Having been in Sudan for close to one month now, I am constantly peppered with emails, all asking essentially the same question, albeit using different phrasing: “How is Sudan?” “What are your initial impressions of the country?” “What are some major differences between Sudan and the United States?”
When I first started receiving this wave of emails I was reluctant to respond to these questions, as I didn’t want to make premature assumptions about the largest country in Africa after only a few days. Now, however, I feel I have gained enough of a sense of Sudan that I can share my feelings on this wondrous nation.
If I could sum up Sudan in two words or less, I would describe it thus: A land of unorthodox beauty. A little background may help one understand why I use these words to describe Southern Sudan. As a nation, Sudan has endured what most observers describe as the longest civil war on the African continent, a conflict that has spanned decades, destroyed villages, broken livelihoods, and torn families apart. In Southern Sudan, a peace accord between the main combatants in this civil war was signed in 2005, which brought about a fragile peace and return to calm in this portion of the country—the dividends of which I see everywhere around me in my placement with IRD Sudan in Duk Payuel, Jonglei State, Southern Sudan.
Even the staunchest survivalist would agree upon arriving in Duk Payuel, that it is a town for which the term “hardship area” was coined. During the dry season, temperatures can top 45 degrees Celsius, which is upwards of 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Conversely, during the rainy season, which is the season I now find myself in, near daily torrential downpours can slow travel to a halt, turning the dirt paths that serve as roads into muddy, rutted passageways ready to ensnare any vehicle that tries to pass. I have been told by multiple local sources that a neighboring village that may take two hours to reach during the dry season, may take up to two days to reach during the rainy season. But oh wait—there’s more! The local animal life found in Duk is certainly not what one thinks of when they think of African wildlife. Here, there are no elephants, giraffes, or rhinos strolling around, waiting for their pictures to be taken and plastered onto postcards, t-shirts, or key chains. No, the animals here are far less statuesque: scorpions are plentiful (though thankfully not the poisonous variety), snakes abound (a green mamba was recently spotted within the IRD compound), and the mosquitoes are relentless. So, taking all this into account, one would be justified to ask how anyone in their right mind could call such a place “beautiful.”
The beauty of Duk Payuel lies not in its physical landscape, but within its residents. I have met some truly amazing people here. For instance, I engaged in a casual conversation with a gentleman at the local health clinic, which partners with IRD Sudan. We,laughed and joked about the differences in marriage customs between the United States and Sudan. I would later learn that he had buried 30 of his children during the course of the civil war. Another example would be one of my local colleagues at IRD’s Community Health and Education Services for Southern Sudan project, (CHESS), who lost three of his brothers during the civil war, and now is taking care of 11 children, including two of his own, and heroically struggling to ensure they are all able to complete school and have better lives and opportunities than he was afforded due to the war. An additional example of the beauty of Southern Sudan is the schoolchildren I pass every day on my walk to and from the local health clinic, who shout “Kudwal” or “Kudwal Aril” (“Hello” and “Lots of Greetings” in Dinka, the local language) and run to shake my hand, or offer me bits of food, whenever I pass by.
But perhaps the most poignant example would be Phillip, a local teenager I met at the local health clinic, who, upon hearing that I came from IRD, stopped me in my tracks to thank me for the work IRD had done in the local community: rehabilitating and building boreholes to access safe water, building the only primary school in the whole of Duk Payuel town, and trying to jumpstart the local health services by constructing health clinics in surrounding parts of Duk County, which will provide basic health services such as child immunizations, care for diarrheal diseases, and HIV testing for the residents of Duk. In his words, “IRD has tried to help the local community.”
It is these heartwarming experiences that reaffirm the tenacity, strength, and joy of the human spirit, and encapsulate the “unorthodox beauty” of Southern Sudan, despite the punishing historical and physical backdrop of the country.