My wife and I leave in a few days to lead a humanitarian team into South Sudan (casscanada.ca). A trek we make every year at this time, this coming visit is occurring during a time of dramatic challenge in South Sudan specifically, and Africa in general.
In various African nations, youth are increasingly coming onside for democracy. Foreign Policy magazine cites examples from numerous nations where younger generations are making their desire for a better life a premise for change.
“Their optimism has been buoyed in part by the rise of an aggressively independent media, the maturing of institutions such as the judiciary, and by the explosion of nongovernmental organizations fighting to hold governments accountable despite increasingly restrictive conditions … Never in Africa’s independent history has such a broad alliance stood for democracy against elites with deep financial and security ties to powerful countries in the wider world.”
Is this true for South Sudan? Not yet, but it doesn’t mean that moment isn’t coming. Political dysfunction at so many different levels is slowly creating a willingness among citizens of that deeply divided land to press for political changes in how the world’s newest nation is managed. It remains a difficult thing to create reforms when the institutions charged with protecting and enhancing the country are themselves broken.
In the region of Aweil, South Sudan, where we develop women’s programs, women have been more stridently speaking out against the lack of opportunity for them and their children. Two years ago, we opened up a secondary school in the region, open to all but specifically geared to helping girls receive their high school education. Despite the many obstacles faced in the area the school continues to flourish, as Southern Sudanese again demonstrate their innate knowledge that it will be education that will build a better future.
And despite an extensive famine and an 800% inflation rate, the women’s programs we fund each year through fundraising efforts in Canada – clean water, micro-enterprise, education, and political empowerment – have continued to function, in some cases flourish, in the midst of a crippling and bloody civil war. As in other parts of the globe, women are taking on increased leadership roles despite the challenges and frequent threats. All this is being done with little domestic support but with resources being offered through nongovernmental organizations and international media.
It would be a mistake to consider this some kind of hashtag trend, for it has been a slowly building movement for half-a-century, and the cost in lives has been tragic. Yet it continues, not merely because of some kind of ideology, but the drive of every person for a better life for their children, themselves, their country and the future. The people of South Sudan remain the embodiment of Reinhold Neibuhr’s observation: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” It is that belief that makes international efforts to assist the Southern Sudanese on their path still worth doing – the people themselves still believe they will succeed.
For decades, the dedicated work undertaken by aid and development organizations, large and small, hasn’t been to merely keep that struggling nation on life support, but to side with a great and struggling people in their belief that change is yet worth it and still within their grasp – despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The Canadian government continues to contribute millions of dollars to relief and development operations in South Sudan, but there remains a greater need for Canadian officials to tell of the remarkable work being done by NGOs of all varieties in what seems like an impossible situation. With the devastating news in recent years of the Southern Sudanese turmoil and democratic setback, it remains an easy thing for Canadian citizens to read the negative stories and simply assume that the situation is impossible. The very presence of government and NGO support, and especially the redoubtable courage of the Southern Sudanese themselves, remind us that this just isn’t so. The Trudeau government must tell that story over and over again. Progress sometimes takes years, decades, centuries even, but it will emerge as long as the people themselves believe in their future and in their own right to sacrifice and shape it. Inevitably the people themselves are the only ones capable of altering their course.
Canada is a global nation – a meaningful reality relentlessly proved each time we reach out beyond ourselves to help other nations still on their journey to liberation, social justice and prosperity. It’s what Canadians do and it brings hope and humanizes our own nation. Our team leaves this week in that hope and in the belief that the Southern Sudanese themselves wish it even more than we do. To our generosity as Canadians and their government must now be added a tenaciousness of purpose beautifully written by Paul Monette: “Take your easy tears somewhere else. Tell yourself none of this ever had to happen. And then go make it stop. With whatever breath you have left. Grief is a sword or it is nothing.”