The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: south sudan

Enduring in Epic Times

It was the first bold political development of the new millennium, full of cautious hope and promise, and it’s now flirting with disaster.

We were in South Sudan as international observers in 2011, as people voted by a huge margin for the right to establish their own independent state. Subsequently, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. The mood within the country was euphoric, but the caution felt by the international community was well placed. It was one thing to form a united southern front against the northern government of Sudan in the decades-long great war, but would the southern tribes, many historically at odds with one another, be able to hold it together to enable the successful birth of the new nation?

We now know that the answer to that question is no – at least for now. Soon after independence, the two main tribes fell out with one another and a new southern civil war has ravaged the country for almost three years. Attempts at peace have failed and the cost to the average people of the south now borders on the epic.

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 7.5 million people are now living in desperation. According to the United Nations, some three million have fled their homes due to conflict and starvation and are now living in other parts of the country. Slightly more than 4,000 have been forced to leave for neighbouring countries every day. And 6 out of 10 South Sudanese refugees are children. Recently we learned from the UN that half of the entire population will face extreme hunger by this coming July.

These are the events we hear of everyday through news reports. Yet we rarely come across the remarkable stories of endurance, dedication, and even survival that occur on an ongoing basis in South Sudan. They are worth remembering.

Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan (CASS), for which I’m volunteer executive director, has been in the Aweil region of South Sudan for the past 18 years. It has never been easy, but amply uplifting to the human spirit. In all that time, Londoners have been in the area helping to rehabilitate former slaves, building public schools, developing women’s programs, clean water initiatives, supplying medicines to rural clinics, and training women leaders.

The organization has been there in times of war and peace, but nothing quite prepared CASS representatives Carol Campbell and Denise Pelley for what they encountered two months ago. Veterans of numerous support trips to the region, they reported back that, despite accounts of bloody conflict in other parts of the country, the Aweil region has remained peaceful, permitting the organization’s programs to remain active and effective.

Such encouraging news was accompanied by some troubling realities, however. The very Southern Sudanese champions of these CASS initiatives were on the cusp of starvation – both for themselves and their families.

“This journey was more difficult than my first visit during the war with the north,” Carol Campbell observed with emotion. “Those were terrible times, but what made this visit so difficult was to see how the lack of food and medical care has devastated the women leaders we have known from the beginning. It was heartbreaking.” Denise Pelley concurred.

During that first trip to South Sudan that Campbell was referring to during the war (1999), rebel commander Salva Kiir was assigned to protect us, his image captured fittingly by London Free Press photographer Derek Ruttan, who accompanied us. Now he is the President of the country and his failure to protect his eleven million people from the ravages of war has led to a troubled age.

Yet his intransigence doesn’t typify the actions of the average Southern Sudanese, who simply want to get on with building new lives and opportunities. The chief pursuit for men and women, boys and girls, is education, and even during these troubling days the desire for knowledge hasn’t abated. The high school completed by CASS last year is now full of curious boys and girls despite the chaos in the rest of the country.

With 800% inflation in the area, many can’t afford the price of food.  Mary Adeng Akot, walked with her grandson Garang, for two days to ask CASS for help.  “I am old.  I have nothing.  I ask for my family.  During the earlier war we ate leaves to live.  Now we are eating them again.”

How can all these remarkable programs go on in the midst of terrible, seemingly senseless conflict? The answer is that the Southern Sudanese accomplished all those things for half-a-century previously during the broader conflict with the north. They not only survived but prevailed. And they can again.

But can success be achieved when you and your family are on the doorstep of starvation? Recently my wife Jane Roy and I were asked to present to the Human Rights Committee in Parliament regarding the stakes in South Sudan. We reminded them that Canadians have been there for years and that millions of dollars of investment from this country have empowered the people of the south, women especially. Should we stop now, all that investment will be lost.

Admittedly these are difficult times for donors, too, including Western governments. And when all the news is negative and overlooks the Mary Akots, it remains an easy thing to lose hope. But faith in the people of South Sudan, struggling against the failure of their own political leaders, is now more important than ever. We must champion the champions, invest in their survival, and equip them to lead the women’s development programs.

“You must continue to come to us,” said Deng Deng Akuei, the governor of the region who had been schooled in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a certain urgency. “Your presence reminds us that the world still cares for us. We still have high hopes that our country will succeed. Your being with us helps us endure.” And so the call to “be there” continues.

More Than Buildings

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“A UNIVERSITY IS JUST A GROUP OF BUILDINGS gathered around a library,” wrote American historian Shelby Foote years ago. It’s just the kind of minimalist view that Socrates would have disagreed with forcefully. “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel,” the old philosopher wrote not too many years prior to his death.

It’s likely that Shelby never took into account just what such an institution of higher learning would mean to billions around the world. To them it would be the highest of all attainments, a grand destination for all those seeking enlightenment.

