As a group of us sat around a table at our Kenyan-run hotel compound in Rumbek, southern Sudan last spring, my friend, an academic from South Sudan spoke of the droves of people who had passed through South Sudan over the years – politicians, diplomats, aid workers, researchers (like myself). We all kept coming back. Some sitting around that table had been working in the region for years; others were newer. But he predicted that we would all return, someday. “South Sudan will infect you,” he concluded. Extremely congested and slightly high on a cocktail of allergy meds, I shot back, “Yeah. I know,” angrily gesturing at my inflamed sinuses and running nose.
But in spite of the havoc South Sudan wreaked on my delicate respiratory system, my friend was right. South Sudan in the spring of 2011 was an incredible place to be. There was a sense of hope, of new beginnings, in spite of the monumental challenges that what was soon to be the world’s newest country would face.
We attended an assembly at Rumbek Secondary School, where the headmaster spoke to the assembled students. Afterwards, my friend told the current students that for every one of them that is able to attend school during peacetime, two people died fighting during the civil war. He called on them to honor those sacrifices by remaining committed to their education, in spite of the hardships they faced. Now, in control of its own destiny, South Sudan would ideally be able to continue to provide future generations of school children the access to education that had escaped some members of wartime generations.
Peace and independence also meant South Sudan would gain a greater share of revenue from the oil sector – from which the population expected tangible benefits. While I was there, a few men tried to buy my hand in marriage by promising to send my father cattle. However, they could not yet afford what I had been told was an acceptable bride price for a young woman such as myself. (My friend calculated that I was worth approximately 70 cows – 60 heifers, 9 bulls, and 1 ox). One such negotiation outside the cattle market in Rumbek went something like this:
Potential Future Husband: Excuse me, kind miss. I would like to marry you. I can offer 30 cows.
Potential Future Husband: Me. You. Marriage. 30 cows.
Les: 30? For real?
Potential Future Husband: For realsies.
Les: I’m flattered, but I’m worth 70. Thanks anyway.
Potential Future Husband: Ok, but come back next year when I will have more cattle.
Now imagine that whole conversation taking place using hand gestures because we didn’t have a common language. Because it did. Okay, there was an interpreter helping out, but only a little. Anyway, the point was that there was a sense among South Sudanese citizens that their socio-economic status would improve following independence.
Now, almost a year later, much has changed. I think. Well, I can’t see for myself because I was hoping to research the demilitarization of non-statutory armed forces in South Sudan, but noooo the Sudans had to start fighting and now I can’t go and collect data – But I digress. What I meant to say is that no one expected South Sudan to have an easy time as a new state, but the disintegration of post-independence negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan certainly places the optimism that I observed last year in jeopardy.
I don’t mean to romanticize South Sudan at all. I hated the long, hot wait at immigration when I arrived. I hated the cockroaches so large that they didn’t crawl, but rather galloped, like ginormous roach-ponies. I hated the itty-bitty contraption posing as a plane (which, I might add, did not have beverage service) that I had to take to Rumbek. And most of all, I hated what ever flipping flora or fauna forced me to be heavily medicated the entire time I was there so that I could, you know, breathe. But the idea of what South Sudan could be, what its citizens could have, was alluring. So I guess South Sudan did infect me. Or rather, the hope of the South Sudanese people did. And I can’t wait to get back – you know, when the fighting stops, so I can actually get some research done.
Let’s hope the fighting does stop!