Beautiful South Sudan in many respects, can be viewed as a love letter to the country. Throughout the book, the author is at pains to detail her beauty, to highlight her strengths and not dwell on her flaws. With every spill of ink, you can sense the author’s anguish at the destruction of the country, celebrate with him as he describes his exquisite beloved and grieve with him for the children she has lost in the quest for freedom. While the book is littered with historical facts and images, it is not short of seductive poetry and prose to romanticize the narration. I found this book extremely important as it is not often that we get Africans telling their own stories. Often, we are bombarded with biased narratives that beckon us to write off our countries as single stories with no nuance. With this erasure, we forget to humanize our people, to honour their stories and their pride as a people. In Beautiful South Sudan, we are forced to glare at the people of South Sudan’s humanity, to see that they too have children just like the rest of us. That they dream of a time beyond the war; that they have love and poetry and beauty and way more than mere politics.
This was deeply striking for me on a personal note because I do not remember a time when I have shared anything about South Sudan outside the war. I do not remember talking about their art or their resources or their languages. I do not remember talking about their humanity. This book, while a mixture of many things is such a moving attempt to fit a country into a few pages. Ayay scrambles to put together historic memories, current realities and dreams of the future the country wants to see. Given how packed the book is, you will probably not want to read it all in one go (trust me on this one, I attempted to). This book requires time. You might get lost in the history of the country and find yourself spending endless hours on google trying to piece together the many facets. Or you might be deeply troubled by the current reality and get lost in deliberating that. Most times though, I found myself dreaming with the author. I found myself imagining what John Garang (google him!) would say or think about the current state and what wise words he would share about the way forward.
My biggest lesson while reading this book though was seeing how easy it is as a naïve outsider to look at an entire country- a proud and intelligent people- without much context and arrogantly make well-meaning but short-sighted suggestions about what needs to be done. This book has taught me to listen more. To be deliberate in seeking out the voices of the people affected by the situation and to believe what they tell me. When they detail their abuse at the hands of Northern Sudan, to believe them. When they request the rest of us to step aside and let them solve their own issues, to grant them the request. And if they ever need a helping hand, to be ready to give one without judgement or condescension when they ask.
“Imagine a traveler walking into your cattle camp one evening; you welcome him warmly, give him milk to drink and the best bed to sleep on. He stays with you for an indefinite period and when you tell him that he has overstayed his welcome and was time for him to go, he claims that it was your fault to let him stay so long anyway and demands a share of your cattle: would you allow him to do so?”—Dr. John Garang speaking to a crowd of Dinka herdsmen in 1998 about the arrival and occupation of Sudan by the Arabs
As a caveat, I will be the first to acknowledge that this was not the type of book I would typically pick up for a number of reasons. While this may be true for you too, I would still recommend you get yourself a copy if you have any interest at all in learning more about South Sudan. This is especially true for those of us committed to seeing more authentic and balanced stories of our continent being told. This book did that for me. It exposed my ignorance, renewed a desire in me to see more and do more for Africa as a whole and for that, I am deeply thankful to the author for his courageous narration.
By Frank(ie) Talk
Frank(ie) Talk is a Development Finance Masters student at the University of Cape Town. When she is not making bracelets at Relate, you’ll find her at some coffee shop in Cape Town reading or theorizing about the World.
Thank you Frank(ie) for always urging us to identify our own biases in order to get out of our comfort zones and address those biases. We might not always have the funds to travel and see the world but it is through books that we are enlightened and forever changed. I will be travelling to South Sudan soon through Beautiful South Sudan 🙂 -Lerato