The Other Independence Day
Stefani Jones is a rising junior at Duke University, where Sanjay Kishore is also a rising senior. Stefani and Sanjay have spearheaded Duke's Conflict-Free Campus Initiative. This post is a reflection on their experiences in Juba, South Sudan earlier last month.
We all know that the Fourth of July is a sacred day in America. It’s is our time to reflect on a revolutionary moment in history, when a group of individuals came together to dream of a nation founded upon the radical ideas of equality and freedom from persecution and oppression—a dream that actually changed the world. As we offer a tribute to the courage and idealism of our forefathers on our nation's 236th birthday though, it's important to recognize this quest for liberty isn't just some romantic remnant of history. The themes underlying America's historic struggle for freedom can be found in a series of contemporary movements for self-governance—and one need not look any further than the world's newest nation on earth, South Sudan, for a striking example.
While we read about fighting for freedom in history textbooks, we rarely get a glimpse of what those struggles actually look like. After following South Sudan’s inspiring journey towards national sovereignty from afar though, the two of us set out to visit Juba earlier this summer. As a duo with diverse interests—one (Sanjay) an aspiring public health nerd, the other (Stefani) a politics wonk and human rights advocate—we wanted to engage with the revolutionary moment we never got a chance to live through in our own country. We were tired of being “armchair activists,” and we wanted to actually experience life in the country that we were advocating on behalf of.
Even before stepping foot in the country, we each independently "prioritized" South Sudan’s challenges according to our own worldview. One of us believed South Sudan needed to first address rising political tensions with the North over oil and ethnic violence in areas like the Jonglei state before other reforms could take place. For the other, addressing major discrepancies in access to quality healthcare and education through the creation of strong systems seemed the most important key to development.
After arriving in Juba, we were inspired by the energy of those facing monumental challenges with dogged persistence. We saw the hope of a nation reflected in all kinds of people—from the eldest of government officials to the youngest of elementary students, from the foreigner delivering aid to the entrepreneur catalyzing economic growth. But, as amazed as we were by those pushing for progress, we also quickly realized that these agents of change could only succeed in an environment positioned for success. South Sudan is still recovering from a long and tortuous history of violence. The prospect of conflict or suffering reappearing in the near future jeopardizes any chance of substantive progress.
Dr. Moses Ongom, the World Health Organization's (WHO) Director of Health Systems in South Sudan, hammered that point home to us. In an interview with him, he broke down the strategy and methods that were necessary in addressing health disparities. He explained to us that with time, due diligence, and resources, the South Sudanese people can and will develop the capacity to effectively deliver health services across the nation. But, right now, they are overwhelmed with trying to heal preventable illnesses—malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and others—that have festered because of decades of instability and war. Dr. Ongom said that there's no way South Sudan has a shot at solving its health crises under the threat of renewed conflict. South Sudan needs stability and peace first so that it can move on to address other (equally pressing) problems.
Though we entered Juba as two students with different "lenses" through which we viewed the world, we left with the same conclusion that thousands have reached: we want peace. We were drawing a false dichotomy in development—that the public welfare of South Sudan could be addressed independent of conflict resolution. But the reality is that peace and prosperity are, and probably always be, intertwined. This is a revolutionary moment for South Sudan, just like it was for our country over two centuries ago. The country has already taken a major step through independence, allowing its people to dream of a better life and better world full of opportunity and justice. And now, the first step towards sustaining this change is clear: we not only choose peace, we need it.