South Sudanese return to rebuild nation
It’s a year since Suzy Cagai returned to newly independent South Sudan from Australia, leaving her comfortable existence there to help to rebuild her fledgling but war-ravaged country.
The 25-year-old’s story echoes that of many South Sudanese her age who grew up in exile after fleeing the brutal civil war between the Sudanese government and the then rebel army of the south, a conflict that lasted decades.
But like many of her fellow exiles, Cagai has chosen to return to what is the youngest nation in the world to help rebuild it after one of Africa’s longest wars.
“I was living a normal Australian life,” she recalled with a smile.
“I planned to settle down with a partner, to marry, have children, find a place to live, pay the mortgage.” Cagai was just two years old when she left what was then the southern half of Sudan, escaping the war with her mother, three brothers and a sister — first to Ethiopia and then to Kenya, where she spent a decade.
When she was 16, the family moved to the western Australian city of Perth, where she gained a university degree in public relations.
But her life changed again when she made her first trip back home, on what was supposed to be just a short visit back, a few days after the declaration of independence on July 9 last year.
“I just came here to visit my father, who was sick,” she told AFP.
But even though she was too young to remember South Sudan as a child, the emotions she felt on returning to her land, her people, took her by surprise.
“I decided to stay,” she said.
“I felt a sense of belonging, maybe for the first time. It was overwhelming,” she said.
“We did not have our own country. We were thrown all over the world. We did not have a home.” So Juba, the new nation’s ramshackle but rapidly growing capital, is her home.
She is setting up an event management company with friend Nyidhal Dhol, a 24-year-old fellow South Sudanese woman who was previously her neighbour in Perth, but who also decided to return.
“You grow up with the sense that someday you’ll find a place you call home,” said Cagai.
And she knew about 100 other South Sudanese, between 18 and 30 years old, who had also returned to their birthplace, a land they previously little, if any, memory of.
Among them is Nyanuir Joseph Ayom, 30, who grew up in London.
She returned to South Sudan just to attend last year’s independence celebrations.
And she too ended up staying.
“For the first time I belonged to a country,” said Ayom. “I was excited. I felt at home.” And she too is looking at starting up a business in Juba.
Ajou Deng, 33, also came home last year after a career as a professional basketball player in Europe.
“It’s very important for people from outside to come here — they are educated and obviously the country needs them,” said Deng, who graduated from a US university and now works for a construction company.
“The environment is difficult, but we don’t think of it in negative terms, we look at what has to be done,” he added, who was at one time pushing for inclusion in the British basketball national team.
His younger brother Luol Deng, a star with the Chicago Bulls in the US, will captain the British team at the London Olympics.
“It’s very different than in the West,” said Deng.
“You don’t have anything here, but you have a lot of opportunities and you watch everything grow.” Between the culture shock and the absence of infrastructure, settling here can be tough for those arriving from the US, Australia or Europe.
Ayom admitted that the early challenges reduced her to tears: a combination of people’s rudeness, the intensity of the heat and the state of the roads.
“But I’d expected it to be worse,” she laughed.
And yes, she admits, she still misses the shopping and the social life back in her former home. Her friends laugh ruefully and agree.
But while Cagai concedes she does sometimes miss the creature comforts of the developed world, she insists that it not a big deal.
“What I don’t like here is that the opinion of women isn’t taken into account,” chipped in Ayom.
“And it’s the worst place to fall in love. Men have no respect for women.” But the recriminations are tempered by hope.
In a country where everything remains to be built, Ayom hopes attitudes towards women can change.
“What will make the difference in this country is our generation,” she said.
For while they acknowledge that the sort of family life they see for themselves is difficult in Juba, they all say they want to stay here for as long as possible.
“I’m 50/50,” said Cagai.
“I want to stay here. As a single woman, I don’t mind. I don’t have burdens.
“But if I meet someone, if I have kids, I’ll have to think twice. Because I want my kids to have good education, and health care.”