The newly succeeded Republic of South Sudan is now officially one of the world’s poorest countries. It was the poorest before succession but, since it was officially considered part of Sudan, which has funds, the statistics did not reflect the true situation.
The bright side of this is now South Sudan can get the attention it deserves in terms of aid for infrastructure, education and healthcare. According to the UN, South Sudan has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal mortality; one of the lowest in school enrollment and only 1/3 of the population has access to safe water. That is not acceptable. We have to help these people. And that’s our plan!
I was up at 6AM on the Monday after Independence Day, in South Sudan. The power in my room was out when I awoke and it was still dark outside. I learned how challenging it is to brush my teeth, take a cold shower and get ready in the tiny pitch-black room using only the light from an iphone. We had a morning flight to Aweil County, in Northern Bahr El Ghazal region, at the southern border of Darfur. Our plan is to expand our program into this region and our trip was to assess the situation, meet with local leaders, introduce ourselves to other NGOs, and figure out the logistics of establishing a team there.
The small Juba airport seemed dwarfed by the huge UN planes. There was an impressive row of international flags and the red carpet was still in place from the weekend’s Independence Ceremony. Apparently, the little airport didn’t know how to handle all of the air traffic and was overwhelmed with the delegations from around the globe arriving for the celebration.
The airport was filled with journalists, aid workers and wealthy Africans who were mostly all dressed in suits. It was very interesting seeing Juba from the air as our plane took off. Although it’s the capital city, from the air you mostly see dirt roads connecting makeshift structures and small buildings with corrugated iron roofs. This country needs so much in terms of development.
The Nile winds around the landscape and is beautiful from the air. But, according to some, this water could become the cause of the next conflicts. There is much debate over the ownership of its crucial water. From the air, I could also see another small river that had already completely dried up.
Our logistical director, George, who’s only been on a plane once before, which had been delivering supplies during the war, jokingly asked, “Why are there so many potholes in the air?” The ride was a bit bumpy.
As the plane landed in Aweil, it was immediately clear we were in a remote location. The airport was nothing more that a dirt airstrip with a thatched awning that provided a bit of shade to waiting passengers.
Flights arrive and depart on Mondays and Fridays only. It’s a bit strange being dropped off so far away with no way back for days. Also, booking the return flight had to be done from Aweil (no computers or decent communication around there). This made me very nervous. Luckily, we were able to get the last two available seats on the return flight!! If we’d missed it, we’d have been stuck in Aweil until another plane came, not knowing when that would be.
Aweil is at the southern border of Darfur, two hours from the oil-rich, contested, state of Abyei. So far, because of the remote location, there has not been a lot of aid, with the exception of immediate relief workers. It’s a three-to-four day drive from Juba. The drilling team that we’ll be using told us a story about getting captured by the Darfur rebels, who mistook them for northern soldiers, when they accidentally crossed the border looking for small rocks. Because of all this, these people are some of the world’s most needy, so we are prepared to accept the challenge. At least our team will not be looking for small rocks anywhere near the Darfur border.
Now that South Sudan has independence, the government in Khartoum has given Southerners a set amount of time to get out of the North and return to their own country. Aweil is certain to be one of the first stops and many people are already flocking in by the trainload. There is concern that the large influx of returnees could cause a humanitarian crisis.
Aweil has a lot of charm. This region, because of its proximity to the North, has more of an Arab influence than the other parts of Africa where we have worked. There were donkeys pulling carts and rickshaws everywhere. By all accounts, the people are very honest. It’s also extremely clean. You do not see garbage everywhere and plastic bags are even banned. Sanitation is always a big problem in these regions. Aweil is no different in many ways.
When we arrived, the citizens of Aweil were still celebrating their independence. The town center was filled with tribal dancers who’d come from the deep villages to perform. My main camera was still broken but I did my best to document all of this with my small backup.
Our hotel had just one TV, which was kept in a locked box within the courtyard. The station kept playing the President’s independence speech over and over again, with hopes of giving as many people as possible the opportunity to hear it. Each day, locals would gather in our hotel to watch. It was very clear that the excitement from gaining independence was going to last for a long time.