Scenes From Voter Registration in South Sudan

MELUT, Sudan—Today was a historic day for Southern Sudan. Across the vast, underdeveloped, France-sized region, southerners lined up to register to vote in the January self-determination referendum that is widely expected to lead to Sudan’s split.

But on this blisteringly hot afternoon in Melut—a quiet town on the banks of the Nile a few hours’ drive from Sudan’s north-south border—an outsider could be forgiven for not knowing the import of this day, which brought Southern Sudan one step closer to the moment when the majority of southerners intend to cast their votes for independence. At least at first glance, it seemed to be business as usual here.

Just after noon on one of Melut’s main (unpaved) streets, a young boy fried falafel while an older man prepared a large plate of foul (fava beans) and bread for some women dressed in colorful, floor-length material which also covered their heads. Here in the northernmost part of Southern Sudan, some Islamic traditions have taken root in the culture, although the majority of the people in this particular community are from the Dinka tribe and are not Muslim.

I am here to report a story on how Sudan’s oil industry may (or may not) change after the south’s referendum, but today the photographer whom I work with and I were roaming the streets of Melut in search of a voter registration center. We had just arrived from Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, by United Nations helicopter. Having missed observing registration getting underway in Malakal because of an unexpectedly early departure of our U.N. flight, we were anxious to see some folks registering so I could call him some “color” to my editor in Nairobi for my wire story on the start of registration, and so the photographer could take photos of it all.

As we munched on tasty falafel at the roadside shop, I worried that we were going to strike out on our attempt to witness voter registration taking off in one (of many) of the south’s far-flung rural areas. Then I went to buy some water at another shop, and as I was greeting all of the men gathered outside in what my friend calls my “kindergarten Arabic,” one young man pulled out his registration card and said that he and all of his friends were going to vote for separation. Although we had to communicate in a mix of broken Arabic and English, it was clear that he was excited to have registered and looking forward to January 9 when he would be able to cast his vote for independence.

Later in the afternoon, at one of the two registration centers in Melut, the scene was still quiet, as two rows—one for women, one for men—of seated people snaked through the open-air hallway of an elementary school and into a classroom where the two-step registration process was proceeding calmly. The mood, however, was much different than that of Sudan’s recent elections. Somehow, it seemed that people were more excited about the process, and that they’d be happy to stand in line for hours or even days if necessary in order to participate in it. This makes a great deal of sense, because the referendum is, after all,  the culmination of a decades-long struggle for self-rule, autonomy, and respect. As billboards in Juba suggest, it’s the “final walk to freedom.”

After a man in a flowing white jallibiya and brown and white skull cap exited the registration center with his laminated card in hand, he walked through an open field of brown grass with birds flying overhead. It was another normal day in Melut, but the people here came one step closer to their freedom vote.