Monday, July 11, 2011

Our New Nation

When I remember the independence of the Republic of South Sudan in the years to come, it won't be the flag raising or the official ceremony that I'll remember. Instead,
my first memories will be of the final hour of unity and the first minutes of separation.

On that night people began gathering a few at a time on the compound of Cornerstone Children's Home, where our friend Juma John had told everyone to come for a midnight celebration. The crowd would bring light to the new day by lighting candles at midnight, illuminating a new nation.

The gathering grew steadily larger and larger, from just a few dozen at 8pm to several hundred by 11pm. Groups presented songs and dances, men made speeches. Between every presentation someone would interject how many minutes remained until independence.

Juma's speech (30 minutes until independence) was a call for the citizens to be responsible for their new nation, to live in righteousness and combat corruption, and to remember the sacrifices - millions of lives lost along the way - that had brought them this new hope. The plaintive nods and murmurs of agreement drove home the reality that everyone in attendance had a story of deep personal loss along the way; they all knew someone who had died in the war or in exile, and in this final hour they were all remembering. By the same token, they had all worked for this peaceful transition and chosen a path of forgiveness over vengeance.

At Juma wrapped up, he called for someone from the crowd who had been alive to celebrate Sudan's first independence from Britain in 1956 to come forward and share what that experience had been like. Not a single person took up the invitation, so he asked again and still no one accepted. He called on the oldest person he knew to come up and share; the man diplomatically informed him at he wasn't that old. I scanned the crowd for someone and couldn't pick out anyone who fit the bill. Maybe it was the late hour, but maybe it was the already scant demographic. They moved on and began distributing candles.

At midnight, the first candle was lit by Samuel Juma. Samuel, a Sudanese refugee living in America, has been the driving force behind Cornerstone Children's Home. When nobody else was doing work with orphans in South Sudan - and despite the fact that he himself had no experience doing so - he felt like he had to do something for the vulnerable children in his homeland, so he started a feeding program. He hoped and believed for this day for as long as anyone, and now - framed against the 24 bedroom home that already houses 60 children - he brought the first rays of light to the new day. From him, the candles of those next to him were lit, and so on until hundreds of people of all ages and sizes stood holding their candles aloft in a sea of radiance. They all placed their hands over their hearts, closed their eyes tight, and sang their new national anthem for the first time. And then they danced. Played. Laughed. Prayed.

I didn't see anyone cry; maybe they had shed enough tears each the last 25 years. That didn't stop me crying, of course. Over and over again, one of the many young girls who live at the home would run up to me in delight, face aglow both from the candlelight and the enormity of her smile, and I couldn't help thinking that this new nation was for them - a nation of promise and possibility. It's not a perfect thing - far from it - nor is it a guarantee that everything will be good and right from now on. But maybe, just maybe, they'd be able to live the rest of their lives as uninhibited and full of joy as they were on this one night. It's not such a bad thing to hope for.


  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog. It's nice to 'meet' you:-) Re your question I've never made it from scratch I just buy the bottled stuff but I do have a recipe for making casereep but I have never tried it so I am checking on it with a couple Guyanese friends for you. You've give me a project as now I want to try and make it and document it. Do you have an email address that may contact you?

  2. Seth,
    Thank you for writing this...I realize I am a bit behind in reading this, but there is no more real way for me to connect with the S. Sudan Freedom than this. Thank you.
    PS: I saw you and Sarah and Juma during the conference via webcam... it brought excitement to see you and reflect on knowing you guys before you headed out and hearing you now.