For anyone following the news from South Sudan events haven’t been easy to take. So much promise only a few years ago as the world’s newest nation has devolved into tribal tensions in various parts of the country, leaving 1.9 million people displaced and a further seven million at risk of a similar fate.
Hilde Johnson, the special representative of the UN Secretary General on the South Sudan file, put it succinctly: “The diversity of this nation should not be a force for division. Diversity should be an asset, a strength, and a source of hope in the process of nation building.”
Except it isn’t working out that way at present. For most seasoned South Sudan watchers, something like this was expected. Assisting a new nation to establish itself after decades of war wasn’t destined to be easy, but the longer the conflict continues, the more difficult it is for relief and development groups to gain the progress for which they hoped.
Every January a team from the London-based organization, Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan (www.casscanada.ca) journeys to the Aweil region, near the border with Sudan and south of Sudan’s troubled Darfur area. A place often overrun with refugees fleeing strife in nearby sectors, Aweil is nevertheless relatively free of the tribal strife that characterizes much of what is taking place elsewhere in South Sudan.
Numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have left places such as Aweil, feeling their services were required in other parts of the world after the peace was signed between Sudan and South Sudan and the latter went on to full independence. Decades-old development projects now are struggling for resources and the effects on communities is profound.
When the London team of Denise Pelley, Carol Campbell, Lucy Ogletree, and Lynn Blumas travelled to the region in January, they weren’t sure their projects had been affected by changes during the past 12 months. London’s investment in the area has been a 15-year effort. That history helped to keep the various projects on track, as the team discovered shortly after their arrival.
For Campbell, the team leader and a veteran of numerous such trips, the arrival left lasting impressions.
“The highlight for me was our arrival and welcome by the community. It was overwhelming and very emotional this year. The women’s group, over a hundred in number, in their uniforms, sang and danced and marched us into the compound. There were warm welcomes and hugs from our friends there. And once in the compound, signs welcoming the Canadians were hung everywhere. It was truly a sign of the appreciation the community has for Canada’s efforts.”
Pelley and Ogletree, who have run a music and arts camp for a number of years, were delighted by the presence of about 400 area children attending the events.
“This was my eighth trip,” said Pelley, “and more and more I appreciate and cherish the deep relationships I have made in that time. They are now part of me.”
It was a sentiment reflected by Ogletree: “The change over the years has been remarkable. Some of the young folks I met over the last few years are now teaching in the schools — progress. I’m really looking forward to my trip next year and many, many more in years to come.”
For these women, the people of Sudan will remain a key part of their future. With each taking on the leadership role of various projects, their investment of time and resources is repaid seeing the South Sudanese taking leadership roles and getting on with their lives.
When British actor Keira Knightly visited South Sudan in June 2014, she was overcome by the challenges facing the country’s women. Yet the inspiration she derived from watching them work out their future caused her to say: “They live in hell. What right do I have to cry?”
It was a response not lost on Lynn Blumas, a champion of women’s programs in London and a veteran of similar initiatives in South Sudan. She noticed, with pleasure, the girls seem more empowered. “It was truly exciting for me to see all the young girls, aged 17 to 20, still in school and more confident in expressing themselves and their desire for the future.”
Fourteen years ago, during the trying days of the civil war, the promise was made to build a secondary school, especially for the girls of the region. What had been a difficult journey on the project is now completed. The educational centre will open with the new school year in April and perhaps expand in coming years. At last, the young scholars of the Aweil region will acquire the education of which they have always dreamed.
Plans are underway by the government to hold a ceremonial opening next January when a team of Canadians visits again.
As South Sudan continues to struggle for legitimacy and nationhood, these annual visits have instilled an enduring hope that, despite the country’s troubles, there are those who believe in them and their desire for peace and prosperity.
Soon enough London’s effect in the region will be two decades old, and despite significant hurdles, the work goes on, strengthening a vital bond that defies the odds, confounds the skeptics, and provides a vital way forward on Africa’s path to renewal.
Glen Pearson is co-director of the London Food Bank and a former Liberal MP for the riding of London North Centre. Pearson and his wife, Jane Roy, are involved with Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan.
London Free Press 27 February 2015