Wednesday, January 12, 2011

One Perspective on the Referendum

For weeks now, months really, most people have wanted to know about one thing: the referendum. January 9. The day South Sudan would vote on whether to remain united with the north or to secede and become a sovereign nation (with most indications that they would opt overwhelmingly for the latter). The day that would never come to pass, many feared.
January 9 has represented so many things, so many disparate things: on the one hand, every southerner has looked to it as a future hope and an historic day; on the other hand, they've recognized it as a potential marker of catastrophe and terror.
January 9 has now come and gone - of course the referendum period is actually a week long, so the voting won't officially close until later this week - and one thing I was struck by was a peculiar feature of democracy: at its most basic, it is the repeated act of individuals standing in a line then marking some boxes on a piece of paper. It's a mundane thing really, but the power it contains is staggering.
In America & Western Europe, I think this truth is sometimes lost in the regularity & orderliness of our voting, but in much of the world the powers that be so deeply fear the will of the people that they'll go to remarkable lengths to subvert it. Here in Sudan, there has been justified fear that this vote could lead to a return to civil war. So far that hasn't been the case - though the potential still remains. It is unbelievably difficult to reconcile the image of a snaking line of eager voters with the consequence of widespread destruction.
I imagine someday, Sarah and I will tell some younger generation about being present at the creation of this new nation, and these are the moments I will relay:
·         The elected member of the referendum commission in our state came to Nimule and gave a rousing speech in which be reminded his fellow South Sudanese that, yes, this was a vote about freedom, and yes, he was going to vote for separation, but as a nation they would never find true freedom until they forgave their brothers in the north for the wrongs the south had suffered.
·         The buses that arrived in our town (and probably dozens of others throughout the south) each morning of the week leading up to the referendum and departed each evening. On the buses, optimistic volunteers from the southern capital Juba were coming to circulate throughout the town and mobilize people to vote.
·         A visit from two of those volunteers, who came to our compound to instruct people on "how to vote." Not which way to vote, mind you, but instructions on the actual process of voting. "For 50 years we haven't voted," one of the volunteers pointed out to me. "So the people need to know what to do."
·         The trucks with giant speakers in their beds that circulated through our town from 8am-11pm every day blaring music and reminding people that, really, they should vote for separation.
·         The women running across an open field early on the morning of the 9th, racing to be the first person in line to vote.
·         The hundreds of people standing in a line that wound through that same field as they waited in line for the poll to open, and the line growing longer and longer and longer.
·         The open-palmed hand (like a traffic cop would use to tell you to stop) that represented separation. In a country where so many of the voters are illiterate, the choices have to have a visual representation. Thus, two bands gripping each other in a handshake equaled unity, and the single open palm equaled separation.
·         On the 9th, people greeted each other not by shaking hands - as they normally would - but by slapping high 5's with their open palms.
·         That evening, in the midst of a country likely coming apart, our friend and colleague Akera and his fiancĂ©e Mary were united in marriage. It was a strategic decision on their parts - with a bride price still commonly practiced and often exploited to milk the groom out of everything possible, Mary's family hadn't agreed to the union. But there's another way to get married: the woman simply sneaks away, and shortly thereafter the family receives a letter from the man informing them of her whereabouts, explaining that she won't be returning. He puts some money in the envelope too, and it's understood that they're married. Akera & Mary figured that in the excitement of the referendum, it might take a while for her family to notice her absence. They won't have an official wedding until later, but we gathered together to bless them and hear their commitment to each other (and to drink soda - always to drink soda).

There's still a long way to go in this process - votes to be cast and counted, lots of details to work out, founding documents that will likely need to be completed. There's still a lot that could go horribly wrong. But - increasingly - there's a lot of reason to hope. 

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