If you travel to South Sudan, you will within 15 minutes of your arrival realize that it’s a harsh place. The new country born just a year ago is having a new beginning after nearly melting away under the heat of Africa’s longest civil war. All systems collapsed under the weight of the war; health, education, infrastructure, you name it. So when the new nation was born on July 9, 2011, it began to crawl out of the ashes of one of the continent’s recurrent plagues: war.
I was with one of my colleagues from FH South Sudan, an Ethiopian by the name Abebe. He seemed to have found a way to cope with the scorching heat because despite the discomfort, he wore an unremitting smile, occasionally wiping his brow of dripping sweat. He has numerous stories of various encounters in South Sudan over the five years he’s been there. Our mission was to negotiate with UNHCR officials on a proposal to extend our work into Jonglei State. Since independence, there have been droves of returnees in this region needing humanitarian assistance in order to re-integrate back into society.
To get around the town, we used a taxi because FH doesn’t have operations in the area and public transport is almost non-existent. Our taxi driver was a young man named Sura Samuel from Northern Uganda. I couldn’t help but find out what brought him to Bor, a town in Jonglei state, 190kms (120 miles) north of the capital, Juba.
The 25-year-old completed his high school education in 2006. He found a job as a teacher in his village and taught for a year. At this time, South Sudan – then still part of the original Sudan – had already signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that brought some semblance of peace to the south and an opportunity for business. His friends in Juba encouraged him to move from northern Uganda and try his hand at business in the town. With his meager earnings and few belongings, Samuel set off to Juba and started work as a bus conductor. Three months later, he received word from home that his father was ill with cancer. Samuel traveled back home and spent all his savings to make his father’s last days comfortable.
Gathering himself together, Samuel returned to Juba and began work as a driver, ferrying people in taxis and motorbikes. After sometime, he moved to Bor, hoping that the less competition and unexploited opportunities would translate to more profit. It was not long before things began to change for the better for Samuel.
“Fortunately, God was also with me. I struggled to get some money, sold my motorbike, and then I bought the car I have now,” he says. And so far business has been good. “I have plans to change this vehicle this year [for a bigger, newer, stronger one]. God will help me.”
The lesson I took away was that young, entrepreneurial people like Samuel are transforming the face of South Sudan. Most South Sudanese sustain themselves through agriculture, but soon they will need to diversify their income streams to improve their lives and, consequently, their economy. Samuel says there are only three taxi owners in Bor, which has a population of close to 30,000 people. Opportunity knocks for the South Sudanese.
They may not have the millions of dollars to roll out huge projects like factories to process the abundant food in the country, or air-conditioned five-star hotels by the Nile for tourists, but their entrepreneurial streak will go a long way in improving the look of South Sudan.
Ethnic fighting along the porous borders with the north can easily spill over to other parts of the country, threatening the potential dividends of its oil wealth; new roads, schools, hospitals and jobs for the new country.
However, if more and more South Sudanese engage in small businesses, the likelihood of destroying what they have built through their own sweat will be less, because they will have a stake in their country.