As our white Toyota land cruiser drove on the freshly laid road from the market town of Akon towards Ariang village, we noticed something far on the horizon. Maybe…cows? Trees in the distance?
As we got closer, we saw it was a huge crowd of people. It was difficult to ascertain just how many with the dust cloud they were kicking up, their feet (either bare or shod in plastic sandals) pounding the red-dirt road as they ran, singing and dancing, toward our vehicle.
The last time I witnessed a reception like this had been in June, 2007, when the Ariang villagers were welcoming Gabriel Bol Deng, their long-lost son who had fled civil war as a small child, back home after a twenty-year absence.
When Gabriel Bol returned to Sudan the first time in 2007, he told the villagers his intention to build a school in Ariang. He had already been raising money by speaking and selling t-shirts and he redoubled his efforts when he got back to the U.S.
In January 2009, I returned to South Sudan with Gabriel Bol and his friend Garang Mayuol, who had raised money to drill wells. By the end of the trip, the villagers of Ariang had made 300,000 bricks for the school and six wells were drilled, immediately stopping a deadly cholera epidemic in their vicinity.
The goal of this trip is to begin construction on the school. Today's celebration was supposed to mark the groundbreaking, but the villagers of Ariang were so enthusiastic about their school that they could not wait. They had already dug foot-deep trenches for the foundation before our arrival.
This trip comes just after the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (the largest of the South Sudan rebel movements) and the Government of Sudan, ending the longest running civil war in Africa.
I can say, with much relief, there are signs of concrete progress in Akon and Ariang in the two-plus years since my first trip here. People seem slightly better fed and clothed, though crippling poverty and malnutrition are still evident.
Akon, located in one of the most remote areas of South Sudan, has a nearly complete cell phone tower. There is now a police station at the entrance of the town and police officers walking around in crisp turquoise uniforms, touting well-worn AK47s. Roads have improved enormously since 2007.
Then, accessing Ariang village from Akon took 45 minutes on a grueling, bone-jarring dirt track, which was un-drivable during the rainy season. Today, we zipped along an all-weather dirt road, reaching the throng of celebrating people in less than fifteen minutes.
I chatted with three women this morning who cook and clean at the World Food Program compound where we are staying. They were eager to practice their English, which they told me, they are studying at the Adult Education Courses at the newly constructed Akon Girls' School, built by the American NGO My Sister's Keeper.
The majority of the women in Akon had had no formal education during the 20-plus years of civil war. Now, my new friends told me proudly, they were in third-grade and progressing quickly.
Perhaps most exciting was a visit to the Akon clinic. Built by the American NGO JumpStart Sudan, the finishing touches on the building were just being completed in 2007. Akon's healthcare system then amounted to a community health officer sitting at a table under a large tree, dispensing whatever medicines he had to townspeople with various ailments.
Now, in 2010, the clinic seems to be functioning remarkably well, albeit with enormous challenges and difficulties. There are three trained staff: a medical doctor, a medical assistant and a health officer. They treat between 30 to 70 people a day. The clinic has a well-stocked pharmacy and solar panels to draw its electricity.
Though the physical building is too small to accommodate their needs (currently, people waiting for checkups are sitting on the concrete floor next to patients lying on mats hooked up to IVs), an addition to the clinic is currently being built, funded by the Egyptian government. There was an extremely effective hygiene education campaign, stemming the cholera epidemic that had claimed thousands of lives in the region last year.
A whooping cough epidemic is on the rise, but Enyasio Ajang Deng, the health officer, feels confident they will be able to treat the children who are able to access the clinic.
In 2007, we were told by everyone from villagers to government officials, that health care and education were critical aspects of development needed to transform a peace agreement to a stable, sustainable peace. The progress on both those fronts should be reason for cautious optimism.
But, as the clinic's health care officer made clear, the Akon clinic's success was not due to the fledgling Government of South Sudan (GoSS) but to JumpStart Sudan. Jumpstart provides the vast majority of the supplies, including the solar panels, and, in partnership with My Sister's Keeper, pays small stipends to the doctor and the health officer, Only the medical assistant is paid by the GoSS Ministry of Health.
The biggest problem, Anyasio Deng emphasized twice, was a lack of trained medical personnel, in Akon and in all of South Sudan. During the war, the NGOs trained health care workers. After the CPA was signed, the NGOs pulled back but the GoSS has been unable to step in and fill that gap.
There is only one school in all of South Sudan to train all medical personnel aside from doctors. Gabriel Bol learned this morning of a woman in labor in Ariang giving birth to twins. The first baby was coming out as a stillborn breach. The second twin was still in the womb. The clinic in Akon, 15 minutes away, has no staff with training to deal with problematic births. Gabriel Bol sent a car to drive the woman to Aweil, an hour away.
The evidence of progress since 2007 is uplifting, but the context is sobering. Both the Akon Girls' School and the Ariang School are being built and funded by American NGO's, not the GoSS. The CPA has been steadily unraveling for the last several years, and the scheduled elections in April and a 2011 referendum for Southerners to determine whether the South will become independent loom as possible flash points that will drive the country over the edge back into civil war.
All the good work that is happening has that very real possibility as its backdrop. Even the vast improvements of the roads, without which no other development would be possible, could become a double-edged sword. Should the country go back to war, wide smooth roads would be much easier for tanks from Khartoum to drive through than the torturous dirt tracks had been.
The Akon WFP field compound we are staying in will be closing down next month. The field site's closure is connected to both the progress that has been made and the pessimistic predictions for the future.
Because South Sudan is in what is considered a "recovery stage" rather than acute emergency or active war, large numbers of field offices are no longer necessary, staff explained. Additionally, the improved road system makes it easier to reach distribution points from a central office.
But, there is another, starker, reason. Abyei, an oil-rich area on the border of north and south Sudan and a flashpoint of conflict, was burned to the ground in May 2008. If conflict erupts there again, and conversations with several Sudanese and international WFP staff members made it clear that they fully expected it would, the displaced would flee to Wunrock as they did in 2008. The logistics staff in Akon is being moved to Wunrock in order to be prepared to provide life-saving services there.
Perhaps most disconcerting was an off-hand comment about the Ariang School made by the WFP Deputy Coordinator for Sudan when we met with him in Juba.
"We don't build in that remote area," he said, providing us with a chilling reality check. "It's too difficult to access. And also—you never know if what you build will still be there in the near future."