In south Sudan, the future beckons and sobers

Sparks flew as blacksmiths fanned fires and Stephen Jada, a welder with ambitions far larger than his tin shack, rested in the shade and spoke of how this gritty, once forgotten sliver of the world was about to blossom.

“A new nation,” he declared, “is being born to be equal with other countries. There is much to be done.”

He looked down an alley of tools and rust and listened to the hiss of blowtorches, the bite of hacksaws. Men around him hammered and sweated. Women sold beans and shooed children along bamboo fences not far from families scrubbing clothes in the Nile.

“We’ve been oppressed for too long,” he continued. “But foreigners with money are coming and we can learn from these intellectuals. We can develop. I’ll buy modern tools. My business will grow and one day I’ll travel the globe and bring back what I see.”

A weeklong referendum on independence for southern Sudan, which ends when polls close Saturday, has brought jubilation and a promising break from a bloody past to the semiautonomous region’s 9 million residents. The mostly Christian and animist south is widely expected to secede from the predominantly Muslim north, casting off a legacy of civil war that took more than 2 million lives before a 2005 peace treaty. But gnawing at the edge of euphoria is the prospect that a dream realized is often as sobering as a dream denied.


Men like Jada speak eagerly of independence and the billions of dollars in oil revenue they believe will move their nation forward. Many, though, are also well aware of the uncertainty that hovers over this built-on-the-fly southern capital surrounded by scrublands, where malaria kills, the illiteracy rate is disturbingly high and boys with bows and arrows herd cattle and keep watch for marauders.

Residents of Juba may be reshaping the arrogance and cruelty of colonial-era borders, but what exactly lies ahead is unknown, even as they stand in the sun for hours to cast ballots.

The situation is akin to “a lot of cars moving in the street but where they are going, we don’t know,” said Lual Deng, a worker with the south’s referendum commission. “People will have to be careful how they handle this new thing of independence. Freedom comes with many twists.”

A tribal chief preferred not to ponder the meticulous nature of turning aspirations into a nation: “Look at those happy men over there,” said Yout Manyual. “They have been here for three days and every night they dance with drums until morning. This is our right until all the votes are counted. We know then that development will come and children will be taken to school.”

Beyond the roadside money-changers and the old army trucks half buried in the dirt, Dr. Hassan Awule made rounds at the unfinished Morobo Clinic he started during the war. He said life would improve in coming years but worried that corruption and tribalism — the spoilers of many African nations — might jeopardize a new country. As a lizard scurried up a wall, he opened the door to what he hopes one day will be an operating room.

“We began with just a pharmacy,” he said. “Then we added one bed, then two, then three, and now we have 40 beds. They are not enough. We are treating malaria, typhoid, HIV, intestinal worms and infection. Many families can’t afford care so we give them credit. You can’t turn them away.”

Children lay curled next to mothers, two women cut squares from a roll of gauze, and thin men slept on beds in tiny rooms and hallways. The dry season has left the clinic’s well nearly empty and Awule pays money he barely has for water trucked in from the river. A genial man with a shaved head and a mercurial demeanor, the doctor said that one day he would open a pediatrics unit and a morgue.

“We had slavery,” he said as a stray cow grazed outside his fence, “and now it’s time for liberation.”

The word “slavery” echoes in the south, seared into the public consciousness, an heirloom that makes independence sweet, if undefined. Southern Sudanese are more eloquent in explaining past persecutions and wars wrought by the Arab-controlled north than they are at rhapsodizing about the future. They know only that it’s out there, and should soon belong to them.

Blacksmiths at the metal shops hammered orange steel as metal pipes clanged in the dirt. The alleys floated in noise and dust, a ramshackle colony of men, many of whom survived the war years but never finished school, They learned other things in a land where much of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

“What happens with independence depends on what the new market wants,” Samson Sebit said. “I make beds, tables and chairs. Independence will bring me more customers because people will want to stay here and build homes.”

Alex Woja was getting ready to talk when Awad James barged in with his own thoughts. Woja listened for a bit, bent down with his ruler, clicked on his blowtorch and went back to work. James paused for a moment. He looked around at the faces he saw every day, the boys and men who would cut, shape and haul the steel for a new country.

“We will now follow our ambitions on our own,” he said. “We need to learn self-dependence. A man has to know where to stand.”