South Sudan: Challenge meets optimism in Juba

By Maggie Fick in Juba

Posted on Wednesday, 20 July 2011 16:19

As war-devastated South Sudan basks in the glow of its recent independence celebrations, the new mantra from development experts from the World Bank and elsewhere is that it will take at least a generation for the new Republic of South Sudan to get on solid footing as a country capable of providing services and the hope of a better life for its citizens, who are some of the poorest in the world.

Into the current void of infrastructure, development, and institutions step the south’s youth, many of whom spent their childhood in refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Uganda, in child soldier training camps in Ethiopia and Cuba, and in sprawling settlements on the outskirts of the northern capital of Khartoum as war raged at home. A lucky few were resettled in Western countries, scattered from Australia to the United States, where opportunities for education and advancement were slightly easier to come by but by no means guaranteed.

In the months, years, and decades ahead, the Southern Sudanese youth of today will be thrust into positions of leadership in their new country. But in the current moment, some wonder if there will really be a place for them in their new state given the concerns of corruption and nepotism that already plague their six-year old government.

White rubber glove on his right hand and oversized black plastic garbage bag in his left, 19-year old Joshua Achak spent Monday morning in the southern capital pitching in to clean up the aftermath of Saturday’s raucous celebrations.

“I want my area to be clean,” he said slowly in labored English, illustrating one of the myriad challenges facing the country’s young people: many are not proficient in the offical language of the government, preferring their local language or the Arabic they learned in school in the north or in southern states near the north-south border.

Achak, who came to Juba earlier this year from a southern town near the northern border with a few of his relatives in hopes of getting an education, is now attending primary school. He sounds optimistic about his future and about the future of his country, and he said he would spend the entire day cleaning up the grounds where the ceremony was held for the paltry sum of 20 Sudanese pounds, the equivalent of $6. But in a country where 90% of people live on one dollar per day, this work was no doubt worth doing.

The head of the World Bank in South Sudan told reporters in Juba on Monday that the southern government needs to make good on the promises of its president, former guerrilla fighter Salva Kiir, in his speech on independence day, in which he promised transparency, open government, and a spirit of consultation as the priorities for the new nation are set and policies for the future put in place.

President Kiir’s rhetoric indeed sounded right, but reaching out to the south’s rural and uneducated masses, including the young men who tote rusty AK-47s while herding their cattle through swamplands and dust-swept expanses, may prove difficult.

Still, there is a spirit of optimism these days in Juba, which was little more than a bombed-out northern army garrison when the war ended in 2005. Wearing a colorful piece of fabric draped like a toga and sporting black Converse-like sneakers at a festive ‘youth carnival’ held Monday in Juba’s football stadium, Rose Peter, 16, wished her country’s president well in the difficult tasks ahead.

“I would like to say to Salva Kiir, ‘let him be the dad, to the end of his life, and let God make him strong so he can take care of our country.'” Peter returned from a childhood spent in Khartoum with her widowed mother and two brothers. She says she wants to train to be a doctor “because many people in my country are sick.”

There is no doubt that a lot of people are looking forward to lending a hand in developing their new country and helping it to prosper. But the challenge lies with their leaders, foreign governments, donors and investors who need a stable South Sudan to act responsibly and in the best interests of the younger generation who hope they have nowhere to go but up.

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