The Aussie way of life in South Sudan
When AMY FALLON travelled to the world’s newest country – South Sudan – the last thing she expected to find was an Australian community hidden in the African depths.
IN the past week, I’ve realised just how truly caring, compassionate and tolerant Australia can be towards vulnerable people from other countries when we want to. I only had to travel to South Sudan, thousands of miles away from home and the world’s newest nation, to have this reinforced. I already knew that we were capable of these qualities. But after nearly six years away from Oz and reading recent stories about the refugee debate, I needed a good reminder.
For the past nine days I’ve had the experience of a lifetime in Juba, being hosted by the wonderful Southern Sudanese Australian community there. Never before have people – all strangers at first –been so kind to me. In the capital of the new African country, being built from scratch but developing rapidly, I discovered a home away from home. There was even a restaurant called Home and Away, quite fitting when you consider the links between Australia and South Sudan.
According to the 2006 Australian Census, there were just under 20,000 Sudanese citizens in Australia. A large number came to our country as refugees. In the lead up to the January 2011 Independence referendum, set out in a 2005 peace agreement after decades of conflict between South Sudan and the north, many have returned to their place of birth. Following the secession, a year ago last week, more have returned.
Gatwech Kulang, a towering figure in more ways than one, met me at Juba airport. He estimates there could now be as many as 500 Southern Sudanese Australians in South Sudan, the majority of them holding key positions with the government, the private sector or NGOs. Gatwech, now Director of NGO Affairs at the country’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), is one of them.
He is a former ‘lost boy’ who spent a large part of his youth and early adulthood in refugee camps before going to Australia and settling in Clayton, Melbourne.
The Aussie South Sudanese
Gatwech, who set up NGO South Sudan Development Agency International (SSUDA), was a community leader in Australia who earned a reputation for taking his fellow Sudanese, particularly young people, under his wing. In Victoria he went to “college after college”, worked hard at different jobs and taught Australians about Africa. Through the support of Aussies, SSUDA built The Friendship Primary School in Ulang County, an impoverished part of South Sudan, in 2008.
It didn’t matter that I’d only had a quick cup of coffee with Gatwech in Uganda, where I’m now living, before my Juba visit. With his friend David Kueth, who has family in Melbourne (“the best place in the world, even better than the USA”), Gatwech looked after me my entire time in South Sudan.
His colleague, James Major Ater Gurke, now director of general of administration and finance of RRC, lived in Blacktown, Sydney, from 2000 after arriving as a refugee from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
“We like it because it’s black and it’s a town,” he joked with me of the Sydney suburb after inviting me into his office at the government ministries last week.
During his time in Australia James, aged in his 50s, was an Arabic translator. His unofficial role was as the “tour guide” for many Sudanese people who had also fled to Australia.
“Australians are very hospitable. They receive refugees,” he told me.
“Freedom is good (in Australia). You can express yourself. I like the fact that people are treated equally.”
Yar Paul Kuol, 44, who I was introduced to, lived in Blacktown for nearly nine years. She invited me into her office at the South Sudan Urban Water Corporation (SSUWC) where she’s Deputy Managing Director, to show me an aqua Sydney Aquarium cube taking pride of place on her desk.
Yar went to Australia to give her children a “better education” after her husband, a prisoner of war, was killed in 2002. She came back to South Sudan just one month before the 2011 referendum as she had “many duties here”.
“It was an opportunity to bring back home what I learnt in Australia,” Yar said.
She joked that now whenever she’s travelling she can always “get a feeling about who is Australian by the way they’re walking”.
“There’s something different about them, their character.”
I didn’t have to be introduced to Australians to bump into them in South Sudan, where half of the population are living under the poverty line, some large families on just 75 South Sudanese Pounds (about £10) a month.
Strolling around Juba Town market, where Independence flags and pins were being sold, was like being in the Athens of Africa. Every second person had a brother or cousin living in Australia.
