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South Sudan: the face of a new country in the drama of Marcellina and her son
Wednesday, 13 July 2011 21:32

On occasion of the recognition on July 9, 2011, of South Sudan as independent from the country of Sudan, AVSI offers an inside perspective from Gabriele Erba, a staff member in the field.

For a person who comes from a rich country, stepping into a developing country gives one the impression of going back in time several decades.  Travelling within poor countries where per capita incomes are low, one usually does not perceive great differences in the level of development. That is, until arriving in south Sudan. It is a land which has been almost constantly at war since it was decolonized in 1956. The clash was between the Arab ruling elite and the dozens of Nilotic tribes settled to the south of the Nuba Mountains, and ended in 2005 with the Treaty of Nairobi.

Like all wars , it could only be dirty and unfair; tainted by the greed of many allies who were always searching for black gold in South Sudan.  Still, the "Southerners" fought with a real and genuine desire for equality, justice and dignity. Anthony took my hand to tell me of the hidden apartheid, humiliation and abuse inflicted on him by the Arabs of the north. He speaks like an exhausted spouse who has finally decided to leave home. This separation between north and south is a brilliant achievement of peace, but for me it has a taste of failure:  the two peoples, representing two faiths, have not yet learned to live together and discover how to make their differences into a richness.

There is little urban development . Ninety percent of the population lives in the remotest villages, inaccessible even to the seemingly unstoppable Land Cruisers. People live in isolation, eating what they can get from the land and their cattle. Historically, the limited means of sustaining life has generated violent competition for resources that still occurs, now with the weapons that the devastating war has left behind. Whereas before they raided a cow herd with bow and arrow, they now raid with an efficient AK-47. The wounds that these weapons have inflicted are no longer curable by the traditional rituals of peace, and so the elders shake their heads in front of a violence that does not want to stop.


On July 9th, South Sudan became an independent country in every respect. AVSI has been present since 2005 in two of the ten federal states comprising the republic—Central and Eastern Equatoria—collaborating with local authorities and communities to provide basic services: education, health and water.

A few days ago, I accompanied our medical team providing health services to one of the many villages many miles away from any health facility. On the way, we met men carrying a makeshift stretcher. We stopped. The men laid the stretcher down. A woman in labor was trying to get up. She fell unconscious to the ground.  She was bleeding to death. The radio didn't work. Changing our plans, our midwife Felicity made every effort to help Marcellina and her child survive, and we returned to our Isohe base next to St. Theresa Hospital, which AVSI has supported for more than six years by providing medical equipment, salaries, medicine and additional buildings.


The woman succeeded in giving birth and the hemorrhage stopped; the child is alive and well. I reflect on how many women throughout the mountains of Isohe are not as lucky as Marcellina. She was able to reach the hospital and did not need surgery. If she had needed a Caesarean section, we would have tried to transfer her to Uganda, which would take five hours of off-road driving. For this reason, AVSI has been working toward opening an operating room at St. Theresa Hospital as soon as possible.

About 30 miles from Isohe we are building two new health centers. We also offer courses for midwives and health workers in each village to provide the local population with a safer place in which to give birth and to receive treatment for the most common diseases: malaria, typhoid and diarrhea.

In the state of Eastern Equatoria, according to UNHCR data, only one in three children are enrolled in school and among them more than 60% are male. To address the educational crisis, we are building and renovating four schools so that more than five hundred children can go to school, through the support of AVSI and its Distance Support Program.

South Sudan also suffers from a severe lack of human resources caused by the long war and resulting diaspora. For this reason we decided to work in Juba with St. Mary's University to offer certification programs for primary education teachers, rehabilitation therapists, and social workers. We wanted to help increase the ratio of qualified teachers, which currently in this area is one for every 108 children. The University, founded in 2009, was a special focus this year in AVSI’s annual fundraising initiatives.


Our involvement is not only in health and education. The refugees who return from the north to their homes in South Sudan are in need of everything, and so AVSI provides for their reception and welcome, while also distributing the first necessities. Together with them, we then try to build simple and basic facilities,  a first step on the return to a normal life; for example, the latrines which are otherwise non-existent, but necessary to prevent the spread of disease. In addition, this year we will dig up to ten wells to increase access to clean drinking water.

South Sudan is a country in the first stage of life. Like any newborn, it has great potential ahead. Despite its contrasts, including the extreme poverty and the lack of infrastructure, it is exciting to hear the enthusiasm of a people which trembles to build its own nation. This new republic has the possibility to start from scratch with the awareness of the lessons learned from other African states.

As an NGO , AVSI has the responsibility to continue lend a collaborative hand in order to successfully build the necessary conditions for the South Sudanese to shape an equitable and meritocratic rule and a market economy to spur development and growth.  In this way, the country’s development will be supported by the strong shoulders of its citizens, avoiding the stumbling relapses that so often have marked many African states with excessive humanitarian aid.


As I write, the children of the elementary school nearby will not stop singing the new national anthem; the atmosphere is beautiful and full of joy. As the hymn says, this new nation will continue its path in peace, justice and harmony. A Good Road (wishing good travel) to the Republic of South Sudan!


Read more:

AVSI in South Sudan
AVSI's Committment to Education in South Sudan