South Sudan big

Those of you who have followed this project since the early days might remember Julia Duany. She is the South Sudanese author and senior civil servant who very kindly wrote and recorded the story that kicked off my year of reading the world on 1 January 2012.

If Julia hadn’t been so generous, I don’t know what I would have done about finding something to read from the world’s newest country. South Sudan had only come into being a handful of months before my literary quest began and was still feeling the impact of a long and bloody civil war that had devastated the region. The nascent nation had virtually no roads, no hospitals, no schools and certainly nothing in the way of a book publishing industry.

Julia’s story reflected this. She wrote with great feeling about her experience of returning to her homeland in 2005 after 20 years in the US to work to build her nation from the ground up. She was under no illusions about the challenges that lay ahead, but she was also full of hope and pride for her new nation.

Sadly, in the last month, fighting between the supporters of the South Sudanese president and those of his former deputy has brought great suffering to many in the region. With much of the country in chaos and thousands fleeing their homes to escape arrest or execution, it’s very hard to make contact with people there and find out what’s going on.

So when a producer of BBC Radio 4′s iPM programme contacted me to see if I could put her in touch with Julia to get an inside perspective on the situation I was determined to do my best to help. Luckily, it turned out that Julia had left South Sudan to spend Christmas with her family in the US shortly before the trouble erupted. Speaking from Washington, she recorded a powerful and moving account of her experiences and thoughts on the latest terrible events, which was broadcast last weekend (you can hear it here, although I suspect this won’t work outside the UK). As those of us in peaceful places wish each other Happy New Year and set out with high hopes for 2014, it’s sobering to think what Julia faces as she waits to return to the country she and her compatriots have worked so hard to establish.

One colleague of Julia’s is especially in my thoughts at the moment. Deng Gach Pal, the man who put me in touch with Julia and with whom I have kept in touch since I met him in the run up to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, has not answered my emails since the fighting broke out. I hope this is merely down to him being busy trying to cope with the extremely difficult circumstances in the capital, Juba, but I know that there is a chance that things are more serious than that. As you can see from an article I wrote about him for the New Internationalist, Deng is an extraordinary person full of enthusiasm and energy and has overcome challenges most of us could never imagine in his life. I can only hope that he is safe.

Picture of an ash-dressed Mundari child celebrating the first South Sudan Independence Day by Freedom House

 

New Year is a time for fresh starts. And they don’t come much fresher than in South Sudan, where, since declaring independence from Sudan in July 2011, the leaders of the world’s most recently declared sovereign state have been getting to grips with all the challenges that come with establishing a brand new country from scratch.

As I discovered when I interviewed senior civil servant Deng Gach Pal around the time of independence, these challenges are particularly formidable in South Sudan. Ravaged by 21 years of civil war, much of the country lacks the most basic infrastructure, with roads, schools and hospitals few and far between. In fact, when I phoned the country last month, I still had to use the old Sudanese dialling code to get through. And as today’s sad reports of infighting have shown, even peace itself is brittle and intermittent.

Small wonder, then that, as far as I could discover there has been little, if any, literature published in the country’s short history (under the terms of this project anything published before the date the country was established would not count).

I did find some mention of a Writers’ Association of South Sudan on the internet, but beyond their draft constitution, dated 8 July 2011, I couldn’t find any more information about them (if any South Sudanese creative writers would like to get in touch, it would be great to hear about what it’s like building a national literature from the ground up).

So I was honoured and delighted when the Chair of the Civil Service Recruitment Board in South Sudan, Julia Duany, agreed to write and record a story for the launch of this project. A former refugee and research associate at the University of Indiana, Duany published her memoirs Making Peace and Nurturing Life: Memoir of an African Woman about a Journey of Struggle and Hope in 2003. She returned to South Sudan in 2005 to help prepare for independence, spending five years as Undersecretary in the Ministry for Parliamentary Affairs.

Here, reading in English, South Sudan’s official language, Duany remembers the aftermath of the conflict that she describes as a ‘pantomime of hell’ in her homeland and looks forward with hope to a brighter future as the South Sudanese celebrate their first ever New Year.

‘To Forgive is Divine Not Human’ by Julia Duany. Publisher: ayearofreadingtheworld.com (2012)

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