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.