When John Garang and his colleagues declared the beginning of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) and the political movement (SPLM) in 1983, he wanted not a separate country of South Sudan but a change within the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The goal was a more equitable society in which the tribal people of the southern part of the country would have equal access to government services, government jobs, and education and would be treated as the equals of the Arab community in the northern section of the country.
A great deal has changed since 1983. After 1991, the SPLM redefined its goals. Under pressure from Riek Machar and others Southern Separatists within the movement, the goal of the most members of SPLM became a separate nation, the nation which obtained its independence in 2011. That is our homeland, South Sudan, with its capital in Juba and over 15 million citizens including members of 64 tribes plus some Arabs and even a few Europeans. It also includes about a quarter million of us who live in a diaspora which spreads around the world.
For the past five years, our country has been torn apart by civil war. In fact, so bad is the warfare that over two million of our countrymen have been driven from their homes. Even those of us who are watching from the safety of places like Melbourne, Australia, Houston, Texas, and London, England, feel the pain of this strife. We hear the condemnation and vilification of the government’s leaders and the leaders of the opposition. We argue with one another and those arguments often cause a breakdown in precious friendships.
Underlying all of this strife is a single important question: Can South Sudan be a country? Can we find a unifying identity that will allow our homeland to function as one entity? Of course, that question leads to others: What stands in the way of having a united country? Why are there people who do not want to make common cause? What needs to change for our country to move forward as one nation? How do we make it possible for those changes to take place? And, perhaps most important to us at Ramciel Magazine, how do those of us in the diaspora work to make our homeland a nation of peace, prosperity, and promise for all?
This is the first article in a series in which we will be examining those questions.
To talk about a country, about a national identity, it is not enough to point at a map and outline a geographical location. Nor is it sufficient to show a flag, a written constitution, or a currency. The key to a nation’s identity is the belief in a common mythology, the commitment to a shared sense of history. For some nations, such as Egypt and Ethiopia, long histories provide an easy route to that sense of oneness. In other countries, for example, Kenya, a shared struggle to end colonial rule has helped form that sense of national pride.
Of course, we in the diaspora have been exposed to the national mythologies of our adopted countries. Those living in the United States, for example, have learned not only of America’s founding fathers and the Revolutionary War but also of notions like Manifest Destiny and saving the world from the Nazis. Those who live in England, on the other hand, know of ancient peoples and great kings and queens to say nothing of the Battle of Britain.
What, however, is the national myth of South Sudan? We do not have one. Perhaps our national flag best exemplifies that lack of a common sense of our history. It is a pastiche of symbols but none that speak of great heroes, battles, or causes.
The thing that does bind us together is the SPLM and its struggle first for equality and then for independence. However, as history revealed when the Soviet Union disintegrated, a nation’s identity cannot be securely built on a single political party’s story.
If we are to have a country, if South Sudan is to be a real nation, the first thing we must do is make these times of struggle into the story from which we build our sense of a national self. The suffering of our people and the efforts of those of us in the diaspora must be given meaning. Our experiences must help to give all the people of South Sudan a sense that we have overcome the challenges and found a way to move forward.
In coming editorials, we will be suggesting ways to move forward and ways to better understand the future. We hope that our readers will take part in the process by commenting and discussing both here in the pages of Ramciel and on Facebook.