Sunday, June 10, 2012

Final Thoughts: Finding optimism in South Sudan

I’ve been back in America for a week, and I’m a little bit mad at myself for not having the energy until now to summarize my trip and write another blog post. The reverse culture shock of returning to the US hit me pretty hard, and I’m grappling with what to do now that I’m home. On Monday I started my summer internship, where I’ll be helping out with communications efforts on domestic policies and the 2012 election. It seems far, far away from the issues of South Sudan, and I sometimes wonder how to reconcile an interest and passion for human rights with a love for politics and the goings-on in DC. It’s terribly cliché, but the issues in America seem small when compared to the stuff Juba’s up against.

Like I said, I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts and write a final post about the trip, but it’s really proven to be an impossible task. In an effort to bring some closure to such an awesome experience, I’m going to try and keep blogging and discussing what I learned during my two weeks in Juba. But for now, here are some final thoughts:

Bye, Juba!

The end of my trip was incredibly bittersweet. I struggled to form an opinion amidst both the hopefulness and optimism of the South Sudanese people and the raw facts that point to the severity of their problems. How does one stay hopeful in the face of such huge economic, political, and health crises? And is it naïve to do so?

I see the oil crisis as the number one problem facing the country. To me, this is the most immediate of South Sudan’s problems, and few things will ever be solved if the situation with the oil pipeline isn’t figured out. They can’t focus on building infrastructure or health and education systems, let alone solve immediate crises, if they don’t have money.

And yet, I don’t know if going to South Sudan and meeting people there has made me more or less hopeful about this aspect of its future. The phrase I kept hearing in Juba was, ‘We’ve suffered for 50 years, we can suffer for two more.’ It’s almost impossible to put myself in the same mindset as people who have known nothing but war and persecution for the past 50 years. People in South Sudan feel an immense sense of pride for finally being able to stick it to the North after all this time. But is that the right decision when it’s ultimately harming your own country as well? Especially a country with so many urgent needs?

People in Juba are overwhelmingly optimistic, and there seems to be tons of support for the oil shutoff, but I wonder if too much of that optimism could be unhealthy. It’s important to realize that as a new country, you need to be realistic and pragmatic about tackling issues. There is so much potential in South Sudan, and it’s one of the most resource-rich developing countries in the world, but they wont ever be able to develop if there isn’t a will to fix problems.

Peace in the two Sudans will be achieved through diplomacy and both countries deciding that they are ready to come to the table. The most recent talks in Addis Ababa faltered, and it looks like diplomatic efforts to resolve issues will begin again on the 21st. What makes me hopeful is the fact that the fate of both countries is inextricably tied—Sudan is suffering just as much without revenue from the oil. There’s a lot riding on both of the countries working out their differences—or at least working out a deal for the border and the pipeline. I think this time, there might just be enough hurting both sides for them to work out a deal.

The last thing I want to do is recognize how thankful I am for my incredible parents, the two amazing people who let me take (and paid for) the trip of a lifetime. For a mother who prides herself on being called “Safety Sue,” I’m sure it wasn’t easy to watch your daughter run off to South Sudan. They have been so supportive and helpful throughout the entire experience, and I definitely could not have pulled it off without their help. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Identity Crisis in the Sudans

When Sudan and South Sudan split last summer, they left many questions unresolved, including the status of hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese living in the north. These citizens, many of whom have lived in Khartoum for decades and have few ties the south, are being caught in the middle of a developing statelessness crisis.

On April 8, the Sudanese government revoked the southerners' citizenship, calling them 'security threats' and giving them just under a month to leave the country. While some had the 'luxury' of being able to just pick up and leave, many South Sudanese were unable to make it out by the May 5 deadline. Some fled to camps in the city of Kosti, just south of Khartoum. Others faced threats of violence back in the capital city.

On May 14, the international community, led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), began a humanitarian airlift to transport the southerners to South Sudan. As of Friday, IOM had transported 5,792 people to Juba, and they're now operating four flights a day between the two countries. The new South Sudanese citizens, called returnees, are being transported to large camps, one of which is just outside of Juba. There they register, wait for their belongings (which are shipped separately), and try to figure out what they are going to do in their new home.

I was able to visit the returnee camp just outside of Juba yesterday, where Sanjay and I volunteered with the International Medical Corps (IMC). The IMC deployed a Emergency Response Team to the camp as it was established, and they're providing free (but limited) medical care through a clinic at the camp. Both of the doctors we worked with came over from the US to help out, and one of them was a volunteer doctor in Libya last year during the revolution.

