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For all the wars and conflicts in Africa, one thing has rarely changed: Most African nations have retained the same borders for decades. Those borders date from the time when Europeans carved up Africa, and they have remained whether they make sense or not.
That stability underlines the significance of a vote that begins this weekend in Sudan. People in the southern part of the country vote on whether to declare independence. They would split the country in two, a north that is mostly Arab and Muslim, and a south that is largely Christian.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports that the voting may be the easy part.
(Soundbite of marching band)
FRANK LANGFITT: The mood in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, is boisterous these days. Marching bands and sound trucks roam the streets, urging people to vote for independence. But after next week's polling, the real work begins. Southern Sudan is nearly the size of Texas but has hardly any paved roads. Corruption is rampant. And illiteracy hovers around 60 percent.
If South Sudan is going to succeed as a country, it's going to need help from places like this: Juba University, the biggest school in the south. But right now I'm here in one of the dorm areas and it's frankly really trashed. There are lots of broken windows, there's garbage all over the courtyard, the floors are flooded. And I'm next to a bunch of goats here who are eating into a bag of rotted food.
(Soundbite of bag crinkling)
(Soundbite of door opening)
LANGFITT: Conditions inside the dorm room are no better. Wow.
Unidentified Man: Yeah. it is our room.
LANGFITT: Hello everybody.
Students pack 15 to a room, sleeping beneath mosquito nets on bunk beds. The dorm has no water, so students haul it in buckets from a tanker truck a football field away.
William Simon is 24. He's studying finance in hopes of getting a job at a bank.
Mr. WILLIAM SIMON (Student): The number of the students is very high. Most of them are sharing beds. Others are sleeping outside even. Some people have left the university because the condition is very bad. People are scrambling for food.
LANGFITT: The Reverend Milton Lado, the school's acting deputy academic secretary, agrees.
Rev. MILTON LADO (University of Juba): It's terrible, it is terrible, but as time goes, we hope things will improve.
LANGFITT: Lado traces the university's dreadful conditions to Sudan's two-decade civil war. Shelling by Northern Sudan forced the school to close in 1989. When it reopened following a peace agreement six years ago, thousands flooded back to a campus designed for just 600.
Lado says the school can't afford to expand. He's hoping for help from foreign organizations.
Rev. LADO: Our expectations are that once the referendum is over, we expect some good Samaritans to come in and assist the university.
(Soundbite of road traffic)
LANGFITT: Another problem in Southern Sudan is the roads. I'm on my way to the Ministry of Transportation and I'm on a road. As you can probably hear, it's really bad. It's mostly dirt and lots of potholes.
Before 2007, there were no paved roads in Southern Sudan, according to the government. Today there are many in Juba, but highways across the region are still dirt or gravel.
Philip Waiwai handles road maintenance for the government here. He says many rural roads wash out in the rainy season, including the 370-mile route from Juba, the capital, to Malakol, another major city of one million.
Mr. PHILIP WAIWAI: The end of May to November, you can't use that road.
LANGFITT: So how do people get from Malakol to Juba?
Mr. WAIWAI: Well, you fly. You use charter planes to come, to come to Juba.
LANGFITT: It's like not being able to drive from New York to Chicago five months of the year.
Waiwai has high hopes for Southern Sudan's transport system. In the next couple of months, his department will start an asphalt highway to the Ugandan border. But he says the government has to generate more money to build more roads, and keep it out of the hands of crooked officials.
Mr. WAIWAI: We need to have a system where the taxes collected are transparently used for development, not to go to some individual pockets. So we suspect that the corruption is still very high.
LANGFITT: Corruption is very high. I speak from experience. On two recent trips to Juba, police shook down my taxi driver for bribes. A female cop was pretty blunt earlier this week.
(Soundbite of man speaking in foreign language)
Unidentified Woman: Stop the car, stop the car. Pay money.
LANGFITT: Stop the car, pay money? That's how it works?
When she saw me recording, she demanded my tape. She said reporters should focus on the referendum - not traffic cops.
Like most places ravaged by war, Southern Sudan doesn't have strong institutions to fight corruption or build roads or schools. And for a newly independent nation, it will take time to build them.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Juba, Southern Sudan.
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