A Scholar in Sudan

By Sophie Rutenbar (TX ’05)


I could start this story off by talking about learning to avoid ill-tempered, semi-domesticated ostriches strolling through villages, or the one time I was trapped in my hotel for three days when fighting broke out in a town I was visiting, or vast herds of antelope grazing to the horizon.  Or the voters I encountered during the referendum on independence for South Sudan would be a good choice.  One older gentleman stood out, who voted holding one Southern Sudan flag and wearing another, cardboard version clamped to his head, wrapped in a sheet like a Southern Sudanese Statue of Liberty.  But the moment I choose is quiet, the short space between work and night, while the sun sets, the air cools, and before the mosquitoes emerge.  

I’m in Nasir, a town closer to Ethiopia than it is to the capitals, Juba or Khartoum.  This part of South Sudan is uncompromisingly flat.  Flocks of sparrows, pelicans, and storks fly overhead as if the whole country were a bird bath, which it seems to be in rainy season, when water spreads out in sheets over the vast plains.  For the next few months, those grasslands are dry, which means my work at the moment is doubled to make up for the half-year when the rains drown almost everything.  Right now, a few moments of peace and the chance to watch a sunset are to be treasured.

I’ve only spent a few months in South Sudan this time around, but my connection to the country stretches further back, even to the Truman.  Like many stories, mine involves an exceptional teacher, this one named Marie.  In the fall of my sophomore year at the University of Texas at Dallas, I took a course called War and Peace.  The summer before, I had made my first visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The effects of conflict and mismanagement were clear; I was shocked and horrified, then I quickly fell in love.  Marie’s teaching clarified and gave substance to my thoughts on conflict and the effects it has on people’s lives.  For all the problems of international development, one thing is clear:  you can’t have much of it in a country if you have war.

I won the Truman a year and a half later on the strength of my policy essay proposing Afghanistan-style Provincial Reconstruction Teams for a southern Sudan newly at peace.  I wanted to work to reconstruct war-torn nations in order to prevent conflict from reoccurring, as it does within a decade in close to half of cases.  I wrote the application in the fall of 2004, when news about Sudan was everywhere, especially in Washington, DC, where I was interning for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  Secretary of State Colin Powell declared to Congress that the Darfur conflict was genocide, and I was in the audience; the same when Dr. John Garang, legendary leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army, spoke to the Congressional Black Caucus that fall, months before his death.

So here in Sudan, I have the privilege of witnessing the culmination of a process I’ve followed since the beginning.  As an international observer with the Carter Center, I helped monitor first the voter registration process and, in January, the vote on independence.  Being able to witness an electoral process firsthand, to have intimate knowledge of an event so significant to millions, is a privilege as well as a position of trust.  I watched hundreds, even thousands, cast their votes, then walk out to an ululating, singing, clapping crowd.  The future of the young nation is unclear, but while studying conflict, I’ve learned to hold on to moments of hope.

As a result, I’ve stayed on in South Sudan to work with a contractor for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives.  How could I leave, when independence and the creation of a new country are just around the corner in July?  To my surprise, and despite a few twists in my path, the job is almost exactly what I envisioned for myself five years ago with the Truman application, helping carry out local-level conflict mitigation initiatives in places in desperate need of them.  Attempting to understand and to address conflict on a profoundly local level is deeply satisfying.  Five years later, I see exactly how much those PRTs were and still are needed here.  In Malakal, the second largest town in southern Sudan, you need a four-wheel drive vehicle to attempt anything beyond a handful of main roads.  And outside the state capitals like Malakal, access to education, economic opportunity, government services or any sort of assistance is almost non-existent.  People live a semi-nomadic life, as they have for hundreds of years, herding their cows across the plains, seeking the water and green grass that becomes increasingly scarce as the dry season advances, occasionally fighting and sometimes warring to get it.

On the particular evening framing my story, I hear little else besides the call of birds and the hum of people.  The thrum of the generator won’t start until dark falls, a few minutes away.  As the sun sets, flocks of swallows swarm overhead and the hawks fly lower before disappearing to roost.  Tomorrow, I’ll repeat a boat trip I made more than a year previously, but this time the area is at peace.  Effective local administrators, targeted investments, and most importantly, a community-led peace conference have brought a cessation in a two-decade-long local conflict.  In one long swathe of the river between the two formerly warring groups, the crocodiles and grey-crowned cranes live undisturbed by humans.  But in other sections the difference is clear.  The villages sport an occasional tin roof and new reed fences, while the river is so clotted with fishing nets that our boat is forced to stop and raise its motor every few moments:  one version of progress having its price.  As far as I’m concerned, a measure of inconvenience is worth a little peace and prosperity in South Sudan.

Sophie Rutenbar (TX ’05) is based in Juba, South Sudan, and is working in conflict mitigation.

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