Down a long and difficult road

As the newest country in the world, South Sudan faces huge challenges. But the perseverance of the people and their determination to construct a functioning state raise hopes for the country's future.
Peter Stemp
22 March 2011

Life in South Sudan has changed dramatically since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. With peace, development has started to emerge, notably a network of roads that has connected once isolated areas with the rest of the region. These roads symbolize the future of the newest country in the world; a potentially prosperous future, coupled with the potholes of a difficult reality. Two weeks ago, I traveled the approximately 425 km stretch of road between Juba and Yambio for my work as a Project Officer for Solidarity with Southern Sudan (SSS), a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) dedicated to health, pastoral, and teacher training.


Juba, South Sudan 0630 hrs

It’s still dark and we are leaving Juba for Yambio, some 425 km west of the southern capital. Darkness enshrouds our Land-Cruiser as we bounce through the city streets. The challenges of this new nation are well known: lack of reliable transportation; lack of basic services; fear of outbreaks of violence, among others. We will encounter all of these before the day is out.

As the sun comes up over Juba, we come to our fist of many checkpoints. A smile and wave from the police officer manning the barrier and our travel party continues on toward Yambio, Western-Equatoria. As we leave Juba, we pass the makeshift houses made of sticks and roofs of zinc sheets that have sprung up recently. Father Joseph, Director of SSS Projects, comments: “None of this was here when I arrived in 2008”. We drive on dirt road for an hour and the landscape does not vary: sparse trees sprinkled in among tall, dry grass.


Rokon, South Sudan 0800 hrs

We stop in Rokon, a small village just off the main road for breakfast with Fr. Johnson, one of the parish priests. I first met Fr. Johnson on a flight from Rome to Addis Ababa. In many ways, Fr. Johnson represents the hope for a new Sudan. He is energetic and young; educated in Italy, he speaks fluent Italian, English, Arabic and local Sudanese languages. He is comfortable talking Italian politics or the limitations and opportunities for his new parish. As the Sudanese diaspora continues to return from abroad, several bring skills and education similar to Fr. Johnson. How will they be incorporated into the rebuilding effort? We sit in front of the small house that serves as the priests’ rectory and discuss the challenges in developing a New Sudan and a promising future; the needs are stark.

In Rokon access to education is very limited. There are few qualified teachers and it is extremely difficult to get trained educators to come out to Rokon. Transportation and low pay are reasons for this lack of access. As peace continues to prevail, roads will improve, bringing change. In the meantime, Fr. Johnson continues to look for creative solutions to old problems.


Optimism is on the horizon. With the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, Southern Sudan was to receive 50% of oil revenues produced in Sudan. In 2009, the Government of Southern Sudan reported 4,234,656,856 SDG or around 1.41 billion USD of available resources, 97.8% of which comes from oil revenue. However, despite this new revenue, 50.6% of the 8.2 million southerners live in poverty. Just one hour outside of Juba, in a region with such dire needs, Rokon waits for prosperity.


20 minutes west of Rokon

No warning, a small pop, and our left rear tire is finished; victim of one of the many sharp rocks littered on the undulated road. It’s nearly 11 am and the sun is beginning to reach its zenith; it will reach upwards of 40°C today and our spare tire needs air. I flag down a semi-truck and we quickly discover that the Kenyan crew is bound for Yambio, bringing goods from Nairobi.

Western Equatoria is blessed with naturally rich soil, but still relies on imports from abroad. Of all businesses registered in 2010, less than one percent are dedicated to commercial agriculture.

SSS teacher trainer Sr. Felisita is fluent in Swahili and describes our predicament. The driver explains that he cannot open the tire to fill it up. He stops the second truck in their caravan and the tire is quickly inflated and put on. We give thanks by offering our mangos and cokes to the crew, who have decided to stop and have lunch. It will take this caravan another full day to reach Yambio. The incredible cost of transport is reflected in the prices of goods. A bottle of coke goes for around 3 SDG (about 1USD) while the average person in Western Equatoria spends a total of 104 SDG (about 35 USD) per month for all expenses.


Mundri, South Sudan 1330 hrs

It is International Women’s Day and the local church is packed. The open space between the church and road is overflowing with churchgoers. I am immediately struck by the mobilization of the local community in support of women. The inclusion and empowerment of women in society is one of the core values of several development organizations, Solidarity with Southern Sudan not withstanding. It is a humbling reminder that there is a network in place that works; one that is not in the form of emails, text messages, Facebook, and tweets, although this is drastically changing. There is always the risk of dismissing effectiveness because its packaging is different. As a returning visitor to Sudan, this is an important lesson to learn. These are people who have fought a war: struggled, resisted, suffered, survived and persevered for decades; and won. When striving to assist in the construction of a new South Sudan, we would be well-served to remember this.