In the regions of South Sudan where we have volunteered for years, there is no greater ambition, no desire higher for a family, than to see kids get to the post-secondary level. The problem is that there just aren’t those opportunities where most people live – high school is as far as they can get. It’s one of the great tragedies of our day that a people who have endured decades of civil war, completed a successful peace process, and formed their own nation (the world’s newest), can’t rise to the level of their own aspirations for lack of opportunity.

When we first adopted our kids from South Sudan, community leaders understood that something remarkable was now possible for the three kids, and so they counseled with us to do everything in our power to get them to university. We took them 100% seriously and then just a few days ago came confirmation that our son, Ater (17), had been accepted at Kings University College in London. Jane and I sat together on the couch as we heard the news and all the weight of that promise we made to those community leaders suddenly lifted from us.

I still recall the very first day we took Ater to public school. He was only nine-years old but had never had a day of schooling in his life. He was nervous and held my hand on the way there. Then he saw the other kids playing on the school ground, instinctively moving towards them in a subtle wish to enjoy a childhood that had previously been kept from him. The bell rang and he rushed with the others toward the door. Suddenly he stopped and ran back to hug me, saying words I shall forever cherish: “Thank you, Daddy. I wanted an education more than anything and you and Mom got it for me. Thank you.” With that he was gone and likely didn’t think of me for the rest of the day in his new and playful world.

But I never forgot one moment of it, even until this day. Look at the picture on this page. He carries the hopes of an entire Southern Sudanese nation in that smile, along with the heartfelt wishes of a Mom and Dad who cherish him. Perhaps even more vital, his courageous mother who gave her life in Sudan so that he might be free to have this moment must be beaming in heaven. With her life she gave him a path ahead, and with our resources we will follow through on that dream for him.

Ultimately, this is Ater’s moment. He did it, despite all the obstacles he has faced in his young life. To him, Kings University College is something far more transcendent and marvelous than a bunch of buildings around a library. It is his springboard to an enlightened life in which he will learn to help others and grow in the process.

I think of the observation of Richard Levins: “A scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral.” If so, then the opposite is also true: Enlightenment that can embrace a struggling humanity is the greatest service offered by any educational institution. It’s your time, Ater – take it. Build on that absolutely transcendent disposition of yours, and to it add a renewed commitment to allow your knowledge to take you where humanity requires the most hope and a sense of justice.  From heaven and earth, we’ll be watching with pride.

 

 

 

 

Promise Fulfilled

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THE WORK OF FOUR REMARKABLE Canadian women in South Sudan has been so inspiring that I am including my new London Free Press article here on their efforts.  Just link to http://www.lfpress.com/2015/02/26/pearson-a-london-groups-promise-14-years-ago-to-build-a-high-school-in-the-south-sudan-region-of-aweil-was-fulfilled-this-year-the-school-will-open-in-apriland see some great pictures, along with a description of their efforts.  This is inspiring stuff in a new nation struggling to find its feet.  Proud to know these four great champions.

Canada Abandons a Former Partner

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Jane with an observer from the European Union during the South Sudan referendum

The following in my Huffington Post piece regarding the news that the Government of Canada has opted to significantly remove its presence in south Sudan during one of that country’s worst crises.  You can view the original article here.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

It won’t be easy. It’s never been simple. But for over 15 years a large number of Canadians have been investing in such initiatives, even during some of the worst years of the now-concluded civil war. During those early occasions, Canada’s reputation had been sullied by the presence of a Canadian oil firm that, in Southern Sudanese eyes, was making a fortune out of their misery. Eventually the firm pulled out and we sensed a warming to Canada as our government invested more deeply in peace initiatives and relief efforts, and as it became clear that we weren’t just interested in financial gain.

Some very capable Canadian diplomats were of key assistance in constructing and funding some of the key efforts required to end the war between north and south Sudan following so many decades. And Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which had provided such stellar service during the war years, assisted in helping the Southern Sudanese move forward as they peacefully achieved independence and became the world’s newest nation. For years, the Sudanese conflict had remained high on the radar for successive Canadian governments, who worked in conjunction with many of their international partners in that deeply troubled part of the world.

But being a new nation with limited resources doesn’t make for an easy transition into good governance. Tribes that had held together to fend off the incursions of north Sudan during the lengthy war have started to come apart over the problems of administering the peace. The recent troubles in the south that sprung up only a month ago, and the instability that has resulted, has pressed that African region to the precipice. Western nations that had so greatly assisted in early years but who had moved on to other regions are quickly returning with new initiatives to assist the south in holding itself together as it journeys towards adulthood as a nation.

Sadly, one of those countries will not be Canada. For well over a decade, Sudan had been a Canadian priority. But just this week, the Harper government, through its Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), has recommended, “that Canada consider downgrading its development program (in Sudan), or exiting entirely.”

CIDA correctly figured that it was going to prove difficult to administer aid in the south. But that’s the way it has been for decades. Some of Canada’s most effective investments occurred during the civil war’s costliest years. This country, along with the U.S., Britain, the European Union, and others, kept their eye on the ball, slowly but progressively nursing that troubled country into an era where peace became a possibility.

