2011 United to End Genocide Carl Wilken’s Fellows Cory McMahon and Cynthia Davis traveled to South Sudan in February. Their trip took them from the capitol of Juba to the village of Ariang in Warrap state. Cynthia traveled to assess the needs of women and to work with them in developing a Women’s Empowerment program to be funded through Cynthia’s advocacy and art project: The Sudan Canvas Project. Cory focused on conducting an assessment of health care needs in the village and provided basic health education and training.
By Cory McMahon and Cynthia Davis
Granted Independence but Freedoms Still Needed
Hardship, challenge, strength, inspiration, community, excitement, and celebration — these are a few of the words that first come to mind in describing our experience in South Sudan.
Despite our preparations and prior knowledge of South Sudan, we could never have imagined what we were about to see. Being oppressed for so long, the needs of the South Sudanese are overwhelming and, at times, seemingly insurmountable. While generations of conflict have planted deep seeded challenges, the utter strength and resiliency of the people was overwhelming and inspirational.
Since becoming an independent nation in July 2011, South Sudan has made significant progress. As we spoke with citizens, government officials and former refugees now returning home, people shared feelings of excitement and pride for the potential of their country, but were not afraid to voice their frustrations and the challenges facing South Sudan.
Security and basic infrastructure remain top priorities for the country. With the overwhelming needs, it will take decades to see serious progress; a difficult realization for the people of South Sudan after waiting 22 years for their freedom.
As we made our way out of the capital of Juba and west across the national landscape, the conditions in the villages revealed the limited reach of government resources. We began to gain a better understanding of the true state of the country and needs of the people. Through our observations, we realized the continuing importance of advocacy work and community education.
While the general consensus is that Juba has made considerable advancements, the further we traveled from the capital, the more people felt that they had not yet truly experienced freedom. “We have tasted freedom, but we have not felt it,” said a man we spoke with in Akon, a short distance from Abyei and a full day’s travel from Juba
People are begging for education, starving for food and are desperate for health care. Food is scarce in the villages and getting anything from outside is a challenge. The people we met considered themselves lucky if they ate one meal per day. The UN World Food Program, which at one point was able to help in these areas, has been forced to reallocate their resources to refugee camps in other regions affected by or receiving refugees due to ongoing conflict.
A woman stated that the only difference she has seen since independence is “the development of roads and cars but no money to use them.” In most villages outside of Juba, people do not have access to transportation. If someone is sick, it is not unusual for them to walk three hours to the closest health clinic. Some shared stories about friends and family crossing to North Sudan so they could obtain health care or food, despite the dangers involved.
Progress and Challenges for the People of Ariang
Despite challenging conditions, people in Ariang Village were singing and dancing, holding on to happiness and hope for their future.
Nobody exemplified this better than the women in Ariang. Their strength and resilience was inspiring: many run small businesses selling tea and tobacco and have an incredible desire to grow their businesses. They were grateful for the funds raised through small foundations, such as the Sudan Canvas Project, expressing how even a small amount of outside financing could result in great progress for the entire village. It was incredibly inspiring that, although these women barely had a meal during our visit, they had the desire, will and strength necessary to keep working toward a better future.
We continued to observe this strong work ethic and desire for progress everywhere we went. Local villagers were making thousands of bricks in the sweltering heat for a school in Ariang. This brick making, funded by Hope for Ariang, hires local workers instead of contractors. This puts money directly back into the village to help grow their economy. Future investments, such as ovens and generators, could help keep money within the village allowing it to continue to grow sustainably while alleviating the food crisis.
While we saw many areas of progress, we also observed obstacles to providing education to a remote village. Small boys and young men struggle to find any means of receiving an education; most are unable to do so despite great perseverance on their part. Those who succeeded told stories from their childhood: fishing dogfish from the Nile and selling it for tuition or walking for hours to come to the Ariang School under the tree. They do all of this even without access to basic school materials like books or paper.
Other success stories came from those involved in the Ariang School project. Because of the incredible work of Gabriel Bol Deng in coordinating villagers, identifying and organizing materials and raising funds through U.S. speaking venues, his dedication has created many opportunities for the people of Ariang that will be felt for years to come. We saw how the school was a partnership between the village, U.S. donors, and non-profit organizations.
We met others during our trip who had returned from the United States to work on education projects in their respective native villages. It became apparent that through their work, these small organizations were creating the beginnings of sustainable economies within their communities in South Sudan. Education, skills and job opportunities are empowering these communities and ensuring continued growth and sustainability.
Those who have returned with an education from other countries want nothing more than to go to university and continue their education. As the new country of South Sudan develops through intelligent investment in infrastructure, a new generation of educated, passionate young people will emerge that will no doubt change the face of the country. An emphasis on education must be a priority for the new country to recognize real development over the next two decades.
Much of the advocacy work to date surrounding Sudan and South Sudan has focused on holding Sudanese President and war criminal al-Bashir, accountable for the atrocities that his government has committed. While mobilizing political will to end the conflicts created by Bashir’s government is paramount for stability, it must incorporate strong support for accountability for the governments of Sudan and South Sudan. These responsibilities must include increased educational opportunities, access to health care, and increased food and clean water supplies. International NGOs, such as Hope for Ariang, have committed significant resources to building schools and providing education. It is imperative for the Government of South Sudan to continue this investment in such programs and take responsibility for growth and sustainability.
The United States played a crucial role in securing the freedom of South Sudan and to abandon them at this moment would be a grave error. Providing logistical support, education and training to empower the people to build a secure and sustainable South Sudan is critical to long lasting freedom and growth in the region.
Most importantly, the people of South Sudan are ready to work toward these advancements. They have fought for their independence and are now ready to build a strong education system, improve agricultural practices, ensure access to clean water, and deepen their democracy. Capacity building, however, remains a major challenge.
In the short time we spent in South Sudan, we realized the resiliency of the people. The solutions to their problems must come from within their own country but guidance and mentorship is critical. Pressure for continued responsibility and accountability on behalf of the government of South Sudan to its people is essential.