|Francis Odong’s story of a childhood derailed is sadly typical for children in troubled Sudan [Ranjit Bhaskar/Al Jazeera]|
This is the story of Francis Odong, a Southern Sudanese man from Eastern Equitoria state.
There is nothing extraordinary about his story, at least by the standards of tales of the “lost boys”, of children being separated from their families because of the civil war and finding their way west via refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
Nevertheless, that Francis’ story is considered ordinary in South Sudan reflects the reality of life here. While he did not have to face the trauma of becoming a child soldier, he was forced to cross a border, alone, aged just 14, and to live in refugee camps. His story is one of many young Sudanese: of a life derailed, almost at its outset.
It is also a story about living in the tumultuous period between 1983 and 2005, when more than two million people died of war and war–related causes in Sudan. When over four million people were internally displaced in southern Sudan and nearly two million southern Sudanese fled across borders.
This is the story of a teenager determined to fight his way out of his predicament through education. Of a certain dignity that comes so easily to the poor; the urge for an education despite starting out late; not missing out on studies through three civil wars; of studying to become a paramedic while juggling a full-time job.
“It is tough. I begin my day at 8am with practical work at the hospital till 12noon, then classroom lessons till 3pm, and then work till 10.30pm or 11pm. But then, my life has not always been easy,” says Francis, softly, at the end of his shift at the Lugali House hotel in Juba, southern Sudan.
In the next few days, he will be writing his last test of his three-year course. He is sure to find a job in the NGO sector, he says. He has made some contacts among guests at the hotel, many of whom are there to play midwife to the birth of a nation.
That process is set to begin on January 9 with a week-long referendum vote that will decide whether Southern Sudan will remain with the north or not. That the south will decide to separate is the forgone conclusion amongst most observers.
Francis’ trials and tribulations reflect the torturous timeline of south Sudan over the past few decades. He was born in 1978, a period of relative peace after an agreement in 1972 ended the first civil war between the north and the south that had started a year before Sudan’s independence in 1956.
For Francis, that peace lasted for only the first five years of his life. Just when he was ready to start school, war broke out again in 1983. He had to wait another eight years to enter a classroom.
While hostilities between the north and south soon tapered, a more brutal internecine war broke out in his state. That is when his parents decided to send him across the border to Uganda in 1993.
When the fighting intensified, his parents soon followed him into Uganda. They were, however, taken to a different camp.
While they were soon reunited, even this respite was shortlived. The notorious Lord’s Resistance Army destroyed their camp, and, once again, it was time to move.
For Francis, the only thing that remained consistent in his life through this time were his studies. After his senior O’ levels, he specialised in science subjects for his A’ level examinations. That led him to become a teacher in a refugee camp.
After the Comprehensive Peace Treaty that ended the civil war in southern Sudan was signed in 2005, Francis made his way back home in 2006.
He came to Juba and joined a diploma course to become a paramedic. His parents came back a year later, heading to their village in Eastern Equatoria to start farming again.
But Francis’ troubles were not yet over. His medical school was shut down abruptly for a year, leaving Francis in limbo. Without any financial help from an autonomous government that was supposed to be closer to its people, Francis is forced to work.
“We are supposed to get scholarships, but the government of Eastern Equitoria has its own reasons for not giving them out,” says Francis. The annual fee for his course is 1,500 Sudanese pounds.
Plans for better future
With his monthly salary of around 900 pounds, Francis looks after his wife and three-year-old son and manages to send 300 pounds a month to his parents in the village.
He has already made plans to ensure a better future for his son.
For Francis, that means sending him to a boarding school in northern Uganda. When asked if this would lead to the same trauma of separation that Francis himself faced as a child, he clarifies that he would not want that life for his son.
“No, my wife will rent a house near his school to be there for him.”
Before she does that, she must resolve issues regarding her own nationality. A Ugandan, she has been asked to wait until the referendum is over to start the process of becoming southern Sudanese.
“This is a common problem for tribes like the Madi, Nimulai and Kakwa who are found on both sides of the border. But as people we are same,” Francis says.
The plans and hopes of a young family, echoing those of nascent nation. This family’s story is one of being obliged to East African neighbours for basic needs like education, and unresolved issues like tribal bonds, borders and nationality.