In Parts Of Sudan, Life Hasn't Changed In Centuries

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In Sudan, voters are expected to return to the polls in January, when the South takes up a referendum on full independence from the North. But as the people of southern Sudan prepare to decide their future, it's necessary to acknowledge their present. For while some Southerners live in the 21st century, others are still in the 19th — or in some cases, a biblical age.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

In less than a year, the people of Southern Sudan will vote on whether or not to secede from Northern Sudan. It's a region on the verge of enormous change. Yet much about life in the semi-autonomous South hasn't changed in centuries.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins has the story.

(Soundbite of music)

GWEN THOMPKINS: You walk into a bar in Juba, Southern Sudan, and everything looks familiar: recessed lighting, imported tile, dark stained wood, comfortable chairs. There's a Lebanese bar owner, a cosmopolitan crowd and over the sound system, the perfect, quiet storm of R&B Barry White, the O-Jays, Gladys Knight, Teddy Pendergrass. And as Earth, Wind and Fire launch into their classis hit, "Reasons," you should pull your honey near and whisper in your sexiest voice: globalization.

(Soundbite of song, "Reasons")

EARTH, WIND AND FIRE: (Singing) The reasons that we're here...

THOMPKINS: Yeah. Globalization has hit the Southern capital of Juba, a town without a working traffic light or a public water system or an electric grid. The steady growl of generators makes modern life possible, along with a flow of cappuccinos and lattes or noodles from the Thai-owned restaurant.

(Soundbite of espresso machine)

THOMPKINS: You can sleep in a Chinese hotel or an Ethiopian one. And the international airport has daily flights in and out of the country. And yet modernity is but a dream in the other half of Juba, and indeed the rest of Southern Sudan.

(Soundbite of sheep)

THOMPKINS: Dang Arol(ph) is a shepherd outside the Western town of Aweil make that the village of Aweil no, make that a hamlet called Aweil. He minds other people's cows and sheep. And the only Earth, Wind and Fire he's aware of are the actual elements in nature. Arol doesn't have a corral, so he tethers each animal to a stake in the ground, like a cow park.

Mr. DANG AROL: (Through translator) I get (unintelligible) get water there in place called Wadit(ph) and it takes three hours to reach. So I always in the morning I take them to the water. So, rest of them are on the way.

THOMPKINS: They come by themselves?

Mr. AROL: (Through translator) Themselves. This is my life, the way you see me here, this is my life.

THOMPKINS: Lise Grande coordinates United Nations humanitarian assistance in the South.

Ms. LISA GRANDE (Coordinator, United Nations Humanitarian Assistance): We will often say that there are parts of Southern Sudan, which are some of the most remote on the face of the planet.

THOMPKINS: Southern Sudan is the size of California and Nevada combined. It has eight or nine million residents, maybe more. And if the region becomes an independent country next year, it will be among the world's neediest. Southern Sudan has lots of oil, but not enough money to satisfy vast needs above the ground. The region has only 100 midwives. There are a thousand children for every teacher. And most people here live in clusters of grass huts called bomas(ph). They're by and large illiterate.

But Grande says everyone knows the letters CPA. Those letters stand for the agreement between North and South Sudan that allows for an independence referendum next year.

Ms. GRANDE: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is huge and it has lots of components. You know, a handful of people really understand it. But the thing that everybody knows and it doesn't matter how remote the boma is you're visiting, they know that they will decide their destiny.

THOMPKINS: The ruling party of the South must find a way to crowd everyone into the same century. It won't be easy. Take Jonglei State, for instance, it's larger than New York state, but has only one road. Goi Joyuol is a local commissioner here. Joyuol says his town of Akobo aspires to the 20th century, much less the 21st. Right now they're facing the likelihood of famine.

Mr. GOI JOYUOL (Commissioner, Akobo, Southern Sudan): We want our services to trickle down, to come to the community. And that would be if we have roads we can have permanent roads that will connect us to the rest of Southern Sudan, so they can go and buy food for yourself and bring it here. Lack of roads and lack of other basic services renders this community isolated. And then in the long run, you know, small towns like this will be left.

THOMPKINS: David Gressy heads the regional U.N. mission here. He says unity or separation for Southern Sudan is a matter of semantics.

Mr. DAVID GRESSY (United Nations Mission in Sudan): Frankly, Southern Sudan will face the same challenges, regardless of unity or separation. In many ways in 2005, people lived as they had 100, 200 years ago. Southern Sudan has been moving ahead maybe 25 years at a pop per year.

THOMPKINS: But as life speeds up here, something will be lost. Outside Juba, wild pigs water themselves near the Nile River. Little boys tend cattle completely naked with only their bows and arrows to protect them. Dirt roads trail off quickly into foot paths. People eat from coconut trees and bathe without shame in the river. For most, the day is measured by the arc of the sun.

This place is once empty and full. It feels like the beginning of something, like the beginning of time.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News.

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