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Richard and the new nation

ssudan_01Richard O’Dwyer is not starry-eyed about the new nation of South Sudan – see his piece below – but he loves it. The former quantity surveyor seems able to turn his hand to anything. He packed a lot into a break this summer, visiting his scattered family, making a retreat, and holidaying with Jesuit friends. He is wonderful company, bubbling over with stories of Africa, of the oxen and bee-keeping he has introduced, and the colourful, dancing liturgies they celebrate. It is rare to meet somebody who just cannot wait to get back to what others might call work, but for Richard is really a delightful vocation. He was curious to see the first fruits of independence when he returned to the newly formed state of South Sudan. Here are his impressions.

SOUTH SUDAN: ROCKY ROAD AHEAD

Richard O’Dwyer SJ

As I returned from annual leave, including a brief visit to Dublin, I found myself wondering what changes I would see in the newly minted Republic of South Sudan. Readers, as you probably know, South Sudan became the newest country in Africa, if not the world on 9th July 2011.

I always travel from Dublin to Uganda as it is the easiest route to reach the very south of South Sudan. Right now, Uganda seems to be experiencing to a lesser degree, murmurings of its own “Arab Spring.” Primary teachers throughout Uganda and the academic and administrative staff of Makerere University in Kampala are on strike for more pay. The primary teachers are demanding a 100% increase in salary from their present, paltry equivalent of €50 per month. The government threatened to begin sacking teachers for not reporting for work and then retreated from this rather silly threat when it realised that teachers could simply turn up at school and sit in classrooms and stare into space. As of now, the stalemate continues, but I think the government, having refused to increase teachers’ pay, do not know what to do next and the teachers can simply sit and wait.

Now to South Sudan. There is a massive task facing the government of South Sudan at every level: national, state, county, district and village. In 1955, when Sudan gained independence from the British and became the largest country in Africa, the government in Khartoum embarked on policies that would keep the south poor, ignorant and undeveloped. The south was seen as a producer of food but would be kept in a financial and developmental strait-jacket that would keep prices for produce so low that farmers would barely survive at a subsistence level, and never have a nest-egg of capital to move to even a basic commercial level of agriculture. The idea of micro-finance or any kind of grant aid to farmers would have been laughable and ludicrous to the government in Khartoum. The government also began the process of “arabization and islamization” of the largely Christian and African South, which resulted in two bitter and bloody civil wars.

As I came by vehicle over the tortuous road to Lobone after crossing the border from Uganda, which has now become almost completely overgrown to the extent that the bush from both sides of the road is almost meeting in the middle of the “road”, I realised why the task of building a new nation will so difficult. First of all, many local leaders at the village level have little or no education and have no idea as to how to promote and encourage even the most basic development at local level. Secondly, there would seem to be some kind of magical thinking that the “the government” are going “to come” and fix everything from the leaking roof of the local leader’s house or tukul to the roads, and that the locals can just sit back, wait and not raise a finger to help themselves.

Even at national level some politicians believe that “the oil” will take care of everything and that in 5 years South Sudan will be richest country in Africa with world-class education, health services, infrastructure etc and that somehow it will all just happen.