Thoughts on South Sudan’s Referendum

Well, it’s official: everyone’s writing about southern Sudan’s upcoming referendum on secession, even Henry Rollins, to say nothing of our wonderful Rumbek roommates Kaitlyn and Melissa.

I recently wrote about the book Faith Beyond Borders by Don Mosley. In one chapter he writes at length about his interactions with the Lost Boys of Sudan, arguably one of the most famous refugee groups in recent history. (For one very fascinating account, read What is the What by Valentino Achak Deng & Dave Eggers.)

There was a quote from one of the Lost Boys, a young man named Matiop, which got me thinking about Sudanese (and most specifically Dinka) culture. “‘You have to have a group,’ Matiop explained. ‘You cannot be alone and survive. Without a group, you sit by yourself and think about the past and all the terrible things that have happened. You cannot live alone like that. A group keeps you talking, laughing, living in the present.'” (p.77)

If there’s one thing that i’ve learned about the Dinka, it’s that they are a communal people. Much like the Koreans we met while living in Seoul for two years, individual decisions are often made based largely on how the wider society expects one to behave. As with any cultural norm, there are positive and negative sides.

A second thing i’ve learned here in Sudan is how incredibly deep the roots of revenge go here. People are often named after family/clan members who have been wronged by another family/clan/tribe. The expectation is that the namesake will avenge the wrong perpetrated upon one’s people. If the namesake would refuse to participate in the cycle of revenge, according to our language & culture teacher, one could be excommunicated from the community.

The value placed on revenge among the Dinka makes it very difficult for individuals to speak out against such a broken system. But it seems they do.

Matiop’s words encourage me. The Lost Boys experienced unimaginable hardships, especially when you consider that most of them were pre-teen boys (and girls) at the time. If someone coming from a similar culture to the one i’m learning about right now can speak such wise and gentle words, then i suppose there is hope.

In a lot of the pieces about southern Sudan’s referendum there is speculation on whether the country will return to civil war. This is indeed possible. But when i read about Matiop and other refugees – from Sudan and around the world – and their ability to forgive and move on and to hope, pray, and work for peace in their homelands, i feel hopeful. Hopeful that peace is possible; that despite cultural norms, miracles happen.

I am hoping and praying for a peaceful referendum and a peaceful future for Sudan, whether separated or not. I know that many, many people around the world are doing the same.

A third thing that i’ve learned about the Dinka is that they have an incredibly large capacity to laugh. Most of the people we interact with are poor beyond comparison to western standards, but i challenge you to find a group more willing to flash a huge smile and wave enthusiastically at the drop of a hat. It is hard to believe that these people would have the capacity for violent revenge or civil war, and i don’t believe that most people want that in their future. I believe that people in southern Sudan have suffered for decades and generations, and most of them simply want to be able to live a life of contentment and peace.

My prayer is that people would continue to encourage that desire in each other, continue to help each other overcome hatred and learn to love others, continue to strive peacefully for the life that every human deserves.


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