Monday, January 24, 2005

Signs of normalcy return to southern Sudan

Ethan Zuckerman's primarily Africa-themed blog noted an interesting article in The Christian Science Monitor. 'Cellphones, roads, and girls in school. Is this south Sudan?' asks the CSM's Abraham McLaughlin.

As you may remember, a peace agreement was recently signed between the central government in Khartoum and the southern SPLA rebel group. This would end one a 20-year civil war.

[Note: this peace deal does not affect the genocide being perpetrated by the regime in the eastern region of Darfur. In fact, some have argued cynically that the peace deal in the south allows the military regime to concentrate MORE military resources in Darfur.]

Anyways, McLaughlin notes optimistic signs of progress in the de facto southern Sudanese capital of Rumbek. Since the peace deal was signed earlier this month, the first signs of normalcy are appearing: Children, even girls, are going to school - many for the first. (Only Afghanistan under the Taliban had fewer girls graduate from eighth grade.) Some are starting to see a life beyond the battlefield. And commerce is coming back, he notes.

Former Sprint PCS engineer Richard Herbert is trying to develop a mobile phone network in the region from scratch. Herbert's cellphone team is on the leading edge of a developing post-war investment boom. When he arrived last August, he had only a few acres of land and a broken 30-foot satellite dish to work with. He had to charter planes to bring much of the new equipment.
"Most countries, even Afghanistan, have at least some infrastructure," he says. "But southern Sudan - zero."

But that hasn't daunted Herbert. Or the SPLA's head honchos. [S]outhern Sudan's leaders - former rebels who are joining the national government and will control the south - are keen for private-sector help, too. They invited in Herbert's firm, Network of the World.

And it's not merely telecommunication improvements that are coming.

Local markets are improving, too. Most used to be so anemic that they were barter-only: Want a chicken? Better have some salt to trade.

Now traders demand cash. Prices have fallen by about 30 percent in Rumbek. When Muhammad goes to the market, he sees imported items like pink Joe Boxer underwear, Casio watches, and fresh fruit.

You know things are on the upswing when pink Joe Boxer underwear arrives!

Soon, unheard-of products like refrigerators will arrive. Until now, the roads have been too risky for such high-value items.

But Muhammad is proudest that he now earns $375 a month - enough to put all four of his kids in school for the first time. "The children," he says, "they must be in school."


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