People take the long journey south to vote. Credit: CRS/Sarah Fajardo-Henning

By Sara A. Fajardo-Henning

At 7 a.m. in the morning the Juba port bristles with early morning rooster calls, women laundering along the banks of the Nile, and young children stirring on bed mats where they nestle like kittens in their temporary open-air bedrooms. They arrived by the hundreds, these Sudanese who meandered down the serpentine turns of Africa’s most famous river for close to 15 days. They brought with them everything the boats could carry: writing desks, stoves, mattresses, and tea kettles – essential in boiling up comforting cups of morning tea while boiling away the diseases pulled up from the Nile’s murky waters.

Patience defines them. They waited for days in temporary camps in Kosti and Khartoum to board the boats that would take them “home.” They navigated slowly along the winding Nile, not knowing when they’d arrive. And now that they’re here, full of hopes and fears, on the cusp of their new lives, they wait again.

Each family has carved out a spot under the generous shade of the mango trees that line the Nile’s banks. Blankets and piled up furniture mark the boundaries of their temporary homes. The Juba Port is nothing more than a brief stop in a longer journey. For months the Government of Southern Sudan has coordinated organized returns of southerners living in northern Sudan. The government paid for trips back, worked with humanitarian aid organizations on reception committees, and enticed returnees to move beyond major cities with food and items offered by organizations like Catholic Relief Services at their final destinations. But first they must wait.

Some wait for their belongings to arrive on the next barge, others wait for family members to pick them up, and others wait for the buses to arrive to take them to the next stop on their long journeys. In the meantime they play pick-up games of soccer with a half-deflated basketball, transform bottle caps into games of jacks, feast on sun-ripened mangos from bountiful trees, and build on friendships forged over their weeks-long voyage.

Like most beginnings, theirs is filled with promise. Each person arrives with his or her own dream for what tomorrow will bring. Some mourn for what was left behind – a home, an education, a way of life that will never again be theirs, but for the most part they speak in earnest of building a new Sudan.

The months ahead will be filled with hard work and difficult decisions. They will need to build houses, plant fields, find water, and enroll children in schools. The older generations will need to relearn the ways of their youth, while the youth who were born far away from the land of elders, where Arabic was spoken and things were more accessible, will have to learn how to live as southerners.

Like the rocky dirt roads that define southern Sudan, it is up to the southern Sudanese to pave their own way. For now they wait. Their temporary homes at the port are but a brief respite- on a greater on-going journey each person will have to define alone.