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The Sudan of Their Dreams

February 6, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

On today's flight from Agok to Wau I sat across the aisle from Achel, a tall and spirited Dinka woman who trains women entrepreneurs in business skills for Mercy Corps. From Wau she'd fly to Khartoum to surprise three of her sisters, each of whom was traveling from homes outside Sudan to visit their father.

As we stepped off the 11-seat UN aircraft and walked toward the open-air terminal, she told me she'd just taken her first steps in Wau since she fled the town in 1998.

I heard bits and pieces of Achel's story the last few days, during which she served as our interpreter at our project sites in Twic County, southern Sudan. Growing up with limited opportunities in Khartoum. Coming back to southern Sudan when her father, a government employee, was transferred in 1985. Hiding under Wunrock's enormous baobab tree at the first sound of Antonov bombers.

And now on the red-dirt tarmac, I was reminded of her cover-of-darkness flight from Wau. I pointed out that her last trip between Wau and Agok had been on foot, and this one was in a Cessna. She laughed. "That time it took us one month." Today's ride took only 48 minutes.

Our Sudanese staff members share the same traits of my Mercy Corps colleagues anywhere in the world: friendly, hardworking, dedicated to helping improve their country. But here, each has his or her particular tale of hardship and turmoil.

There's Michael, an upbeat 24-year-old program manager who spent six years of his childhood as a soldier. Or John, an IT specialist schooled at a refugee camp in Kenya. Or Nyanchol, who was uprooted from her home during a time when peers in safer countries were finishing high school and going on to university.

I doubt there's a single member of our national staff whose life was not dramatically altered by Sudan's civil war. But each one persevered. Today Achel manages a program that in the last two years has supported 15 women-owned enterprises, from restaurants to tea stalls to lodges. She doesn't think much of the work habits of men here, so for the future, she says soberly, "We are depending on the women."

For our Sudanese staff, war is part of all of their pasts. But what's encouraging is that now all of them — instead of hiding, fearing, waiting, hurting, suffering — are building the Sudan of their dreams.