The inside of the medical clinic
The outside of the medical clinic

Given my limited medical knowledge, I helped register patients with Sanjay. As people entered the tent for treatment, we asked them for their name, age, and a description of what was wrong. Only a handful of people spoke any English at all, and I used my two semesters of Arabic to help me communicate. At a certain point, registration became a big game of charades, where I asked patients their names ("Ma ismook?"), ages ("Omrook?"), and then they pointed at different parts of their bodies until I realized what was wrong. The little guessing game made me realize just how difficult it was going to be for many of the returnees to start over in a new country. The official language of South Sudan is English, and the dialect of Arabic that some people in Juba speak is apparently unintelligible for most Arabic speakers from Khartoum. The language barrier will be just the first of many hurdles they face as new citizens of South Sudan.

After patients saw the doctor, they returned to us to check out and we entered their diagnoses. We logged dozens of cases of diarrhea, a few cases of malaria, and countless skin and eye diseases, among other things. We saw close to 250 patients, the largest number they'd seen yet in a day at the camp.

With flights coming in from Sudan every day, the camp faces many logistical and health challenges. They don't have enough latrines to provide proper sanitation, and there are two doctors and limited medication for the close to 5,000 people now occupying the camp. What's even worse though is the fact that it might be one of the best doctor-to-patient ratios in the country. We had a young girl be referred from a hospital in Juba to our tent clinic at the returnee camp because they believed the care was better at the camp.

One thing I kept trying to remember was that the returnees I met at the camp were the lucky ones--most southerners have yet to make it out of camps in Sudan. The humanitarian situation is becoming increasingly dire, and it's even more troubling to know that the government is putting people in this position. I keep asking myself--how can a nation strip people of citizenship based on ethnicity? 

Groups like Human Rights Watch have denounced the move, telling the Sudanese government to reverse the decision and allow southerners to be allowed to stay in the north. This doesn't look probable though, and with increasing ethnic tensions in the north, it is important to keep a close look at how the government treats the groups of South Sudanese who are unable to leave the country. If Bashir decides to use force to make them cross the border, we could have an even larger humanitarian crisis in Sudan.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Revenue Question for South Sudan

I have been more than a little bit overwhelmed since coming to Juba. There are hundreds of issues that need to be addressed—including health, infrastructure, agriculture, and education—and they often contribute to a vicious cycle of poverty, insecurity, and corruption. Where do you begin? Let me throw out some statistics to put things in perspective:

According to the South Sudan National Statistics Bureau, 27 percent of the overall population is literate (40 percent for males and 16 percent for females) and only 37 percent of the population over the age of six has ever attended school. Dr. Jok Madut Jok, South Sudan’s Undersecretary for Culture, told me that a 14-year-old girl was more likely to die in childbirth than attend high school. And according to Save the Children in 2011, the majority of the population struggles to survive on less than 2.5 Southern Sudanese Pounds per day ($0.83). That’s unbelievable.

South Sudan has outlined comprehensive strategies to tackle health, education, and other problems, and it seems to know exactly what it needs to do to improve in every area of governance. But when discussing strategic plans for development in South Sudan, there seems to be a large elephant in the room: How are they going to pay for all of this?

In January, after a transit fee dispute with Sudan, South Sudan opted to halt oil production. The country is incredibly oil-rich, but it relies on refineries in Sudan because of its lack of infrastructure. My good friend Aduei Riak, who lives in Juba, said that people cheered the move as a success in South Sudan—the perception was (and is) that President Salva Kiir is being “tough” and standing up for the south. The problem? Oil production accounts for 98% of the country’s revenue. Without it, South Sudan is relying almost entirely on foreign aid and independent donors to sustain its economy. The World Bank warned earlier this year that the decision has left the South Sudanese on the verge of collapse.

In our meeting with Undersecretary for Culture Jok Madut Jok, he outlined three scenarios for South Sudan’s economy. The first: reach an agreement with Khartoum about oil production. It seems pretty obvious to the outside world that South Sudan should probably find a way to gain back 98% of their revenue. Sudan was asking exorbitant amounts for the oil (over $30 a barrel, when the international standard is around $1), but it seems like South Sudan can only play hardball for so long.

Jok’s second scenario was that the two countries don’t reach an agreement, and that oil companies would build local refineries and other industries would be forced to develop. I see this as more of a fantasy than a possible scenario, and I think it’s important to look at the urgent needs of South Sudan. Kiir made a public plea last week asking citizens to begin producing their own food, but the effort seems misplaced considering rural insecurity. It’s critically important to develop industries other than oil—we don’t want the country to become the next victim of the oil curse—but in the meantime the country needs revenue. Humanitarian aid can help sustain life at basic levels, but it can’t help South Sudan build an infrastructure, an agricultural sector, or an education system.

