Reproduced with permission from The Christian Science Monitor.
Driuni Jakani aims to transform his rural community in southern Sudan from postwar devastation to economic growth and prosperity.
He's already made a promising start.
In January, southern Sudanese voted in a referendum in favor of becoming an independent nation.
People like Mr. Jakani will be vital to the success of Africa's newest country. "Right now, because of the war years, there are a lot of international organizations here," Jakani says. "But over time, they will move out. And so we need to be ready to serve our own communities ourselves."
Jakani was born in a remote village in Western Equatoria State, in southern Sudan. In 1983, when he was 9 years old, war resumed between the government in the predominantly Muslim north of Sudan and rebels in the mainly Christian and animist south. The war, which continued until 2005, devastated the south and resulted in the deaths of 2 million civilians.
Jakani joined the southern rebels after being forced to witness the rape of one of his sisters by a Sudanese government soldier. "After that I figured you must have a gun to protect your family from others who have a gun," he says.
But he never liked being in the military. So when negotiations to end the civil war began to show promise, he left the army and went to study in neighboring Uganda.
When peace finally came, he returned to southern Sudan to work for one of the many international organizations coming in to support postwar reconstruction.
In 2006, a teacher in Western Equatoria introduced Jakani to five very bright orphans who were struggling to stay in school. Undeterred by his own limited personal finances, Jakani invested what little he had in a local poultry farm to generate enough income to support the young students.
For two years he worked hard and learned a lot from his foreign colleagues.
By late 2008 he decided he could have more impact in his community if he started his own group. Today Lacha Community and Economic Development (LCED) has 10 employees and has been recognized as a Community-Based Organization of Excellence by the local branch of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Its mission is threefold: to support peace, agriculture, and gender equality.
"Let me tell you why we need all three," says Jakani, leaning forward to talk about issues he is clearly passionate about.
"Without peace, we can't do anything," he begins. "As long as our population is traumatized by war, we can't even think about development.
"Agriculture is key because more than 90 percent of those in our community make their livelihoods from agriculture. We have to work with what we have."
He pauses for breath.
"And gender equality: We are losing half our capacity because most of our women cannot read or write and so get excluded from decisionmaking."
Emmanuel Gambari, a program manager for PACT Sudan, a USAID-funded organization that works with LCED, says one of the most impressive aspects of Jakani's project is its commitment to improving life in rural Western Equatoria.
Since peace has come, development has skyrocketed in the southern Sudan capital of Juba. For many southerners, the pull to move to Juba, with its paved roads and electric grid, is strong.
"Yet," Mr. Gambari says, "LCED is truly connected with the rural community."
Jakani's early effort to support the education of local students has continued and been integrated into LCED's work. Today the organization hires two university students from Western Equatoria to work part time for LCED while completing their studies, with LCED paying their tuition fees. Jakani also continues to support the children he met in 2006, who are now in secondary school.
Foni Helena, who works for PACT Sudan, says the community "really, really appreciates" what LCED does.
Asked what is LCED's biggest success to date, Jakani responds, "Just one? Let me talk about two."
The first is the introduction of oxen to plow the local farms. LCED has supported training in ox-plowing and bought two oxen. Today, land that took three days to plow by hand is finished in three hours.
With the increased productivity, locals now can view farming as a viable business opportunity.
"Before, I only could farm enough to feed my family, and sometimes not even that," says Samuel Sunday, a farmer. "But since we started using the ox[en], I have enough for my family and leftovers to take to sell at the market. It has made me feel very happy."
The second success, Jakani says, "has never happened in the whole living memory of my community." For the first time, three women were chosen as chiefs of their villages.
For two years Jakani worked with local women to increase their skills and confidence. And he persuaded the local men to agree to have women present at their traditional meetings.
"What happened when the women began to participate is that when they spoke they made a lot of sense to people," Jakani explains.