South Sudan is the youngest nation in the entire world, and it’s still struggling to form a unique identity in the wake of its still-newfound independence.
On July 9th, 2011, the nation of South Sudan officially declared that it was an independent state. The nation of Sudan had been in a state of warfare since 1955, beginning with the Sudanese Civil War from 1955 to 1972 and the Second Sudanese Civil War, from 1983 to 2005. Both civil conflicts qualified as some of the longest ever recorded, leading to atrocities and resentments that eventually resulted in the creation of separate states.
Explanations for the root of conflict in Sudan depend on who you ask, but the seeds of both interpretations span back more than a century. According to some, resentments between the residents in the northern regions of Sudan and the southern regions resulted from centuries of slaves raids by the northern Sudanese, who are largely Arab, leading to the conquering and exploitation of their neighbors to the south. Others blame British rule in the nation, which lasted from 1899 to 1947, for artificially splitting the nation in half, with the Islamic influence of Egypt taking stronger hold of the northern-lying Sudanese people.
The veracity of these explanations are subject to opinion, and the lines have been blurred over the years. Whatever the true cause, the bitterness between North and South Sudan became strong enough to result in two civil wars and the deaths of roughly 2.5 million people in total. When the nations officially split, some thought that peace would prevail, at least for a while. This optimism would quickly fade.
In 2013, only two years after the declaration of independence, South Sudan was embroiled in its own civil conflict. It was sparked when President Salva Kiir Mayardit accused his former deputy, Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, of leading an attempted coup. Machar’s denials became less convincing once he proceeded to lead the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition against government forces. Fighting raged on. Temporary ceasefires were agreed to, but never lasted. To date, an estimated 383,000 South Sudanese have perished in the conflict.
The fighting continues today, and South Sudan finds itself once again in the midst of turmoil its people thought it had left behind when the nation declared independence. In this midst of this backdrop, the people of Sudan left searching for some semblance of normality are also grappling with the realities of navigating their own identities, as individuals and as a nation divided.
An indelible facet of who we are is the language we speak, and how we speak it. Dating back to the times when the northern Sudanese brand of Islam was uniquely influenced by North African neighbors such as Egypt, South Sudan has embraced its own brand of Arabic. Though South Sudan is comprised of people speaking more than 60 languages across dozens of ethnic lines, Juba Arabic – named for the capital of South Sudan – is a dialect that is easily distinguishable from more traditionaln forms of Arabic spoken in the north. But as South Sudan strives to forge its own identity as a nation, many believe that a hard break from Arabic – the official language of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum – altogether is critical to establishing true independence.
Some have compared anti-Arabic sentiments in South Sudan to the push to move away from Afrikaans, a dialect associated with the apartheid regimes in South Africa. Sometimes symbols, whether they be a flag or a language, elicit painful memories, and there is a large contingent of South Sudanese who see Arabic as the language of their former conquerors to the North. The South Sudanese Constitution established English, instead of Arabic, as the nation’s official language. Ironically, it was the colonizing British who originally brought English to Sudan, but the resentments, having cooled since the British’s departure over 60 years ago, are not as heated as those harbored against Arabic. Still, the rejection of Arabic in practice, just like the transition into statehood, has proven to be quite difficult.
The South Sudanese government, envisioning a path towards English predominance in the mold of Uganda and Kenya, has proven incapable of supplying the resources necessary to teach English on a broad scale. The outbreak of the civil war has only limited what few resources the nation had to begin with, and learning English seems like a secondary pursuit when compared with the concern of being maimed or killed in war.
Not even eight years after its independence, the future of the young nation of South Sudan is already in doubt. A once-bright, optimistic national spirit oriented towards an English-speaking future have been replaced with the same violent infighting that led South Sudan to declare its independence in the first place. As it turns out, it may not be Arabic at all that was causing the violence between northern and southern Sudan. The hodgepodge of ethnicities that populate South Sudan have proven capable of finding reason to go to war without Arabic being a primary factor.
And so English remains the chosen tongue of only a minor portion of South Sudanese, and those who would wish to learn it are being held back by the warring of their brethren. If peace eventually prevails, the English dream in South Sudan may become a reality. But, as it stands, that is one major ‘if’.