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Sudanese Return Home to Rebuild Juba

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Sudanese Return Home to Rebuild Juba

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Sudanese Return Home to Rebuild Juba

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the frozen chosen. But first, nearly half a million people are expected to return to southern Sudan this year. During 20 years of civil war, many lived as refugees, obliged to but not necessarily at home in neighboring countries. Others went under comparatively opulent lives in the West. For those who've become accustomed to air-conditioning, the Internet, theater tickets and ESPN, the decision to return to southern Sudan reeks of hope.

NPR's Gwendolyn Thompkins reports from the southern capital city of Juba.

GWENDOLYN THOMPKINS: Tobam Laliyu(ph) is relaxing in his office at Juba University, holding forth on jazz, hip-hop, the American civil rights movement and what it was like to be young, gifted and Sudanese in a segregated Knoxville, Tennessee, in the early 1960s. To make a long story short, he got busted.

Mr. TOBAM LALIYU (Sudanese): Because the mayor of Knoxville has been given that all-American city award in 1964. And we thought that the city of Knoxville did not give (unintelligible) American city. So we went and demonstrated. I stood my ground. Other people ran away, I said that to be responsible for my action. And so that was my contribution towards (unintelligible) liberation.

THOMPKINS: Lalu is a poet professor. He has surrounded himself with old Wordsmith on bookcases he brought back from his last teaching post in South Africa. There's the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, of course, an American newsman A.J. Liebling. There's even the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Slavery still exists in the areas of Sudan, particularly in the north, despite two civil wars with the south and a relatively new peace. Lallu says he doesn't expect the peace to last. But he left Johannesburg and moved back to Juba two years ago as a political statement - a way of demonstrating for a southern Sudan, made by and for southern Sudanese.

Mr. LALLU: It is not going to be easy. We are struggling to do our own fight. We are going to cut our throats, but lives with within the parameter, which we understand.

THOMPKINS: Julia Aker Duany was in a comfortable teaching job at Indiana University in Bloomington. She and her husband Wal(ph) raised five tall and nimble children there. So tall and nimble in fact, that all five of them went to college on Division 1 NCAA Basketball scholarships. Yeah, that's Duany in a 2003 layout in Sports Illustrated. And yeah that's here son, Kueth, the senior captain of the Syracuse team, otherwise known as the 2003 NCAA champions.

Once you've been in the pages of Sports Illustrated, it's going to be hard to fast break into Juba. But here she is about as far away from the cornfields of Indiana as you can get without a space shuttle.

Dr. JULIA AKER DUANY (Undersecretary, Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, Southern Sudan): One, living in the U.S. is very easy. You just jump into your car. You're going to pick up the milk and you bring it and your kids will have it. But to come back, for me, this is the maker of the individual's decision.

THOMPKINS: In the now semi-autonomous southern Sudan, Duany is the undersecretary to the ministry of parliamentary affairs. She says women are more important to the future of Southern Sudan than ever before,

Dr. DUANY: Because now with the war, we have lost lots of our male members. And their family in southern Sudan has lost somebody, and that somebody is a male. So 65 percent of the population is women. So it is for us here in southern Sudan not to dwell on gender issue, this is a man, this is a woman. If there is a human being capable of doing something, please them do it.

THOMPKINS: Lallu and Duany are two of the many who have returned to Southern Sudan, intent on making it more than it was. For nearly 200 years, this region has been a kind of pea(ph) patch for colonial powers in search of warriors and slaves. In part, it's because any colonial power would want the people here on its side.

The Dinka and the Nuer are just two of the many ethnic groups living in this hot and unforgiving landscape. And they are magnificent to behold. Dinka men and women are so tall that when they stand up, they stand up and up and up. They dominated the rebel movement that steered southern Sudan toward peace and toward a 2011 referendum that could result in the region becoming its own nation.

Ms. REBECCA GARANG (Minister of Road and Transportation): We need to come here, and we don't want this country to be built by anybody else, but by us, ourselves.

THOMPKINS: That's Rebecca Garang, the minister of Road and Transportation in the government of southern Sudan. She is the widow of John Garang, the leader of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, which quashed other rebel groups in the region and signed the peace deal with Khartoum.

John Garang was meant to serve as the president of southern Sudan, and concurrently, as the first vice-president of the central government in Khartoum. But he died in a helicopter crash shortly after the peace deal was signed in 2005. Rebecca had a house and a life in Nairobi, Kenya but sees her future here.

Ms. GARANG: And now, after the death of my husband, I may be needed more than before. And I find that it is my duty to play my role, also to show our people that a struggle pays later.

THOMPKINS: Comparatively speaking, Rebecca Garang has a much higher standard of living than most people in the area. After all, she still lives in the presidential palace. But even Rebecca Garang would have a tough time raising her children full-time here.

The heat here is like an open flame. There are few schools, the food markets are spare and for plenty of people, especially children, there's not much to do. Juba has one paved road and the surrounding towns have less than that. It would be tough to find a television set here, let alone a movie house, a coffee shop or a baby Gap.

President SALVA KIIR (Southern Sudan): That depends. It's not always compulsory.

THOMPKINS: That's Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan. While refugees must come back, he knows that many of southern Sudan's brightest ex-patriots will likely stay away.

Pres. KIIR: When you leave your country for one reason or the other, it will be your decision again to come back. What we do at the government is to appeal to them that the conditions that drove you out of your country are now over, and that they should come back.

THOMPKINS: But the reality on the ground in southern Sudan is that there are two types of people here: those who stuck it out during the 20-year civil war and those who left for one reason or another and came back home. The truth is they need one another. Nation building requires the stamina of one and the worldly sophistication of the other.

The speaker of southern Sudan's parliament, James Wani Igga, sat in his office recently amid a cacophony of construction on the new parliament building. He said if you were a southern Sudanese and living comfortably in the Diaspora, now is the time to come back. Now is the time to suffer.

Mr. JAMES WANI IGGA (Speaker of Parliament, Southern Sudan): You know, if America has become comfortable to others. If London has become comfortable to others, that comfort did not come out of the blue, it was out of sweat and blood. We've shed blood. It is time to sweat - work. Then this noise you hear people are at work. Home is home. So, yes, we can equally develop our home and become comfortable. Suffering first and then comfort for us. Not the other way around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: So if you are coming back to southern Sudan, bring some snacks and a fan. No, bring an air-conditioner and an icemaker. Okay, bring an air-conditioner, an icemaker and a construction crew too. The workday has just begun.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Juba.

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