Last week I spoke with a couple of southern chiefs, who have been living in Khartoum for more than twenty years. They say that life in the north has no prospects for them. Although they have been here for two decades, they are still living in temporary shelters, unable to find jobs, or send all of their kids to school. They were both adamant that they would be returning to the south as soon as they could and that the only thing stopping them until now was money for transport. They will, without doubt, vote for separation in the upcoming January 2011 referendum.
I wondered about the grass is greener problem. Their children have grown up speaking Arabic, and "very little" English. Even if they can afford to send them to schools in the south, how will the kids do at adjusting to an English language curriculum? That challenge is probably surmountable. But what about the even more fundamental issue of making a living. The chiefs believe that in the south they will have money because they have land and so they can farm. But this won't be the case for everyone.
Later in the week I met with a southern community leader who had done some voluntary work for the International Organization on Migration, shortly after the 2005 peace deal between north and south was signed. At that time, a program of voluntary repatriation was being undertaken, with transport provided to southerners in the north who wanted to return home. "Within months women and children had returned" the leader explained. "They had no accommodation – you went with children and you had no shelter. Their relatives could only maintain them for so long. They were expecting there would be relief. They went there thinking there would be camps."
The women who returned had mostly been working as domestic servants and tea sellers in Khartoum – employment that yields only a few pounds a day. I asked if this was really a better option for them than living in the south. "Compared to the south, life in the city is easy" the leader said. "If they only have a few pounds it at least means that at the end of the day they can feed their family."