JUBA, Sudan (BP)–“Welcome to our country,” a smiling police officer says, excitedly greeting visitors walking past him on the street. “Welcome to the new Sudan!”
The officer’s infectious spirit resonates among the residents of Juba, where on July 9 a declaration of independence will be signed giving birth to the world’s 196th nation, the Republic of South Sudan.
Nearly 99 percent of voters from southern Sudan approved a referendum in January to officially designate the region as a new nation. Sudan has been ravaged by years of civil war between the heavily Islamic, Arab-dominated north and the predominantly Christian and animist south. The referendum was the final benchmark of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended more than 20 years of civil war in Sudan.
Crude oil exports from Sudan generate millions of dollars for the country. Many observers cited oil as a factor in the referendum, but Christians in southern Sudan say they are more concerned with freedom to practice their faith — and freedom from the north’s harsh enforcement of Islamic law.
“Before it was not easy, people had been intimidated; there are some areas where you cannot carry out the message of the Gospel,” says Simon Gatluaklim, a pastor at Nuru Baptist Church. “I believe the church will really benefit and have freedom of worship … being able to carry out the message of Jesus Christ.”
Radical change in South Sudan will not come quickly; it likely will take many years to develop its government, infrastructure and an identity apart from the north.
Juba, expected to be South Sudan’s capital, does not look like a typical African urban center. There are no high-rise buildings, few paved roads, no traffic lights and piles of trash strewn here and there. Small squatter camps are springing up around the city, occupied by displaced people who construct houses from whatever rubbish they can find. Western-style hotels are few and far between, but lodge owners have gotten creative by converting storage containers into comfortable, yet small and pricey, overnight accommodations.
Large trucks carrying blue water tanks can be seen around town, full of filtered and purified water drawn from the Nile River. Only the government offices, aid organizations and wealthiest residents can afford to buy clean water, evidence that Juba lacks a proper water system available for the general public.
Despite what it lacks, some Sudanese see progress and a city of industry and infrastructure in the works. Sworo Elikana, another pastor at Nuru Baptist Church, remembers Juba a few years ago when amenities were even less than they are now.
“Juba is like a great improvement than the way it was before…. It was very dirty; there was no good structures,” Elikana says. “After the referendum there is a lot of progress, even in the government. Everyone is happy.”
That happiness extends to members of Nuru Baptist Church, whose name means “light” in Arabic. The church currently meets in a town on the outskirts of Juba called Jebel, an Arabic word that means “mountain” due to its proximity to a small mountain seen from anywhere in Juba. The church building, a work in progress made of bamboo shoots, screws and a tin roof, seems to be a perfect illustration of the new country itself: people with a common belief, coming together and growing from the ground up.
Church members are looking forward to celebrating independence in their community with other believers and their neighbors. “The church is also preparing; [Christians] really need to separate and enjoy that day [together],” Gatluaklim says. “It seems like prayers are being answered by God.”
A sense of pride and excitement is obvious in Juba as the people anxiously anticipate ushering in the historic July day when they finally have their independence. Pastors of Nuru Baptist Church ask believers worldwide to pray for this exciting time as they prepare for their new country.
“Let them pray for South Sudan so that people could really get peace,” Gatluaklim says. “Pray also for the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ that should take place if we are really in peace.”
Jacob Alexander is a writer for the International Mission Board’s global communication team. See more from South Sudan at africastories.org/worlds-newest-nation.
Residents of southern Sudan share their excitement about their upcoming independence on July 9 – Video by Nick Duboisse: