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Bye-bye Christmas!

…and bye-bye Omar Bashir. Southern Sudan gets ready for the referendum.

He is an imposing man. Faint beads of sweat start to flow from his temple and through the pink of his shirt, just across his broad shoulders. But that’s ok: despite it still being early it’s already hot and the congregation is growing larger by the minute; and after all, he is a very active man.

Giant strides down the aisles of plastic garden chairs and impossibly angular teak benches, both worn to a shine by their long service. His voice rises and works theatrically through the unnecessary PA  system. The congregation’s full attention is now focused on the Bishop; they know that the first big message of the morning is about to be delivered:

‘BYE BYE Christmas!’ ‘Bye Bye Christmas!’ ‘Bye BYE Christmas!’ – this last repetition comes with an emphatic and exaggerated wave goodbye. But most of us still look on in puzzled bemusement; we’ve not seen this one before. Have we all collectively failed to ‘get it’?

BYE BYE CHRISTMAS!’ the Bishop repeats louder and stronger, just to suppress any possible confused murmur in his audience.

‘This is my Bye Bye Christmas... why?’ Everyone is waiting for the answer now, even those who can guess better that the rest, or saw this last Sunday.

‘Why?... Why?...Why... because this is the last Christmas I will spend under that man!’ With this last triumphant rise he points towards the door; away from the church, away from himself and away from the town. ‘That man Omar Bashir [Sudan’s president] ... bye, bye.’ This last sentence is finished as a short, sharp statement of intent; complete with a childishly exaggerated final wave goodbye.

Independence in Southern Sudan is seen by nobody as a matter of ‘If’,it has always been (in my little experience and within the wider consciousness for most of the last 20 years) a matter of ‘When’. Its ‘eventuality’ is there at every turn. Posters tell us that ‘Unity is Slavery’ (complete with illustrations of just what manacled hands look like, in case you’ve forgotten); politicians remind us so without stopping to breathe and the radio endlessly repeats procedure so that everyone knows how to be free from it.

What about after?
This endemic of certainty, complete with ubiquitous SPLM (Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement) T-shirts, does seem to me to have one flaw. Well, not really a flaw, more a lack of balance. Obviously there’s the lack of political balance for a ‘Unity’ outcome in the referendum that is shortly to take place (I have not heard a single person, politician or otherwise, speak in its favour. Nor seen a single poster, but then I’ve never really expected to), but that wasn’t where I wanted to see more balance. I would like to see more weighting, a greater saturation, on the side of after the voting. After the counting and polling, the celebrating and the inevitable hangovers. I’m not suggesting that the huge international aid community in Southern Sudan or the country’s political and economic élite aren’t placing emphasis on the after, but it’s not any of them that I see every day. I would be worried about the lack of emphasis, or rather ‘air-time’, that the after gets. Imagine if instead of the politicians mobilizing and focusing the attention of everyone so completely on if vote; that everyone knew the plan for the when scenario.

Ultimately, I’m just bemoaning a lost opportunity; maybe not even that, just a wish that someone could turn the intense enthusiasm and collective spirit away from the messy world of referenda and toward development. An endemic spirit for development, a single-track countrywide mindset that says ‘we must get this right’ as one. But then again, I haven’t been fighting for my independence.

I think there is one other danger. That the blazing, shining banner of INDEPENDENCE might blind what lies on the other side of the hill. That the word, the dream, has become a panacea for all the ills of a country. Then of course when the magic bullet eventually misses, everyone ends up upset. My favourite of many posters reads ‘Vote for independence to end economic marginalization’. Strong words indeed, and whatever the intricacies of sharing oil revenue between the North and South end up being, the poster still rather misses the point. If the oil industry is the only real manufacturing within a country, it’s still going to be a long road to real prosperity unless something changes besides various colours on a map.

Unless, that is, both my worries are unfounded and everyone knows the plan for afterward, but they’re just too excited about the now to tell me about it. So I hope when the smoke clears and the weight is lifted people are ready to grab the banner and shout ‘yallah!’ Let’s Go!

Tim Seers is currently working as a teacher at two schools just outside Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, in Central Equitoria state. He starts at a London Medical school next year.

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