I witnessed a remarkable scene with my family yesterday: hundreds of men (and a few women) voting for the first time. And a most historic vote it was. After more than twenty years of civil war, South Sudan held a referendum yesterday deciding whether or not to separate from the northern, Muslim-dominated half of the country that has brutally oppressed them. There were eight polling places throughout the US for Sudanese expatriates to vote in the referendum, and one of them happened to be next door to our church. So after church let out we walked over to see a new nation being voted into existence. The line of voters stretched around the corner of the building and down the street; it was well below freezing and windy, but the mood was festive. Voters came out of the polling place waving purple-stained fingers and whooping and shouting. Some of them had driven from as far away as Florida and Mississippi and Kentucky.
There are 8000 Sudanese expatriates in Nashville, most of them "Lost Boys" who were settled here around 2000 after their harrowing escapes from war and genocide and years in refugee camps. The Sudanese men we've known have been people of remarkable faith and resilience. So it was a joy to celebrate their first voting day with them. And yet a practical side of me is fearful for an independent South Sudan. There is very little infrastructure, 60% illiteracy; the place is a wreck after so many years of civil war. It seems that an independent South Sudan would be extremely vulnerable...though not, I suppose, any more vulnerable than they are already, when their own "government" is hostile to them.
One extra-special part of our visit to the polls was getting to reconnect with our old friend, James Kual Makuac, who has been painting his experiences since he was in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Here's a picture of James at the easel:
And a couple of his paintings:
If you're interested in more art by Lost Boys, The Lost Boys Foundation and Gallery (which hosted yesterday's vote) has some great stuff.
Also, here's the New York Times article about the vote in Nashville. Strangely, I'm not seeing anything on the website of the Tennessean, Nashville's newspaper.