Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Saturday, 15 January 2011

Bitterness gives way to hope in Sudan independence vote

By Will Ross
BBC News, Southern Sudan

Dawn in a cattle camp in Southern Sudan
For many African peoples, cattle are traditionally used as a store of wealth

Over the past week, citizens of Southern Sudan have been voting in a referendum that is widely expected to result in Africa's largest country being split in two, after years of conflict between north and south.

Picking up fresh cow dung with your bare hands does not sound like a very appealing way to make a living, does it?

But for the cattle-keepers of Southern Sudan, it is a daily dawn ritual.

Elijah Garang emerged from his shelter - made from sticks and plastic sheeting - adjusted his woolly hat with "Manchester" emblazoned across it and, surrounded by his herd of white long-horned cows, started doing the housework.

I've voted for independence so that my children will have a better life than we have had
Stella, south Sudanese voter

The cattle had made quite a mess of the open-air living room but, with the whole family including the young children joining in, soon the dung had all been collected and heaped onto small fires dotted around the camp.

This was the home-grown method of warding off mosquitoes. You could call it the George Bush approach - "smoke 'em out".

I was there to gauge the appetite for independence, and Elijah became very animated when I asked how he felt about the prospect of Southern Sudan breaking away to form a new country.

Elijah Garang
Elijah Garang is looking forward to a future free from conflict

"It will be great for us because then we can be at peace. We have been suffering for so many years," he told me.

This is a common refrain here.

Decades of war between the south and the Islamic north have left people with a long list of sad memories and a great deal of bitterness.

"I used to have thousands of cattle," Elijah said, as he smothered cold ash across the hide of one of his cows (the local all-in-one sun block and insect repellent).

"But I lost so many animals in the war. I even lost my wife and other relatives."

The fact that the cattle were mentioned first before the people gives you some idea of just how loved these animals are.

Watching as they were patted and preened, the scene reminded me of that weekend ritual which is so common in Britain when men emerge from their homes to wash, polish and wax their cars proudly.

Ducking for cover

Over the last week, cattle herders across the south have been walking, often for several hours, to reach the polling stations.

The independence referendum is an event that many told me they could hardly believe they were witnessing.

Voters queue up at polling station
A 60% turnout was required for the result to be valid

"I couldn't sleep all night I was so excited," Stella told me, as she cast her ballot in a small village in the state of Western Equatoria.

"I've voted for independence so that my children will have a better life than we have had," heavily pregnant Stella said, adding that she had spent years in exile in refugee camps after fleeing across the Ugandan border when she was 10 years old.

"Even the domestic animals have experienced today's joy," she added.

When I mentioned this remark to an old man under a towering mango tree, he said: "You have to remember that, when the northern forces sent over Antonov planes to bomb these villages, we all rushed to underground shelters.

"Even the dogs, chickens and ducks would hurry there as soon as they heard the distant hum of the plane."

Now I cannot get the image out of my mind of the ducks heading for the bunker at a speedy waddle.

I checked the voting queue and you will be glad to know there were no feathered friends there.

But from the way people were talking, the ducks would also be voting for secession if they could.

In the same village, I met John Patrick, who had just returned south after spending two decades in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

John Patrick Apono
I came to vote for my freedom
John Patrick Apono

When the war had become too intense, he had moved north to try to finish his education.

"I had to walk for hours to reach the school each day. It was impossible so in the end I had to give up," John Patrick said.

In Khartoum, he said, he had been treated as a third-class citizen and had faced discrimination every day.

He learnt to repair old radios to scrape a living and today he sits on the veranda in front of a bar, right next to the reddy-brown dirt road that runs through the village.

"I came to vote for my freedom," he told me, before performing some major surgery on an ancient, battered radio that burst into life with a song by the Congolese musician Franco.

I asked what the reunion with his parents had been like.

"I hadn't seen them for 20 years. It's difficult to put in words but tears flowed that day," he told me.

Potential breadbasket

Largely because of the lengthy war, the south of Sudan is one of the very poorest places on earth.

John Patrick knows that starting a new country there is going to be tough but, for him, being back home is the most important thing and he seems ready to face the challenges.

"We used to have an orange farm here. It was burnt during the war but we'll start another," he said.

Map of Sudan

This part of the south of Sudan is extremely fertile and has the potential to become the breadbasket of the region.

But to say that farming could do with a bit of modernisation would be an understatement.

"We recently taught the farmers here a new practice," one aid worker told me. "It was the use of the ox-drawn plough." This place clearly has some catching up to do.

After a monumental struggle, the independence flag looks set to be hoisted here in July.

I hope I will be back to witness what will be a huge party for the people of Southern Sudan and, of course, for the cows, the chickens and the ducks.

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