A group of Londoners tenaciously carries on its years-long commitment to South Sudan, a young nation beset by challenges
(London Free Press — Feb 15, 2013)
“I’m nervous.” We could tell by the look on his face. For our 15-year-old son Ater, this would be his first trip back to South Sudan since he left it seven years ago.
An orphan the moment his mother was killed when he was young, Ater had been cared for by his grandmother, whom he was about to see for the first time since he left.
But he wasn’t the only one feeling the jitters. This constituted the largest team we had taken to South Sudan. We were
entering a world where a struggling people were attempting to make their mark as the world’s newest nation.
For many the jury is still out on whether the new Republic of South Sudan can survive its birth. The odds against it appear almost overwhelming: ongoing conflict, tribal tensions, deep poverty, lack of resources, migration, and climate change. Yet the people of the south almost universally show a determination that continues to overcome the odds.
Into this mix, a team of 16 Canadians touched down on the dirt airstrip in South Sudan and began the process of acclimatizing themselves into an entirely new world, thousands of kilometres away from what they have known.
Their tasks seemed endless: music and arts activities, clean water program training and assessments, distributing goats and chickens to destitute families, assessing the high school scholarship program for local girls, overseeing women’s micro-enterprise programs.
This particular team was different, however, and for many of them it was the culmination of years of commitment in fundraising and support back in Canada. Wesley-Knox United Church has supported Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan for a decade and for many of the church’s members, the time had come to see for themselves the results of their efforts.
They weren’t disappointed. This is what development is all about — taking years to grow programs and people in far-flung regions.
The signing of the peace accords between Sudan and South Sudan resulted in many non-government organizations pulling out.
Ironically, peace brought immense challenges to the region, as these NGOs migrated to the more developed areas in South Sudan and hundreds of thousands of returnees began arriving in busloads or on foot to stake their claim in the new nation. Everywhere we visited, communities were facing new and historical pressures.
The team took it all in stride, immersing themselves in the daily activities of the community and growing programs that have been years in the making.
Repeatedly they heard of how the annual visits of Canadians restore hope. For some team members, such as Denise Pelley and Carol Campbell, this was only the most recent of many trips they have taken to the area. Friendships have been established that have endured for years. We even met a tiny girl called Lucy — named after frequent team member and arts camp leader Lucy Ogletree.
Details were finally completed concerning the construction of a high school in the area on the site of the bombed-out buildings of the old school, destroyed years ago. Construction has begun and will be concluded by June. For the first time young students can stay at home and receive an education, instead of having to travel hundreds of kilometres for the privilege.
The team happened upon some Dinka people who had never seen white faces before — the importance of that moment wasn’t lost on them. New relationships have been established that will see families facing a difficult future, with more donated resources than they had hoped for.
The relationship between London and this region of South Sudan has now continued for well over a decade. Canada matters to these people and London stands at the vanguard of the hope they express.
By remaining in an area others have left, London has built a reputation with the kind of tenacity, generosity and ingenuity that built our own city.
Ater found his grandmother in an emotional reunion and has a deeper love for the land of his birth.
And Londoners? Well, they’ve provided hope once again in a land that feared it had been forgotten.
Glen Pearson is co-director of the London Food Bank and a former Liberal MP for the riding of London North Centre.