South Sudan priest: Finalize borders so people can grow crops

By Bronwen Dachs, Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- Sudan and South Sudan need to finalize their borders so that people in the world's newest country can get to work growing crops in the lush fertile region, said Fr. Peter Othow, coordinator of development and aid for South Sudan's Malakal Diocese.

"People who live in the border area are tense," Fr. Othow said in a July 10 telephone interview from Malakal, which is seen as one of the potential flashpoints along the 1,300 mile-border with Sudan.

"They can't settle, because they feel that anything could happen," he said, noting that during a surge of violence in May people fled from surrounding rural areas to Malakal and are afraid to go back.

Some have moved a mile south of "where they think the border will be, so that they are free to cultivate" the land, he said.

With "good security, everything can be achieved," said Fr Othow, who was born and raised in South Sudan.

He said church programs aim to help communities to be "food secure without depending on the North or neighboring countries."

For instance, a diocesan program, largely funded by the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, will provide seeds and tools to people along with lessons on how to plant crops and vegetables effectively, he said.

Soldiers from both countries patrol the contentious border outside Malakal "on opposite sides of a canal, which really is a big ditch," he said.

Sudan lost almost a third of its territory and about three-quarters of its oil reserves with the split that followed a January referendum in which almost all of the residents of the South voted to secede.

There are political differences among the people of Malakal and "a struggle for power which, if not carefully handled, could lead to more conflict," Fr Othow said.

"People need to learn to negotiate for power-sharing in government," he said, noting that a "culture of negotiating" has yet to be developed in South Sudan, where "people often think that violence and threats of renewed tribal conflict speak louder" than debates with political opponents.

There are "high hopes that, with independence, there will be a much-needed focus on education," Father Othow said, noting that teachers who are able to teach in English, South Sudan's official language, are "desperately needed."

South Sudan is one of the least-developed regions in the world. An estimated 85 percent of its population of around 8 million is illiterate.

Until 2005, all subjects at schools in the non-Muslim South were taught in Arabic, said Fr. Othow. Now, "subjects are taught in English and Arabic is taught as a language," he said.

Health services are another "urgent priority" in the newly independent state, Father Othow said, noting that while there is one government hospital in Malakal, a Comboni sister runs a clinic outside the town, "serving people who otherwise would have no access to health services."

According to Doctors Without Borders, 75 percent of people in South Sudan do not have access to basic health services.