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Nicholas KayBritish Ambassador to Sudan, Khartoum
Pots, pans, wardrobes, beds, bundles of clothes, six children and no husband, Mary is on her way “home”. A place she hasn’t seen for 21 years. A place none of her six children know. She is leaving a job as a school teacher and going to Juba, where she hopes she can find something. Is she fleeing in fear? Apparently not. Her brother has died and her aged mother in Juba has nobody to look after her. She, like all the other families I talked to, said it was time to go home. So far this month at least 7,000 southerners have passed through White Nile state making their way south. Not all take the same route as Mary. I met her and several hundred others waiting patiently at Kosti new port for a place on a barge to Malakal or Juba. Both are easier to reach by river than by road - especially if you are taking your entire worldly possessions with you.
In Kosti, thanks to international donors and NGOs, the returnees are well cared for. Large open-sided shelters seem to take about ten extended families each. Crowded, but clean and fairly comfortable since the returnees are travelling with their own beds and furniture. There’s a clinic, school and kindergarten, communal kitchen and latrines. More facilities than they’ll find on the decks of the barges that will take them on the next stage of their journey – up to 21 days voyage south up the White Nile to Juba.
Why was I in Kosti? Curiosity really. First to learn about the real numbers, conditions and motives for southerners leaving the north. Secondly, to try to get a bit more under the skin of Sudan, its economy, its past and its prospects. All are inter-linked. I stayed as a guest of Kenana Sugar Company, who run Africa and possibly the world’s largest sugar factory. Steeped in history – some of it controversial (e.g. a Nimeiri/Tiny Rowland grand scheme that became for a while an expensive white elephant) – Kenana is currently doing well (helped by fresh investment from Kuwait and Islamic banks) and is preparing for the future with a large modern ethanol plant. Kenana is about 15 miles from Kosti and in some ways the same distance from Sudan. It’s a company town (or series of townships). Employees benefit from free health care, schooling, university, water, electricity etc. The senior managers I met had all been there for about 30 years. Many of the workers were second generation Kenana people.
But even here the political drama of a country divorcing intruded. Several senior staff are southerners. Will they be allowed to stay after secession? Nobody knows. The manager of the ethanol plant became quite emotional at the idea that James, his domestic employee for decades, might be forced to leave. In practice, southern secession would have been more of an economic shock a few years ago, when sugar cane was cut by hand and most of the labour was from the south.
Confusion and uncertainty about the referendum and the future marked many of my conversations in Kosti and nearby Rabak. The signs of southerners on the move are obvious – buses full to the gunwhales, steaming precariously down the highway. Hundreds waiting for barges. But the numbers are still not a flood. One NGO employed by the International Organisation for Migration to track returnees counts nearly 7,000 individuals this month. Two years ago, the figure would have been more like 300. But this year it has been mounting. 3-4,000 per month being about the average figure for the first nine months. But these are not the total. Others return by air. Others are missed by the trackers who frequent the bus stations and road-sides trying to log passers by.
Meanwhile, the 41,000 or so southerners living in White Nile State are registering to vote in larger numbers than elsewhere in northern Sudan: 3,000 in the first week. I visited two registration centres in the heart of dusty and very poor villages on the outskirts of Kosti. Both were doing more “business” than many centres in Khartoum. One had registered fifty the same morning we visited. Everything looked in good order, although staff were disappointed at overall turnout. One centre had expected to register 1,000 in total. They were up to 347 after 10 (of the 17) days. Women had been the first to register. Men were only just beginning to appear.
Why are more registering to vote here than in Khartoum? Pure speculation. But perhaps because they feel less vulnerable. In Khartoum, it feels a long way to the south. In Kosti, it’s just up the river. Nobody knows if southerners will be allowed to stay if the south becomes independent (even if the Governor of White Nile told me breezily that “of course, everyone will be able to stay”). Some, fearing the worst, are making the move now. But nor is it just fear. Among the hundreds waiting for the boat in Kosti, there was also a sense of hope and almost fulfillment. Even those who had been born elsewhere knew they were going home. But, like Mary, they just don’t know what home holds in store.