Jok’s final scenario, which shouldn’t be taken lightly, is economic collapse. South Sudan would be forced to take billions of dollars in Chinese loans and it would never be able to pull itself up out of a dire humanitarian situation. Indeed, there are already signs of trouble and that the oil shutoff is taking a toll on the economy. South Sudanese Pounds, which were valued officially by the government at 2.7 to the dollar last week, are now being traded for a rate of around 5 pounds to a dollar because of pressure from the black market.

The bottom line is that South Sudan needs to be looking towards its future, and not the current standoff with Sudan. There are too many consequences to delaying on oil production, and the country doesn’t have the time or money to develop other industries right now. With such urgent health risks and infrastructure needs, South Sudan should be taking advantage of its (current) best resource.

Ministry Crashers

When making travel plans for Juba, most people who really knew the city told us to not bother making any at all. one of my professors, Stephen Smith, told me to just show up in the city and try to find people to meet with. I doubted it would be that easy, but I was definitely wrong. The past couple of days have definitely proven to me that South Sudan probably has one of the most accessible governments in the world. I'll explain:


Sanjay and I set out to explore the ministries and meet with whoever we could. All of the ministries are in the same area, about a mile from our hotel. We started out at the Ministry of Health, where we walked straight up to the front desk and asked to see the undersecretary (in the South Sudanese government, the chain of command is minister, deputy minister, and then undersecretary). We heard the minister and deputy minister were at a convention in Geneva, so we couldn't be too picky. The guard looked at us, asked us to sign in, and asked to see our passports. He then took them upstairs, came back about 30 seconds later, and told us that we could see the undersecretary in a couple of hours. Keep in mind that we're two random college students, and we didn't even tell him what we wanted to talk to him about.

We decided to walk over to a trailer next to the ministry where they had additional offices, and we walked into the office that said "Malaria Control and Prevention." Sanjay asked the woman in the office if she'd talk with us for 10 minutes (she said yes), and we chatted for a while about challenges the government faced in disease control and what students in the US could do to help. By that time Sanjay and I had gained a bit of confidence, and I felt like I was getting the hang of this whole ministry-crashers thing. 

After the Ministry of Health, we walked over to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. It's South Sudan's equivalent to the State Department, so I was really excited to get to speak with people there. At the front desk, when we asked to see the undersecretary, the man asked to keep a copy of our identification while we were walking through the building. Sanjay and I simultaneously handed him our DukeCards (that's it), and he handed us lanyards that said "Guests of the Undersecretary" on them. We walked straight to the undersecretary's office, and asked to see him, and they told us (again) to come back in a couple of hours. 

Determined to meet someone at the ministry, we walked downstairs and into the Department of Humanitarian Affairs. We met the head of the department, named Sitona Sitona, and she talked with us for about half an hour about how her department coordinated and communicated between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs. Apparently she really liked us, because she gave us the business cards for the Deputy Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, the Minister of Health, and a senior human rights officer for UNMISS. While in her office, the South Sudanese Ambassador to Egypt walked in, and we got to talk with him for a bit about Egyptian elections and South Sudan's role as what he called a "gateway between Africa and the Arab World." He also formerly served as the Sudanese Ambassador to the Congo! 

I got a call from Sitona not long after we'd left her office saying that she had called the Deputy Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Hon. Sabina Dario Lokolong, and that she'd like to meet with us as soon as possible. We walked right over to the ministry (which was a couple of blocks away), and the deputy minister's secretary was already waiting for us. We talked to the deputy minister for almost an hour--she was incredibly friendly and really brilliant. She definitely had the nicest office I'd seen in Juba thus far. Sanjay and I ate a really late lunch at an Indian restaurant (where he called the Minister of Health and they told us to come in Monday) and then we headed back to the hotel to relax. 

Photo online of Deputy Minister Lokolong in her office


On Thursday we got up and went to breakfast to say goodbye to Aduei and Sheldon--Aduei was headed to a conference in the UK and Sheldon was going to the Rift Valley Institute course on Sudan and South Sudan in Athi River, Kenya. We met Aduei's cousin Deng and stopped by her office to check it out. For lunch, we met with Amanda Hsiao of the Enough Project at a restaurant called Home and Away. I worked with Amanda last summer a bit at Enough and it was great getting to talk to her about what they're doing on the ground. Before Amanda got to the restaurant, a small deer (?) approached our table. I've been trying to figure out what it was for hours now, and my closest guesses are a Dik-Dik or a Duiker (although neither look exactly right). Fifty bucks to whoever can figure it out. Cutest animal ever.

It's so small!

