent, left as they are until they choose otherwise.

At least some of the Dinka have some exposure to the life available in towns – one with the possibility of education, safety, and food security – but they have still chosen to lock away their wealth in cattle. This element of choice in a lifestyle that partially depends on WFP food drops and USAID shipments presents a conundrum. Barring circumstances of natural disaster – droughts, floods, heatwaves – is there an obligation to give international aid since this lifestyle is a choice? Which leads to the questions, who makes that choice in the power structure, and is it really everyone’s choice?

Some of the youth are challenging traditions by refusing tribal scarring and seeking out access to conventional education and jobs. They desire the connectivity offered via recently purchased Chinese cell phones, Ugandan beats on their mp3 players, and soccer team updates via the internet.

Others defiantly cling to the ways of their ancestors. Bands of roaming armed young men still scour the land in search of lush grazing pastures for their cattle. Proudly, they weekly join in the rituals of wrestling and dancing to show off their prowess.

There are individuals who understand the value of both, but so far, they seem to be few and far in between.

I do wonder: if the latrines, hygiene, and the constant supply of food available with converting some cows to cash, have not appealed to many people, will it be the technological gadgets – cell phones, mp3 players, satellite dishes, computers – and a desire for global connectivity that will lure the curious, younger ones into the cash-economy, and ultimately slowly pull the rest of society into a different way of life?

(The author understands the problems with generalizing “the Dinka” as, in the very wise words of her tenth grade world history teacher, “there are no monolithic groups.” The term here is used for the sake of communicative clarity and refers to the people she encountered in Lakes State.)

The Pineapple Dispatch

Hiccups resolved, our wonky-eyed, tender hearted, curmudgeony security officer waves us to the road leading west. Always west. Jostled human cargo, I wave back from in between coolers of Ugandan sausages, test prep books, and never-to-be-used camping equipment. But we’re in Africa. T-I-A, that’s what DiCaprio said. Best have a tent on you.

Tally-ho onwards to Yambio!

Thump, thump, clunk.  Flat tire number one. Goofy, grandfatherly Abbas hops out of the car with the amiable-just-getting-to-know-you-enthusiasm of starting a new job, laughs his little chuckle, and changes the tire with minimal grunting.

FernGully. Luscious, overflowing life spills onto the dusty-easily-turned-into-mud-road. Palm trees, banana trees, and papaya trees. Blooming sunflowers. Bursts of shocking reds, pinks, and purples with calming whites negotiating between the loudly chattering flowers.

Flat tire number two. We pullover, and a smilingly-grumbling Abbas patches it up for now. No one but us here to help.

We drown in effervescent sunshine even as grey-purple rain clouds loom overhead, following us, on their way to Yambio, too.

Abbas gestures towards the few bizarrely shaped mountains we pass. The Zande, spread between the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, defeated a neighboring tribe there in a ferocious battle long ago, but not too long ago. Histories are living things.

Mundri. Flat tire number three. My observer colleague beelines for the beer after a communicative grunt, and a wilting Abbas chats with the tire-repair guys. I hang around the sitt as-shai failing to make friends, anticipating my Equatorian, not Ethiopian, jabana.

Night’s blanket settles thickly around us. Generators roar. No power here. Watch your step.

Ugandan gangaro (red kidney beans) and rice. Roasted goat meat. Warm Coke and beer. Abbas is unexpectedly reunited with the Ugandan lady who worked for his family in Juba. Oooooooooo-O. She left their house one day without a word.

Made-in-India glucose biscuits sold by Ethiopians. Juice boxes sold by Somalis. Bananas and honey from the women settled on the side of the road. Snacks for the rest of the journey.

Little boys chase the car, angrily demanding “one pound, one pound.” Others put on a show and dance a jig.

Yambio, finally. We round a field of baby pineapples still lost in the vastness of the plant’s leaves. The state flag, embellished with a pineapple in this lauded fruit’s honor, proudly waves in the wind.

Pool halls, pubs, restaurants, and trash cans with public service messages. For SDG200, Yambio’s Tourist Hotel can bake you a birthday cake – vanilla cake with vanilla frosting.

Everything here seems more permanent. There’s potential. The security of a sedentary existence. Tukuls are made of stacked, interlocked bricks, not cool mud molded, dried and smoothed together. Many plots have erected at least one cement structure detailed with white molding and a tin roof for cover.

Our house is a palace formerly occupied by UN peacekeepers. Our landlady decked in gold. Veranda, TV, DVD player, a water tank for running water, refrigerator, tiled floors, and a generator. Sounds of chattering families, crowing chickens, and giggling children filter in and out all day.

Still no power in the state capital. All of the state capitals in northern Sudan have city power.

Darfuri women sell onions, tomatoes, limes, lemons, potatoes, papayas, mangos, bananas, while men in jalabiyas manage the mosque and their Radio Shack kiosks.

A Chinese Mary Kay recruits young Equatorians to be salesmen for their herbal medications. Enough sales, and they’ll send the lucky salesman somewhere abroad.

Word of a recent LRA attack circulates on the rumor mill, words enough to send people fleeing.

Hipster sighting. Skinny jeans, plaid shirt, and rectangular glasses.

An all girls soccer match happens once a week. The audience is slimmer than the throngs who come to the soccer field morning and afternoon to watch the men’s team play and practice. Little girls and their dolls watch the action instead.

Cool climate, arable land, and a salient message. Missionaries liked it here a hundred years ago; still do today. The Zande pride themselves on being the most literate tribe in South Sudan. Irked at their limited representation in Juba, rumblings and murmurings of another independence will continue through the birth pangs of the independent Republic of South Sudan.

There’s a bustling energy here. A sense of moving forward and getting things done step by step.

Six years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and a promise to make unity attractive, Khartoum’s still too stubborn to look past the tip of its own nose to be interested in developing the economic potential of southern Sudan. Six years after the promise of an independent country, the southern political elite almost have unmatched power in their clutches. Autonomous instead of semi-autonomous. Powerful instead of powersharing.

On 9 January 2011, the decision to move from southern Sudan to South Sudan will be made. A decision to write its own history, a decision to shoulder all responsibility for its future.

Juban Hallucinations

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In the company of three Dutch filmmakers, my boss, a fellow election observer, and I were whisked away in a bright red Hummer to a ‘local concert.’ We trailed after the film crew following one of Juba’s richest ex-pat war profiteers. With us was his retired American military officer friend who was training the SPLA. He was busy exclaiming “we own this f**king place” to anyone in sight, including the SPLA. Much to our bemusement, we ended up in the VIP lounge of Ugandan rappers, Bread and Butter.