What’s the reason for Canada’s change of heart and focus? According to an internal reportacquired by the Globe and Mail, Sudan is no longer an area of “strategic importance” to this government. Both Foreign Affairs and CIDA have been instructed to implement a new era in international intervention, primarily focused on what’s best for Canadian business. At the moment, little such opportunity seems apparent in Sudan and downgrading this country’s historic investment has been recommended.

All this is transpiring just as Sudan requires not only Canada’s ongoing partnership, but its influential diplomatic expertise. The Globe and Mail’s release of the internal report reveals that all this couldn’t have come at a worse time. In preparation for our trip to South Sudan in a few days, we learned that numerous contacts at various levels have been taken aback by what for them is even more fulsome evidence that Canada has lost its way in recent years.

While the United Nations has put out an emergency appeal for one billion dollars from donor countries to assist the Sudanese effort, tongues have already begun to wag in capitals throughout the West about how Canada appears to have gone AWOL. As one American government official told me today, “It’s now difficult to know how to involve your country in these important security and development issues anymore.”

All this will be embarrassing and not a tad sad to speak about with the Southern Sudanese. But, as with those earlier times, we will remind them that the people of Canada will continue in their interest and investment in a troubled country even as our own government loses interest. But hanging over all of us will be the understanding that Canada is leaving the southern Sudanese to their own fate, in this, their adolescent years as a new nation. Some investment will continue, but our government’s imagination is gone. This is not our finest hour.

Who Knew?

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Achan and Abuk a few moments after meeting one another – 2005

They were violently wrenched apart at only four months of age.  Too young to understand what happened, they likely were terrified by the sound of gunshots and their mother covered in blood.  One was immediately ushered away while the other lay in a tangle of bodies, nestling in the arms of her dead mother.

For years they both lived separate lives, aware that the other had once existed, but believing that death had taken the other.  They were informed they had once had an identical twin but that life and war had conspired to separate them forever.  The one lived and thrived in Canada, aware of her loneliness but surrounded by everything wonderful.  The other fought for life in Darfur, also aware of loneliness but with nothing present that could ease the feeling of alienation and fear.

On a single day in 2005 they bumped into one another beside an airplane on a dirt airstrip in South Sudan.  They looked at each other, fascinated by the resemblance, but too young to understand what was happening.  To the amazement of all, they later grasped hands and walked away from the crowd, holding on to a soccer ball.  Time stood still.  The earth stopped rotating. Destiny was in the making.

It was later that day that the identical twins learned that other had, in fact, survived but half a world apart.  While they kicked the soccer ball in the dirt, forces at play on two continents had already begun to reunite them in Canada. This was Abuk and Achan, our twin girls, and an ever-present reminder that not only do miracles yet occur, but they mature over the years to the amazement of those willing to see.  Today, they become teenagers.  At thirteen years of age they have defied the odds and brought honour to their two mothers – one dead, the other preciously alive.  To this day, they look individually in the mirror and see the other.  They look at each other and see themselves.

For those around them there has been the discovery that there are two things for which we are never fully prepared – twins.  They stand as one of the unique unfoldings of creation and humanity.  They remind all of us that every once in a while two people come into life together, sharing possibilities as they once shared a womb.  And they are an eternal reminder that they share an African mother that lost her life in her pursuit of their freedom and in that reality they will ever be bound to a remarkable woman leaving them with an inspiring legacy.

But there is more.  They share another mother, a Canadian woman, who also risked her life for their freedom.  Only this Mom they get to keep – and what a keeper she is.  In so many ways she is younger in spirit than they are, more capable of spontaneous joy than anyone else in our family.  And as they mature they will ever be captured by the memory and knowledge that this mother lives every waking moment treating the rest of humanity like she treats these precious girls.

I ask you, what were the odds that they would be together for their teenage birthdays?  The war, the famine, death of their mother, in remotest Africa, disease, lack of water, noticed by only a few people in their village willing to care for them – such things conspire to wipe out lives and possibilities.

But not for these two.  They live and are as different as identical twins usually are.  Yet they are the living embodiment of Louisa May Alcott’s observation – “We’re twins, and so we love each other more than other people.”

This is a day of possibilities, of reminders that should we but enter into the pains of humanity we might yet rescue people from their circumstances and unleash their marvelous humanity in our generation – and theirs.

There is a custom in South Sudan that tells of how a mother who has died but whose twins remain separated hovers over the earth in her efforts to reunite them.  If unsuccessful she takes them to heaven to be with her.  If successful, and they come together on earth, she is free.  The village sacrificed a bull in honour of the twins and as they looked on with Jane they could hardly have understood what this meant to the Sudanese.  One mother from Canada had one last slave to free – a weary Sudanese mother of twins attempting to bring them together.  In that one act they were united before the entire village and their African mother could cease from her labours.  Go, then, Sudanese Mom, and rest.  They live.  They thrive.  They love.  And they will ever be reminded that you sacrificed your all so that they might have a shot at living.  If you could only see them now.  It was a sacrifice worth making in every sense of the word.  We thank God for every thought of you – a towering woman.  Just think, your twin girls are thirteen today.  Who knew?

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