Cute mystery animal liked my backpack

Sanjay and I walked over to the World Health Organization, where we had emailed them and set up a meeting with Dr. Moses, the country health systems director. Dr. Moses was incredibly brilliant, and he stressed just how related all of South Sudan's problems are to health. Without peace, security, and the proper infrastructure, there is no way that an effective health system can be put in place.

Thursday made me rethink all of the walking Sanjay and I had been doing. The heat was pretty unbearable, and even though it's probably the same in Phoenix, I'm not used to walking outside for miles when it's that hot out. Whew. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Do it for the kids

Today we had the privilege of visiting the Nile International Academy, a private primary school in Juba. It is often difficult for members of the South Sudanese Diaspora to find great schools for their children here in Juba, and many are reluctant to return or feel like they have send their kids to Uganda or Kenya for schooling. The Nile International Academy was opened in August with the goal of creating a top-tier primary school to help to teach some of the up-and-coming leaders of South Sudan. Many ministers or government officials are now able to send their children to the school and it serves as a big incentive to lure great talent back to Juba.

Sheldon, Sanjay, and I with the nursery kids

The kids were absolutely adorable and all have so much potential. Sheldon, Sanjay, and I divided the students up into three groups by grade level and they did thirty-minute rotations through each one of our stations. I taught them about activities and sports we played in the US, and then had them all color pictures of what they wanted to be when they grew up. Many students wanted to be engineers, pilots, doctors, and lawyers. When I asked one second grader what she wants to be, she told me, “I want to be a doctor and a pilot, so that I can fly out to villages and bring them medicine.” That's the kind of thinking I like to see from second graders. Sanjay did leadership and team-building activities with the kids, and Sheldon showed them what a P.E. class is like in the US. I think they ended up liking Sheldon the best, because they got to play football (soccer).

Amal wants to be the president of South Sudan when he grows up!
Sanjay doing the "human knot" with the kids. Best game ever.

Working with the kids got me thinking about the importance of children in South Sudan’s future. In 2011, Save the Children published a paper entitled South Sudan: A Post-Independence Agenda for Action. It details the challenges facing children in South Sudan and recommendations for steps that need to be taken.

One of the things about the report that stuck out to me the most was this statistic: more than half of South Sudan’s population of 8.26 million is under the age of 18, and 72% of its people are under 30 years old. Protecting children needs to be a central part of development strategy in South Sudan if the country wants to ensure a successful future.

According to the Save the Children report, four times more children are enrolled in primary school now as compared with 2005 during the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). That marks a huge achievement, but there is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done though, as only 40% of men and 16% of women are literate in this country. That number also only applies to basic literacy, and the numbers for functional literacy (ability to apply reading and writing skills to daily life) is estimated to be much lower. Here’s an interesting chart from the report:

All of South Sudan’s problems take a huge toll on the ability for children to become successful members of society. Viable livelihoods are scare in many regions of South Sudan, and young men are increasingly likely to join militias and contribute to further insecurity.

All in all, it was a really fantastic and eye-opening day. Most kids in South Sudan are far from as fortunate as those we visited with today, and even for them the standard of living is far from what it is in the US. It’s easy to throw out statistics like I did above and forget to make the connection that these are living, breathing, and fun loving kids. It’s especially important to remember this considering the important role that children and young people will play in shaping South Sudan’s future.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Juba Livin'

The internet at our hotel went out for a day so I haven’t been able to post anything. The past two days have been fantastic. I’m going to chronicle what we’ve been doing in Juba in this post and then get into some of my thoughts on governance and industry in the next post. Yesterday we were able to get out of our hotel and experience Juba a little bit for the first time. We woke up at 9:30 and got breakfast, and Aduei brought me a new sim card so that I’d have a working phone (Verizon doesn’t seem to like South Sudan).

!جامية جوبا 

After breakfast, we drove out to a restaurant on the Nile and had drinks. We talked forever about South Sudanese politics with Aduei and Sheldon, and it was really interesting to hear their perspectives. Aduei now works in the Ministry of Defense, and Sheldon is working on multiple projects this summer, including securing medical supplies for a village in Jonglei province and helping out at a primary school here in Juba. Sanjay and I are going with him tomorrow to the school to visit the students and to help teach leadership activities!

Me and Aduei!

Sanjay and I checking out the White Nile

After driving around and seeing a bit more of Juba, we stopped at a hotel to get some internet access and then went to an amazing Ethiopian restaurant called Queen of Sheeba for dinner. All in all, the day included lots of heated discussions about politics in South Sudan, and many eye-opening views of Juba. FYI: The South Sudanese government and military wont let you take pictures of many ministries or monuments for security reasons, so you won’t see many of those. Their rules, not mine.


