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UN Country #193: Dreaming the Impossible Dream?

Nov 8, 2011

After a week here in Juba, South Sudan, I have seen a mere postage stamp sample of life in this country, declared the United Nations’ 193rd on the 9th of July of this year.  Yet, there is much to tell from that soupçon.   I am staying in a place that is discomfitingly distant from, yet surrounded by, a South Sudanese version of a Brasilian favela, object of Lula’s misery tours.  A step outside my door, my eyes take in some of the evidence of this squalling newborn’s life:  grinding poverty – 90% live on less than $1.00 per day, little-to-no health care in most of the ten states, virtually no functioning education system for almost 50 years, accounting for the lowest literacy rate in all of Africa, roads filled with potholes large enough to lose a cow, sewers that overflow with every rain, daily water needs met from the disease- and contaminants-laden White Nile – as well as the oppression of a government and its agents, rebels-turned-governors, whose methods bear way too much resemblance to those of the North from whom they sought liberty.

By illustration, my colleague’s house was raided in the wee hours of this morning by police demanding money, holding a gun to Flora’s uncle’s head to drive home the demand.  Today’s newspaper headlines complains of the arrest of the editor and deputy editor of the South Sudanese newspaper, The Destiny, following only a few weeks on the heels of the arrest of the Citizen daily’s editor-in-chief.

The capital city has grown exponentially in the years since the January 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement provided for the limited autonomy of the South.  Somewhere between one and two million people live here, many of them like those who are my temporary neighbours, Ugandans fleeing the horrors of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, Somalis fleeing the failed state terrorised by Al-Shabab, Congolese fleeing the killing fields of the Kabilas.  South Sudanese are returning in waves from their respective diasporas, arriving in a land shattered by 21 years of civil war and the ongoing destruction of armies, militias, rebel groups, tribal warriors and cattle raiders.  Ill-educated and ill-prepared to take on the tasks of nation-building, the majority of South Sudanese languish in the ranks of the unemployed while Ethiopians run the restaurants, Nigerians cut your hair, Ugandans and Kenyans lay wire, cable and pipes, and Northern merchants stock your household goods.

The city is home to more INGOs (International Non-governmental Organisations), NGOs and Multi-lateral agencies per square kilometre than any other capital in Africa these days, perhaps the world.  Prices are rising to reflect the needs of a burgeoning community of internationals setting up offices, homes and in need of furnishings – only widening the gap for those at the bottom.

No one here is not intimately touched by the deaths of 2.5 million South Sudanese who lost their lives in the war between Khartoum and its sub-Saharan South.  Millions have been spent in the creation of a new Parliament building, home to the MPs elected in April of 2010.  Millions are being spent monthly to maintain and equip the ranks of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) in their attempts to put down multiple attempts at rebellion by the disaffected irregulars of civil-war era splinter groups.  Billions are being planned for the proposed re-location of the capital to the more central, supposedly more tribally neutral grounds of Ramciel – a move greeted by many as a piece of insanity, a ludicrous misapplication of scarce funds – with the work going to a Chinese conglomerate – and breathtaking human need.

And yet, and yet, in a Sudanese-South Sudanese version of Occupy everywhere, Girifna, SONAD, MRDA and others are birthing stubborn hope:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mci0zg5176c

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