“We still have a long way to go, my sister”

RUMBEK, Sudan—Veronica Ajok Angok, 25, was born on the run during Sudan’s most recent north-south civil war. Her mother was fleeing the war, headed east from her village in Warrap state when she gave birth to Veronica en route to Ethiopia. Veronica’s mom had hoped to reunite with her husband, who was training with the southern rebels in one of the camps supported by the Ethiopian government at the time (in the mid 1980s). She died shortly after giving birth to Veronica.

What followed for Veronica is not atypical for a Southern Sudanese person her age. In brief, when the Ethiopian regime fell in ’91, she fled with some of her relatives through the bush and through battlefields to a refugee camp in Kenya and began learning English. From there, Veronica’s story diverges, because a combination of good luck, hard work, and determination landed her a scholarship to secondary school and eventually a job with Women for Women International back in Southern Sudan’s Lakes state, not far from her family’s homeland. By then, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement had been signed and there was “relative peace” to return home to.

As part of her job for the next few years, Veronica trained women on various “life skills” as part of Women for Women’s long-term mentoring and training program. She helped them correspond with pen pals in the U.S., by reading aloud in Dinka the letters written in English and then transcribing the words of the Sudanese women in English and mailing the letters back to women in the U.S. Veronica recently decided she wanted to be a journalist, so she is working as a radio broadcaster at Radio Good News, part of Sudan’s Catholic Radio Network in the town of Rumbek.

On a recent Saturday afternoon I was in a Toyota pickup with Veronica, on a rutted, partly flooded road off. We were headed to the farm run by Women for Women so that Veronica and her former colleagues could show me and some other visitors around the impressive project. More than once we both bumped our heads on the roof of the pickup, and muddy water splashed through the open window. While we were discussing Southern Sudanese politics and what an independent Southern Sudan might look like upon its very likely “birth” next year, Veronica said simply “we still have a long way to go, my sister.”

It is hard not to disagree with her statement as it applies to the challenges that the south will face in creating a new state and establishing good governance and security throughout its vast territory. Meeting someone like Veronica, however, is one reason to think that the south has what it takes to succeed as an independent nation—all the more so if people like Veronica are empowered as leaders who can steer the way, as they have so keenly done in their personal lives amid war, suffering, and hardship.