Today I felt a little less like a complete tourist (though I don’t think there are many tourists in Juba). Sanjay and I got up and walked around the city to get our bearings a bit. We wandered the streets of Juba for a while and were lured in by the “Net Café and Public Library” sign outside of the Ministry of Information. Indeed, the ministry has a small public library with a ton of South Sudan’s budgetary, legal, and humanitarian documents from the past five years or so. Being the nerds that we are, we stayed for a couple of hours and browsed through legal documents and reports on South Sudan (I’ll be sure to include some of my findings in my next post). We’ll definitely be back to the library, as it was a gold mine for government data that largely isn’t available online.

After visiting the library we had a meeting with Dr. Jok Madut Jok, the undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture. I had the chance to hear him speak last summer during a panel at the US Institute of Peace, so it was great to get to actually meet him. A journalist from Reuters was already in his office, so we just joined in on the interview and asked questions ourselves. We talked for almost two hours about corruption, the recent government shutoff of oil production, other possible sources of government revenue, and how to combat ethnic divisions and forge a South Sudanese national identity. The fact that we had such an in-depth discussion about the serious challenges facing the country proved to me (at least to some extent) that freedom of speech is alive and well in South Sudan. I’m interested to hear what others have to say about personal freedoms in this new country, and how we can be open about how to address challenges.

So right now, I’m trying to collect my thoughts after a couple of amazing days. I didn't take any pictures today because we were mostly by ministries the whole day and surrounded by lots of SPLA soldiers. We’re putting together our lesson plan of sorts for the kids tomorrow tonight, and hopefully I’ll be able to write a couple more blog posts as well!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

We Made It!

Well, we made it to Juba! It's 12:43 AM here and the jetlag is setting in, so I figured I'd blog a little bit. Getting here has been quite the experience, and I already know that this is going to be an incredible trip.

Sanjay and I took a 13-hour direct flight from Washington DC to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then a 2-hour flight to Juba. We had a short layover in Addis Ababa, where we chatted with a South Sudanese student (who now lives and goes to school in Canada) about what it was like returning home to South Sudan for the first time in twelve years. The flight to Juba was also full of families returning home. Many of them carried on gifts for loved ones and the man sitting next to me said he was excited to be able to see his wife and kids after a being away from them for over a year.

The screen on our flight to Addis Ababa.

As we flew into Juba, I was amazed by how gorgeous South Sudan was. The landscape was flat and very green, speckled by trees and flowing rivers. It looked untouched. As we got closer to the ground, I could see tiny dirt roads and huts spread out for miles. We landed in Juba at noon and stepped off the plane onto the partially-dirt runway. There was a huge sign at the end of the runway that said "Juba International Airport" in English and in Arabic. We were all shuffled into one room (as far as I know, that was the entire airport) and we waited there for our bags. They threw all of the checked bags out onto the floor, and people wrestled each other to find theirs among the mess. Sanjay didn't recognize his back when they brought it out--the zipper was broken, it was tied together with rope, and parts of the front of the bag had been ripped off! Luckily, my stuff was still intact. We had to bring our bags over to a table to be searched by soldiers, and then to a window for customs. All of this took place in the same small room, with hundreds of people pushing and shoving to get out of the airport first.

Luckily, my good family friend, Aduei, met us at the airport and helped us through the chaos. She's one of 89 "lost girls of Sudan" who were resettled in the US after fleeing the violence of civil war. She's an incredible person and she's now living in Juba after recently finishing her masters at the London School of Economics. Aduei picked us up from the airport and took us to our hotel, which was about a mile away. I was amazed by how much Juba looked exactly like I had expected. The road we were driving on was paved, but most others were dirt. Almost every building looked dilapidated or closed, and there was unfinished construction everywhere. White UN vehicles were parked in front of every couple of buildings and armed SPLA (South Sudanese military) soldiers were everywhere. I didn't have a chance to snap many pictures, but I definitely will tomorrow.

Our hotel! 

Aduei's friend Sheldon, a graduate student in international development at the University of Florida, came with Aduei to pick us up. He remarked at how none of the buildings we were seeing were there when he first visited Juba in 2009. I've heard from many of my South Sudanese friends that Juba is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and they've seen what's been described as "chaotic" development since independence last summer.

As for me and Sanjay, we passed out right when we got to the hotel. After a 6-hour nap, we ate dinner at the hotel restaurant (which was really good!) and watched the Chelsea-Bayern soccer game. We left before it was over, and we only realized how amazingly it ended after we heard screams and cheering at midnight outside of our hotel room.

I'll be sure to take more pictures tomorrow!