Six months to the day that the southern Sudanese turned out en masse to vote, delegations from all over the world convened to usher in the world’s newest nation: the Republic of South Sudan. In marked contrast to those who patiently lined up hours before the polls opened and quietly waited to cast their ballots, the mood at the John Garang memorial in Juba on Saturday was an explosion of joy and exuberant dancing as southern Sudanese waited to hear the official declaration of independence.
Some traveled for days to witness firsthand the birth of a nation. Luso Ngeba of Western Bhar el Ghazal came with a caravan of 21 others that took two days to arrive. “This is our only chance,” says Ngeba of why he came for the celebrations, “to come to share our traditions with all of (South Sudan’s) foreign guests.”
Ngeba’s group played traditional Balanda tribal music punctuated by guttural 4-foot kanga horns and the rhythm of a hand-fashioned drum. “This is what we were waiting for,” the group sang as they circled the musicians. “We have to cooperate with each other and join hands to make this government strong.”
Many groups arrived to make a statement about the direction they hoped the government would take. Keiji Viola, of the South Sudan’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Group, was joined by more than 60 other women wrapped in red and white gauze with pinned satin banners that read: “Women are the key to sustainable development.”
“Southern Sudanese can make this country great,” Viola says. “I want the world to know that other African countries are doing well and that this is also the future of South Sudan.”
Throngs surrounded a statue of John Garang de Mabior. A hero to many South Sudanese, Garang took office as first vice president after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 but lost his life in a plane crash shortly thereafter. His statue was draped with the country’s new flag. Masses of women came to kneel at the statue in the hours before the official celebrations began. Some prayed fervently while others broke down in tears.
As the official celebration neared, the field was filled with groups from every region wielding banners in English and Arabic, offering their well wishes and hopes at the dawn of South Sudan’s history. Onlookers clutched paper flags and waved them as foreign delegations from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States arrived, or when the master of ceremonies goaded the crowd with the title of the new national anthem, “South Sudan Oyee.”
VIPs were shielded from the scorching sun under canopies while others sought shelter from the heat under the field’s one massive tree. Many found spots on the tree’s branches to get a better view of the events.
The grounds pulsed with expectation. Many said that the outpouring of support they’d received from the international community overwhelmed them. So many foreign dignitaries arrived that the southern Sudanese politicians in the stands were asked to vacate their seats. “Thank you for giving up your seats,” quipped speaker of South Sudan’s Legislative Assembly, James Igga. “We did not know that the whole world was going to come out and join us today.”
Before the declaration of independence was read, the events began with a military band and the playing of Sudan’s national anthem for the last time. The country’s new flag was raised over the capital city of Juba shortly after 2 p.m., officially ranking the Republic of South Sudan as nation number 193 (as determined by membership in the United Nations).
A handful of Catholic Relief Services staff members joined the celebration. CRS President Ken Hackett traveled with the U.S. government delegation, but took time to visit with CRS staff in the stands.
Renee Lambert, CRS’ South Sudan emergency coordinator, walked in with the crowds. She was quickly pulled into a dance circle and made to feel one with the southern Sudanese. “It was beautiful,” Lambert says. “We felt like part of the community. It was a wonderful welcome to this peaceful celebration and a good start for a peaceful nation.” Watching the events unfold, Lambert says she felt overcome with emotion, “it was humbling and inspiring to realize what years of dedication, patience and love can bring forth.”
Sara A. Fajardo is CRS’ regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya and is reporting from Juba, South Sudan.
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