I’ve lived in Diaspora for all my adult life and first set foot on South Sudanese soil in 2011. This raises a challenging question: Am I qualified to speak out about life in South Sudan?
Every so often, an experience forces you to pause and reflect. It compels you to reassess your past conduct and the choices you’ve made along the way. I had one of those experiences a few days ago. The circumstances don’t much matter. What matters is the question I was obliged to ask myself. Should I be speaking out about what is happening in South Sudan?
This really isn’t about self-censorship. As a citizen, I believe I have the right to voice an opinion. It is about how qualified I am, as an individual, to comment. Do I really know as much about my homeland as I think I do? Do I truly understand the experience of living there? Do I share the hopes and aspirations of my fellow South Sudanese? Am I expressing grassroots concerns or am I repackaging and projecting my own thoughts onto people who may well have altogether different priorities?
Certainly, my first-hand experience of the country is extremely limited. I have lived in Diaspora all my adult life. I was born in Khartoum and lived in that city until our relocation to London, whilst I was only 7 years of age.
The first time I ever set foot on South Sudanese soil was in late July 2011, a few days after the nation celebrated its independence. The country was still groggy and recovering from sustained revelry. I felt as if I had arrived too late and missed the mother of all parties.
Before 2011, South Sudan was an abstract idea. I knew the homeland only indirectly. The tapestry I had developed was cobbled together from the recollections of my parents and their friends. It was stitched together from what I heard in gatherings and meetings of the wider Diaspora community. It was embroidered by what I read in news reports and NGO briefings.
There was an unsettling dissonance. The warm recollections of my Diaspora community were at odds with the cold pessimism of the news reports. I would often find myself asking: how can such a seemingly wonderful country, second only to Eden in its beauty and the friendliness of its people, be in such turmoil and distress? Naturally, I blamed the regime in Khartoum. I became, from a young age, a staunch secessionist. My rationale was simple. Should the South Sudanese people free themselves from the destructive influence of the northern regime, then the golden past my elders spoke so wistfully about, must surely re-emerge.
Nevertheless, I steered away from the SPLM, despite repeated appeals for me to get involved from well-meaning members of the UK chapter. There were three reasons: (a) like most youth growing up in Diaspora, I was apolitical; (b) I was put off by their unionist rhetoric; and (c) I could not reconcile with reports of heavy handedness by SPLA soldiers towards civilians.
After 2011, I made short and repeated trips to South Sudan. I began to get acquainted with the homeland. I still haven’t travelled widely within the country. Most of my time has been spent in Juba. Whenever I have journeyed outside the capital, it’s always been to drive down the highway to Nimule, stopping briefly along the way to visit villages and homesteads. I haven’t seen the great flood plains to the north, or the lush green belt to the west. I haven’t journeyed through the parched scrublands to the east or walked barefoot along the fertile alluvial soil that clings to the Nile as it snakes its way, past the oil fields, to the furthest tip of our vast country.
But from what little I have seen, I came to the conclusion that the image of South Sudan was just an ideal, embellished by a Diaspora who had been away from home for too long. The reality was a jarring shock to the system.
In these brief visits, I developed a sense that this was a country where ethnicity mattered. It was a country where militarism had emerged as the dominant ideology. I noticed a simmering tension between those who had never left, those who had gone to neighbouring countries and those who had migrated much further away. Corruption was endemic, to the extent that it seemed no longer the corruption of a system, but rather a system in itself, designed to reward those who had fought the liberation war. This was no Eden. No land of milk and honey. It was gritty and it was raw. Despite all this, I still believed there was much untapped potential in the country – both human and material.
Mine is not a lived experience. It is more akin to study. Whilst in South Sudan, I would fill countless notebooks with observations for careful analysis once I returned to the UK. I began by sifting for commercial opportunities, then moved onto studying the wider economic and political environment. From 2011 onwards, this study took up an increasing amount of my time. Each day I would catch-up on current affairs and debate with others in the homeland and Diaspora. In 2012, I finally joined Facebook and social media opened up an entirely new avenue of exploration of South Sudan.
I remain, still, a student of South Sudan. Albeit one who is emotionally invested in what he’s studying. For some people, especially those in the homeland, this disqualifies me from speaking out. To use a footballing analogy, I’m compared to a delusional fan who thinks he knows better than a premier league manager. Others still, consider me unpatriotic for criticising what I believe to be a failing state that is more concerned with political personalities and entitlement than economic and social development. What in the UK might have been applauded as citizen engagement in the political process, is too often perceived as ill-conceived meddling in ‘sensitive’ matters best left to those who are more ‘qualified’.
One observation made this perception troubling. Due to the information deficit in South Sudan, I would often find myself knowing more about what is happening in the country than those who have lived there all their life.
Herein lies my own failure and the failure of many living in Diaspora. Our expectations are not always aligned with those of the people back home. They have not lived the same experience as we have in wealthy and open liberal democracies. We have not shared in their sustained experiences of a decades’ long war. We escaped the overwhelming insecurity and the mental demons that come with such a conflict. On our return, we found ourselves muted strangers in our own home.
Herein also lies the failure of those in the homeland. A distrust of the Diaspora that finds expression in suspicion and exclusion. We are not competition. We do not know better. We only know different. And I would argue that a lack of imagination is at the heart of our country’s problems today. There is an alarming short-termism that borders on the negligent.
Do I really know as much about my homeland as I think I do? Yes. I have no illusions that I know the country well or fully understand the motivations of all her peoples. This acceptance has informed my analysis and moderated my commentary. I stick to what facts I can find and make my own judgements based on those facts.
Do I truly understand the experience of living there? No I do not. And I cannot, unless I repatriate myself back to South Sudan. But I am only a phone call away from friends and relatives in the homeland. Technology and social media brings us closer together despite the vast distances between us. I talk with them often about life in the homeland. It is from these conversations that I have developed an indirect understanding.
Do I share the concerns, hopes and aspirations of my fellow South Sudanese? I believe that I do. I believe we all want a happy and fulfilling life. I believe we all want more access to quality services. I believe we all want jobs and opportunities to improve our lives. I believe we all want security and fairness. I believe we all want to see our children live better lives than we have lived. Whether cattle herder or farmer, trader or civil servant, we all have our own nuanced interpretation of these aspirations. How we go about achieving them is the area of most debate.
I am in Diaspora and also a citizen. I will continue to speak out because I am a citizen. But I can never forget that, in South Sudan today, citizenship holds a different meaning to my own. I will continue to speak out because I love my country. I feel that love as keenly as those who have lived their whole life in the homeland. And yet, I can never forget that, in South Sudan today, the idea of the homeland holds a different meaning to my own.