Aussies are everywhere
In Juba – the days were boiling, which also reminded me of home. Then it would bucket it down in the afternoon. One day I faced getting drenched on a boda (motorbike taxi) on the way back to my hotel, when a man in a shop called me a car instead. The driver Gabier and I were making polite chitchat when he caught me by surprise. “I’m Australian!” he exclaimed, explaining that he was back in his birth country for three months from Melbourne to see what the place was like.
At the celebrations at John Garang Mausoleum to mark the nation’s first birthday on Monday, I met Gabriel. He was sporting a loved-heart shaped badge on his suit with the South Sudanese flag on it, but proudly whipped an Australian passport out of his bag as soon as he heard my accent.
“See that woman,” he said, pointing to a female in a traditional dress waving a flag and dancing for the crowd of cheering thousands. “She’s from Canberra.”
When I told Gatwech Kulang later, he said her name was Aguer Deachut Deng, and she’d also called Australia home at one stage.
“That woman will never stop dancing,” he remarked, smiling.
Aguer’s not the only Southern Sudanese Australian in the country’s spotlight. The Honorable Gatwech Lam Pouch, MP for Nasir County, who was a humanitarian entrant into Australia and lived in Dandenong, Melbourne, between 2000 and 2008, says there’s now several Southern Sudanese Australians in the national Parliament.
“They’re reliable people, they don’t cheat,” he replied when I asked him what he thought of Aussies.
The bittersweet fact of freedom
His return, like Gatwech Kulang’s and James’, is bittersweet. Despite the self-satisfaction in knowing they’re contributing to their country, they’ve left their wives in Australia along with their children, so they can complete their schooling because they value Australian education.
Matata Frank, 29, who spent nearly two years in Adelaide misses his partner – who has become an Australian citizen – as well as swimming at Henley Beach.
“But during the war some of us went for over ten years without seeing our families,” he pointed out, putting everything in perspective.
There were more mentions of Australia. The recent title of SHE magazine, South Sudan’s first title for women, carried stories on the Miss South Sudan Australia pageant. This is held annually in Melbourne.
In Juba, the Southern Sudanese Australian community have in the past staged their own Australia Day celebrations, with up to 200 people joining in the festivities.
The generosity towards me of the Southern Sudanese Australian community in Juba blew me away. I’ve been lucky enough to travel extensively around the world and I’ve been to some places which have impacted on me greatly, especially in Africa. But I can’t remember the last time a place has had such a lasting impression on me like this country has.
When I commented on this to Gatwech, he insisted modestly: “We’ve hosted many Australians.”
“Australia was so good to me. I was honoured to be part of their society and I wanted to give back. They are the ones supporting me, trusting me, saying go and do it, build that school.
“So relax, you are at home.”
I couldn’t help welling up at this.
Becoming a new country, South Sudan had a lot of expectations but faces immense challenges.
At the local maternity hospital I was shocked to learn there are just 15 qualified midwives for the whole country. According to the country’s Household Health Survey 2010, the country has the world’s highest fertility rate, with almost seven children per woman. But four per cent of women aged 14 to 49 aren’t practicing any form of contraceptive or birth control. Yet the midwives the hospital does have, supported by UNFPA and with funding from AusAID, are doing a great job.
Only three out of every 10 people in South Sudan are able to read and write.
A broader perspective
If Australia thinks it has a problem with boats heading their way, get this. Last week the UN said more than 200,000 people had been displaced into South Sudan and Ethiopia as a result of the neighbouring conflict in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan. This is expected to worsen.
Despite all of this, the people I met are optimistic about the future of their country.
Australia may get a kicking over its treatment of refugees at times. But in South Sudan I met scores of hardworking, friendly men and women who all went to Australia for humanitarian reasons and told me how much they’d benefited from our education system, our fair way of life and our increasingly multicultural society.
Over my past nine days in the world’s newest nation I couldn’t help feeling slightly proud – and I’m embarrassed to say a little bit teary – thinking that Australia may have had even just a tiny part in shaping these amazing people, my new friends, who are now contributing to their birth country.
Image by sidelife