Until recently I knew barely anything about Sudan, despite there being a relatively large Sudanese population in Alice. On the eve of Sunday July 8 I attended a celebration in a high school hall for the first anniversary of the Republic of South Sudan. My Mum had been asked to speak on behalf of her friend Marguerite Baptiste Rourke, a vivacious local woman originally from the Seychelles who’s worked tirelessly for 23 years helping migrants settle in Alice. Mum’s husband Richard, who was born in Croatia, was also a guest; he’s on the board of Multicultural Community Services of Central Australia, which Marguerite is Coordinator of. I thought the night would be a stand ‘round and clap affair so I was surprised when Mum, Richard and I were seated at a table at the front of the hall alongside the smartly suited South Sudanese dignitaries.
The South Sudan anthem was played by Mr DJ, and then we remained standing for a minute’s silence to, as the South Sudanese Community Elder Jiak Puot said in a rousing speech, “remember the sacrifice which our sisters and brothers had to offer to achieve this victory.”
The figure of “two million deaths” in the fight for political independence was mentioned by every South Sudanese speaker that evening, but the graveness of the number, decades of civil war and the fact that South Sudan is currently facing economic disaster could not penetrate their jubilation. Only Puot, who I reckon has delivered hundreds of equally stirring speeches in his time, touched on the reality of the situation. In his booming baritone which frequently paused for applause he shouted, “The Republic of South Sudan is developing, but it is developing slowly. No country can develop without resources, and resources have been slow. We need the international community to assist with resources, and not just provide arms… We need peace. Without peace there is no development.” Stereotype I know, but Jiak Puot had the Martin Luther King Jr thing goin’ on. I could barely believe I was in a high school hall in the centre of Australia.
I’ve since learned that peace for South Sudan, despite its long and bloody struggle for secession from the North, is a very, very long way off. But Alice is a very long way from South Sudan. If these South Sudanese Australians were never accepted into this country I doubt their dancing would’ve been as spirited.
Over the years the town’s last bastion of independent journalism, The Alice Springs News, has run articles on immigrants who’ve settled here. In 2001 they interviewed South Sudanese man Robben Yak. Here are some of his words: “We are lucky to be in Australia and even luckier to be in Alice Springs… When we came to Australia there were about a dozen of us from East Africa. The US and Canada took hundreds. I wonder why Australia can’t take more. There are thousands and thousands who need a chance. It’s just luck that we were picked. We do appreciate our luck.” Eleven years on and we’re still wondering the same thing.
Head to Aljazeera for a discussion about whether the split has brought progess or regression.