As the Republic of South Sudan becomes a new nation, it will need extensive help from the international community. It will take a long-term commitment from the international community as the type of aid shifts from relief to development, which should be geared toward capacity building of local Sudanese. In conversations with church leaders, aid organizations and local Sudanese, the common theme was training across all sectors of development. In South Sudan, out of a population of 8,260,490 only 37% has ever attended school. But there is potential and opportunity: a logistical network is in place that has been operating during and after the war. Churches have been present with the people and in many places they constitute the only established infrastructure offering education and health services. During the lead-up to the referendum, the Catholic Church in South Sudan claims to have trained around 1.2 million people in civic education. Working with this church infrastructure that is already in place is probably the only way transition from relief to development can be managed.



 Children in class at Makpandu Refugee Camp

Makpandu, South Sudan 1700hrs

We pass through another checkpoint. There are no smiles this time as we are questioned about our destination and purpose. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been present in the confluence of Central African Republic (CAF), Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We stop at Makpandu Refugee Camp, where an estimated 8,000 Congolese and CAF refugees reside in small makeshift tukuls (huts). Comboni Father Mario Paganella has accompanied a Congolese parish for 38 years in northeast DRC and came with his parishioners when their village was burned by the LRA. While the LRA’s strength has greatly diminished and is not an overt threat to South Sudan, it is a very real fear for the people in Western Equatoria State. Small bands of LRA soldiers still attack at night in the region. We are later informed at another checkpoint not to travel back to Yambio after dark because of recent attacks.

Fr. Mario, 74, coordinates the distribution of UNHCR food rations and acts as an advocate on behalf of the refugees. He shows me into his dark tukul and in Italian explains that he has a virus on his computer. I leave with his computer, promising to install a simple anti-virus program; wanting to do something to get rid of the guilt felt upon seeing such commitment and self-sacrifice, and knowing that you come up immeasurably short in comparison. He was very thankful when I dropped it off on our way back to Juba.


Yambio, Western Equatoria 1800hrs

We pull into the SSS Solidarity Teacher Training College and are welcomed by our staff, which are Catholic missionary sisters. In 2009, the student to teacher ratio for South Sudan was 52 to 1. Since starting in 2008, SSS has worked with nearly 800 teachers, many of whom are refugees themselves. Talking to the teachers and hearing their stories of desire to improve the obstacles they face gives hope for a new nation.


 SSS teacher training group in Yambio, Western Equatoria

Looking to the future – The Republic of South Sudan

Given the challenges seen on this trip, there is concern in the international community that South Sudan may not be ready for statehood. Indicators like the Failed State Index would argue that South Sudan is not prepared. However, we must not forget that it was Khartoum that oversaw the systematic neglect of the South. In looking at the Failed State Index, Sudan has been near the top of the list for years, scoring an average of 9.3 with the notable exception of the economy, which has been propped up by oil revenue. However, 80% of the crude oil in Sudan comes from the South and while how this will be shared with the North after the Republic of South Sudan becomes the world’s newest state has not been officially announced, both sides’ dependence on the commodity will assure that oil continues to flow. In the long-term, peace and stability are in both nations’ interest.

The question of whether South Sudan will be a failed state in the future is moot. The January 9th referendum was the South’s only chance at a new start, ready or not, the South had to grab it. Now it will have the opportunity to succeed and develop, which was not possible before the CPA in 2005. Khartoum had systematically tried to undermine the process and has been an unreliable partner since independence from the British in 1956.

President Kiir has proven himself to be a savvy leader, bringing together different political parties to ensure cohesion before the referendum. Though complaints from opposition parties about the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement’s (SPLM) lack of inclusion and transparency during the process have raised concerns about political space for opposition, the success of the referendum is proof of the governance potential of the Republic of South Sudan. Inclusion will be increasingly more important as inter-tribal and militia v. Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) violence has erupted in certain flash points within the South. It is unclear as to the root source of conflicts, whether these are destabilization attempts from the North, tribal conflict or the result of SPLA in-fighting.

On our trip through South Sudan, one thing was quickly evident: everything takes time. Heading back to Juba, a motorcyclist carrying a passenger swerves to clear space for us to pass. He loses balance and slowly tumbles over. We stop and help them get set on their way. In a cloud of dust, they were off; down a long and difficult road, but with much patience and caution they will reach their destination. Perseverance will bare fruit. In the new Republic of South Sudan, it already has.


All statistical figures in this article are from the Southern Sudan Statistics Yearbook 2010.

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