Even the Elephants Fled to Kenya

Josephine Ablang, the very young Minister of Finance, Trade, and Industry from Eastern Equatoria State in South Sudan, and Zeinab Yassim, Special Advisor to the Governor of Eastern Equatoria on Gender and Human Rights Issues, are in the US, on a mission to sell their new country. They arrive hours later than planned at the college where I teach–we are told that they were late because of “different international systems” (a polite way to say that they are on “African Time”). When Her Excellency Ms Ablang takes the floor, she is quick to correct: we are not late because of “different international systems” – but because she is feeling quite sick: it is a matter of different weather systems.

It’s not just the Sudanese who find her youth to be a surprise: when H.E. Ablang arrived in the US, many people said, “Oh. You are the Finance Minister?” She explained that in her culture, age is associated with responsibility – but she alters that understanding, by adding that it is the ability to step up to responsibility that makes one responsible. She is 38 years old, and here in the US, doing PR for her country, selling investment possibilities, including petroleum in Lafon, gold in Kapoeta, and tourism: vast swathes of land set aside for wildlife parks. In Kidepo National Park, elephants (which had fled south to Kenya, just as the people had done, during the war) are returning.

The challenges are many: the most pressing of which are to do with the cost of materials fundamental to “development” (everything is imported, including concrete, which means that even the cost of building a simple structure is prohibitive) and education. 80% of women are not educated. Most who are educated were refugees who went to formal schools and universities abroad – in Kenya, in Europe, in the US. Both officials are quick to emphasise women’s role in the war – whether it was cooking for the warriors, being active combatants themselves, or by being educated abroad, in readiness for running the country they hoped for.

Above, H.E. Ablang addresses why the South Sudanese government has to prioritise the challenges they must address: infrastructure, health and education come first.

Later, I ask Ms. Yassim about what they think of the Cloony-wagons circling Sudan; she is too smart to criticise: she says, essentially, that as emissaries of South Sudan, they are here in the US to tell their own story.

Neelika Jayawardane; Mohamed Elsafty (on camera)

Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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