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An almost there kind of day

Saturday was a day of two expectations, two wants – or, rather, needs. A mixed day; I might say nus-nus or half-half – kind of an ‘almost there’ expression. An almost there expression for a day that in a way is very much all about being almost there.

The voting has been sedate to say the least, boasts of starting in the line at 5 am were not empty, even if they have proved to be a totally unnecessary precaution. So in the early morning glow, just before the sun really starts to burn, a little after 8 am, everyone finally gets to vote. Chiefs and matriarchs first.I It’s only fair – they’ve waited the longest. That is, not this morning (although they have been here since very early) but for the best part of their lives in many cases. I think that the joy or relief on the final fall of the ballot has two roots. For some it is clearly a very personal moment, a chance to remember some part of the war –probably a person, maybe a place. But for others the memory is further away; for these voters it’s an end-note to a collective drive for self determination, a task which is accepted in its absolute and now will be finished. Finished to the great relief and joy of everyone here.

For finished it certainly will be. In a local polling centre (as far as I can calculate) the turnout is close to 98 per cent; the South Sudan Referendum Commission has announced that nationwide the vital 60 per cent benchmark that is needed for the process to be valid has been passed. And no one expects these votes to be for unity. This is why people smile as they hold up their index fingers; proudly marked with the indelible proof of a vote cast. Something many people here are calling ‘the last bullet’; as in ‘I’m going to go a fire the last bullet this afternoon’. Many cries of ‘Bye-Bye’ (after the open palm which serves as the option for independence on the ballot itself) as people leave the little tented booth, and are shown how to fold the paper correctly for the last time.

I started by talking of two expectations, the first has just been completed. After  decades of fighting and many years of posturing and not-so-veiled threats, the ‘big men’ have finally got it to together; probably largely due to the focus of the wider international community, it appears this time that everyone really is tired of war. The time of the second expectation has now only just begun: this is the real expectation, the true want. The desire of a normal life, free of the troubles that have plagued this region for almost the last half century, and a life in which people might reasonably expect their quality of life to increase. For on its independence Southern Sudan (or whatever the name may be) will be a desperately poor country. It’s not even so much a question of development; rather, in many areas, a challenge of creation.

This expectation lies on the shoulders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLA), the governing party and the only real political force in the country. It is, to say the least, quite a challenge. But now, when independence comes (as it surely must, barring any last minute catastrophe), this is a challenge that people will expect the government to not only take on but succeed at, and quickly. A truly daunting task, people will expect real change when the map is redrawn; any continued use of the northern government as an excuse for personal failings will cut no ice with voters here. This is made all the more pressing by the fact that the SPLA (the army of the political movement), is remembered not only for finally ‘getting’ independence, but also for some of the burdens it placed on communities. In war, rebel groups as well as your children must be fed. Hardship (far too meagre a word) was accepted at the time, largely out of necessity, but now people expect and demand promises to be delivered upon.

Perhaps it’s disingenuous to separate these two ‘wants’ as the firsts begets the other and people are voting both as a first stride for new development and change and a final step; a final step in what many political posters tell us is ‘the long walk to freedom’. So a day of two halves, nus-nus: first half completed; second can now really start.

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.

Clash of the titans

Sudan is gearing up for a historic referendum on Sunday. Meanwhile, life goes on as normal, at least on the football pitch.

Clash of the titans... Two great warring factions finally meet... The speculation, intrigue and preparation surrounding the whole event have been intense. The pressure has been allowed to build to almost unsustainable levels, forced by initial delays and a long and painful history on both sides. The wider world is worried it might not happen at all, or if it does, that it will all go disastrously wrong.

That’s right –Mirikio FC and Rokon FC have today finally met in conflict. An epic ‘Town’ versus ‘Village’, ‘here’ competes with ‘there’, ‘us’ against ‘them’.

OK. Melodrama over. It is not – despite what I might like to imagine – an epic struggle. It is not a sporting pinnacle – think Sunday league with a third of the players without shoes; and one in which the Hackney Marshes has been replaced by a dusty hinterland opposite the police checkpoint which marks the edge of town.

It is not a gentle awakening from the trenches at dawn to have a kick-about in no-man’s-land, next day shelling to start again. Not a quiet settling of differences through the (occasionally) beautiful game. It is not this because no such divide has ever existed. Not between these two teams. Despite the fact that it might be a writer’s (or international politicians’) dream to be able to wax lyrical about a peaceful match between two halves of a divided country, a divided community struggling with itself – it is not so here. No fundamental divide. No real grudge. No citizen versus rebel. No victims against aggressors. It is just normal football.

Excellent. Boring normal football. A game in which everyone is Maradonna, Beckham, Kaka and Cantona rolled into one. It would be glorifying to call it a scrap, ‘put in from the far corner – fluffed as the now-striker is blinded by dust kicked up from the schoolgirls standing behind the posts’. A seething mass of young men trying very hard to exceed their evolved ability, and all desperately hoping that no-one notices when they fluff a set piece (they do of course). It’s uniform football, what most of us play – and that’s why it’s so important.

Normality, for a while
It’s important because it’s normal. It was arranged at the last minute, team strips don’t match and the linesmen don’t have flags. There’s no fundamental difference between the sides (they just happen to be from two villages about six miles apart); spectators watch, hopelessly biased, but only because it’s their son or brother who’s just been cruelly denied by the whistle. In all, universal football. Rokon or Rio, it’s all the same offside (or not, as it inevitably may be).

Normality like this is so important for a place like Southern Sudan; we really need to focus on it wherever we may find it. Just boys playing football. It’s normality like this that can start to work against the chaos caused by a decade-long civil war and the myriad problems of a nation that is only just being allowed to start to develop. Normality that might hopefully remind people that if push comes to shove, it’ll be worth drawing inspiration from what they know the community can be when it wants to. That is: organized, cohesive, fair and passionate – if currently lacking in technical finery.

Another normal that I can get excited about is the absence of NGOs. No acronyms were needed to run this game, no seminar on youth empowerment or workshop on grassroots involvement of the community. That’s not to try to diminish the important work of events like those, but it’s refreshing to see something (however minor) run by young people in the area; without the necessity of the infectious enthusiasm of a fleeting outside involvement. That is apart from the Catholic Father who serves as referee, perhaps a story for another day.

I can only speak for what little obvious fragments of normal I have seen, but I do really hope that soon people everywhere will have the pleasure of watching lots more poor quality football.

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.