The wisdom of chief and bishop

South Sudan

July 11, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Congregants at the All Saints Cathedral were jubilant celebrating the first Sunday after independence. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The Paramount Chief of Boma District of Juba told me about the sufferings of his people. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

Last week in South Sudan, I was able to witness the birth of the world’s newest nation. I also got to talk to numerous South Sudanese — many older and far wiser than myself — about excitement and concerns for their country. I’d like to recount a couple of those experiences.

First, I had a remarkable meeting with the Paramount Chief of the Boma district of Juba, South Sudan’s capital city. He is a retired policeman and one of Juba’s 31 “chiefs,” a function that is somewhere between that of a government representative and a traditional elder. The Chief is a tall, gentle, gregarious guy who was elected 17 years ago, and has been working ever since to resolve disputes over everything from cows to water, build schools, promote agriculture and generally help his people make progress.

I asked the Chief what most excites him about independence. He explained that for too long the people of the South were oppressed. They suffered through violence, displacement and slavery, and even something as seemingly simple as moving around a city or outside of one’s village was often impossible because of a complex and oppressive system of checkpoints.

“Ever since I was born, all I’ve known is war," he said. "Now my people have a chance to be happy with peace.”

To celebrate Independence Day, the Chief gathered the 30 other chiefs of Juba. Each of them slaughtered a bull, and then took it back to his district to host a big outdoor party — complete with traditional dancing, singing and eating — for his people. These were well-earned festivities.

The second brush with wisdom I had was in a church pew. South Sudan is a secular state, but the majority of people here identify themselves as Christian. Churches have a lot of influence in this country so I wanted to see what was being said from the pulpit on the Sunday after independence.

I wandered into a big crowd at the All Saints Cathedral, an Episcopalian church, where I was quickly ushered up to a set of front pews reserved for “guests” — honored Sudanese and foreigners. The service was a mix of “normal” elements like Bible readings and hymns, interspersed with independence special events, songs and speeches. At many points in the service, the congregation was rocking with clapping, loud amens and other jubilant outbursts.

Almost all of the speakers talked about the incredible achievement of independence, and their thankfulness to God for freeing the people of South Sudan. But one set of comments, from the Most Reverend Dr. Daniel Deng, bishop of Juba, stuck with me. He talked primarily about the challenges ahead, and the need for his people to embrace peace and self-reliance.

“The world is telling us we will be a failing state; we will not be a failing state,” proclaimed Deng. “We must march together, and where there is problem, let us bring it down. We must respect and love each other. We need to teach our people to work, not just to receive [aid]. We need to produce our own food.”

These sentiments received a set of “amens” as enthusiastic as those praising the new Republic of South Sudan.

The words of the Chief and the Bishop reflected the two sentiments I heard loud and clear all week: joy at the founding of this new nation and a resolve to make it succeed. The coming weeks, months and years will be difficult ones for this nascent country, and I know that the Mercy Corps team will work side-by-side with the South Sudanese to help them pursue their dream of a stable prosperous nation.