It has just always been easier for us to take teams of Canadians to South Sudan during the months of December-January for one simple reason: the dry season. The emerging networks of roads are dry, not washed away, and heading out cross-country in the way the Sudanese have done for centuries makes travelling long journeys possible. For once the rains arrive, teeming in their abundance, all bets are off, as travel becomes something of a gamble and villages remain isolated.
During a civil war that ran for decades between north and south Sudan, the coming of the dry season prior to Christmas formed a mixed blessing. Yes, moving around was easier, but that only meant that warring forces could travel quickly, pouncing on one another and leaving devastation in their wake - a difficult thing to accomplish during the rainy season since travel was limited.
Now, as the people of South Sudan prepare for Christmas in various and customary ways, those days of mobilized devastation have returned. In its own way all this is a tragedy, and something those of us living in peaceful lands should remember. Christmas -- that season utilized by humanity for two millennia for the promotion of peace and security -- could bring the opposite to the many tribes in the Sudanese south.
People with precious little (most of the nation is still gripped in destitute poverty) will have been saving for months to purchase small gifts for family and friends. Distant relatives might walk for days to arrive just in time for Christmas celebrations, and some from the West will take the arduous journey and fly into those villages in which they grew up just to see their mothers and fathers again. Sudanese Christians will talk of God, the Christ child, and some will even place simple nativity scenes in their villages. Christmas is celebrated just as meaningfully as it is in the West, only now it is a harbinger of an unsettling future. After working hard to secure peace in 2011 between north and south, the Christmas spirit is in danger of being swept away in all the dust, dirt, and likely conflict that come with the dry season.
For too many years, international observers had focused almost exclusively on the main battle between the mostly Muslim north and the Christian/animist south, often ignored the fires of conflict that were emerging between the various tribes of the south. When peace at last arrived, it was only a matter of time until the historic tensions between the southern tribes erupted and a new kind of conflict would consume what were supposed to be post-war years of peace and development.
Tens of thousands have been killed since the previous Christmas, most of it ethnically related, and all of it gruesome. Massive military egos, political conniving, and Western dilly-dallying have resulted in a potent brew. And now has come famine on a vast scale, in what the United Nations has described as perhaps the worst humanitarian disaster of this recent era. Two million people are now on the move, displaced by conflict and lack of resources. A significant part of the southern population is bracing for shortages that is reaching crisis proportions.
And all this during the dry season -- that time when relatives should be travelling for family reunions, where mothers and fathers visit markets in attempts to secure meagre gifts for their children, and when food supplies should more easily be moved around the various regions to supply the villages with enough nutrition.
Christmas in this newly constituted nation wasn't supposed to be like this. Families were supposed to be united. With increasing oil wealth, it was only a matter of time until the average southern Sudanese could afford gifts for the important people in his/her life. And above all new-found peace was to be available to ennoble the lives of those people with goodwill.
At some point the tribal leaders in South Sudan, and perhaps their watchful partners in the rest of the world, will at last grasp the idea that Christmas is not merely a season, but a state of mind -- a peaceful state of being. That's hard to accomplish in a world of so little, and with so much history to overcome. What is the opposite of Christmas? South Sudan is about to find out, unless women and men of higher purpose decide to turn the many ghosts of Christmas past to a new plan for Christmas future.
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