This year I celebrated my very first Independence Day as a resident of the U.S. In fact, I was able to celebrate my nation as well, by catching Canada Day celebrations a few days earlier!
Last year, I missed the fireworks, as I witnessed the birth of the Republic of South Sudan and joined the Independence Day celebrations there. The South Sudanese understand the cost of freedom, having spent almost 60 years embroiled in civil wars. The streets of Juba, Wau and every other town in South Sudan were jubilant. The end of war and the power to decide their own fate were on the minds of every new citizen, and the words to the hastily released anthem were being tripped over with joy.
But the 10th brought a return to reality: more than 700,000 refugees and displaced people, many homeless and unemployed, were crowding into a nation where more than 50% live on less than $1/day, only 27% of adults are literate, and 78% of the population depends on crop farming or animal husbandry as their primary sources of income.
As they look back at their first year of independence, the price is still being paid. In what has been called a “write-off” year, the country has been plagued with a litany of difficulties both internal and external. Within a month, attacks and bombing along the border with Sudan recommenced, and tribal conflicts within the country caused another wave of displacement. While the government tried to build an economy and fuel the growth of their nation, corrupt officials stole billions, and economic disputes over oil led to the decision to shut down the oil pipeline which provides over 90% of the national revenue. Flooding in some parts of the country and drought in others has caused food shortages, malnutrition and illness. This is a long way from the euphoria experienced one very long year ago.
The South Sudanese, however, are more optimistic about the future than outsiders looking in. Just as they stood behind their leaders during the long battles for independence, they are digging in and building a better future. Some have taken up voluntary collections to support government expenses during the economic crisis. Schools are growing on a daily basis, as new citizens move back. Schoolchildren paint the future on walls, describing the construction of schools and hospitals. Children can dream big, but they can’t eat dreams.
This has been a year of growth for World Concern in South Sudan as well. We are providing emergency food to more of the estimated 2.4 million food-insecure people and helping more than 20,000 new mothers with nutrition supplements for their children. In partnership with the Ministry of Education and UNICEF, we are building classrooms as fast as possible to shelter eager young learners, and sponsoring young adults to attend vocational training centers. Recognizing the importance of agriculture and fishing to both income and food security, World Concern is helping kick-start farming and fishing associations with tools and training, as well as engaging new government officials in protecting natural resources, such as rivers and woodlands. We are seeing progress, one community at a time.
One of the things celebrated on the 4th of July is liberty, which is something very few of us truly understand. The people of South Sudan have not achieved the end of the road to freedom yet, but through the past year, despite many obstacles, they have persevered. As they stop to catch their breath, looking back at the year that was, and looking forward to the long road ahead, those of us who eat the fruits of independence need to lend our support to those still in the struggle to attain it.