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Celebrating July 4th en route to South Sudan

South Sudan, July 2, 2011

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I’m a big fan of July 4th; it’s a holiday with friends, barbecue, fireworks and — even in the dreary Pacific Northwest — we usually manage to get some sun. But most importantly, it’s a day to remember the founding of the United States, and the long, hard struggles of our forefathers to gain independence.

This year I’ll be on an airplane on July 4th but I won’t miss Independence Day. In fact, I’m going halfway around the world to celebrate it somewhere else: South Sudan.

On July 9th, South Sudan will become Africa’s newest country and the world’s 196th nation. Independence will mark the culmination of a six-year peace process that ended a long, bloody civil war; more than two million Sudanese were killed between 1983 and 2005.

In the years since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, the two Sudans have been trudging toward a final resolution of their status. This past January, the South held a peaceful and fair referendum on independence. Nearly 99 percent of participants voted to break away from the greater Sudan.

Independence becomes a reality in a little over a week, but July 9th will mark the beginning — not the end — of South Sudan’s struggles. The country will be born as one of the world’s poorest, with almost no infrastructure, plenty of economic instability, and too many people who can’t get adequate food, medical care or education. On top of that, recent clashes with the North along volatile border areas have led to massive displacement and cut people in need off from humanitarian assistance.

This new country will have big growing pains.

But the people of South Sudan are hopeful and excited. They are ready to build their country from the ground up, and Mercy Corps is working hard to support them. The South Sudanese will need private-sector jobs, responsive government institutions, help from the international community, and most important, they have to translate their current enthusiasm into lasting civic engagement.

These are all tremendous hurdles, I know. But I’ll admit it: this week I’m just excited to go to Juba — South Sudan’s capital — for independence. Yes, I’m bummed to miss July 4th festivities in the U.S., but it feels right to commemorate my own country’s independence by witnessing the birth of a brand-new nation.