Four days old: Many hopes, many challenges in new South Sudan

Chants of “Republic of South Sudan Oyee” will forever be etched in the minds of many South Sudanese as they reminisce over their independence -- today, only four days old.

An overflowing crowd of people, both young and old, showed up at the John Garang Memorial to mark the historic event on July 9. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese endured the blistering sun, all along energized, as they erupted into song and dance when the country became the world’s 193rd country and Africa’s 54th.

I saw men and women faint as the declaration was made. Others openly broke into tears as the new flag was hoisted.

As I watched the excitement, my mind returned to the peace process that brought forth the independence. As a journalist working with an international news agency then, I had covered the North-South peace talks right from the time they began in Kenya in 2002 to the 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the 21-year war. The jubilation was the same -- it echoed the emotions witnessed on July 9.

Women rehearse their performance ahead of independence festivities in South Sudan. ©2011 Joyce Mulama/World Vision

Dominic Ohid, who had spent the previous night at the John Garang Memorial awaiting South Sudan’s independence, broke into uncontrollable bouts of sobbing when the new national anthem of South Sudan was sung. This came after Salva Kiir Mayardit took the oath of office as the president of the new Republic of South Sudan. To Ohid, the anthem’s words -- peace, harmony, prosperity, and justice -- have profound meaning.

“We are a free nation; we should live in peace and harmony for us to be prosperous. Our new country should ensure justice to our people,” the 30-year-old man said, his eyes red from crying. As I spoke with him, I learned that he had lost his brother and uncle from the war. His mother, too stressed by the death of a son, became frail and died a few years later.

The expectations that accompany the country’s independence are huge, and so are the challenges. In his address on Independence Day, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said as much.

“We gather in celebration, but we are mindful of the enormous challenges ahead -- deep poverty, lack of basic infrastructure and institutions of government, political insecurity,” he observed.

Traditional dancers in Juba celebrate independence. ©2011 Joyce Mulama/World Vision

Similarly, in a new documentary by World Vision, children point out poverty, basic infrastructure (healthcare, water, and education) and protection as key issues that the new country should address. The video, "Voice of Hope: Children of South Sudan," was launched in Juba on July 6.

As a new nation, South Sudan has some of the worst human development indicators, with only 20 percent of the population having access to basic services. Poor education and healthcare provision, with low school enrollment and high maternal and child mortality rates, are key challenges. So is the limited access to clean water and sanitation.

Continued support from the international community over the coming months and years will be vital.

Ensuring peace and security will be key for delivering improved basic services and economic opportunities. For example, in Western Equatoria state, often described as the breadbasket of South Sudan, attacks by the Lords Resistance Army have displaced thousands, who are now reliant on food aid.

Daniel Deng, Archbishop of the Episcopal Church in Sudan, reiterated on July 10, as he addressed congregants at the Juba Cathedral, “We have to rebuild our nation. Let us produce our own food. A country which does not produce its own food is not viable. We need to ensure food security.”

I could not agree more.

Read related posts about South Sudan's independence.

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