Local nonprofit host Sudan benefit, discusses country’s future

Erica Terrini

Executive Editor

For the next couple of months the people of Southern Sudan are preparing to vote on a permanent succession from Northern Sudan.

Many believe the independence referendum on Jan. 9, 2010 could equalize the rights of both Northern and Southern Sudanese by diminishing much of the discrimination and government neglect directed to the South according to Simon Okoth, a VCU Professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, who spoke Saturday at Drum Referendum – a Sudanese benefit event hosted by the nonprofit United Families for Sudan.

Okoth began his presentation about the upcoming referendum by showing a photo of a young boy behind a metal fence and asking the audience what they saw. A brief silent response from the crowd yielded Okoth’s personal response to the photo, which he said was, “anticipation.” A feeling he said he suspected was shared among South Sudanese people in the short time left before the potentially beneficial decision.

Okoth provided a brief history on the events and causes of the referendum, which included: “dual administration under British colonization, crisis of national identity (ethnicity, racial, religion, cultural), wealth and oil in the South, development opportunities and rights accorded to citizens/power sharing.”

According to Okoth a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Jan. 2005 (that ended the second Sudanese Civil War) stated only the people of South Sudan would have the opportunity to vote on whether they wished to remain a part of the country. He also said there was another issue in addition to the succession, which includes Abyei, a territory known for its oil production but is unclaimed by neither the North or South. Okoth said the hot spot is sure to be an area of concern following the succession.

After Okoth’s presentation, Awer Bul, founder and executive director of the United Families for Sudan, spoke briefly about the referendum and the purpose of the benefit event and his nonprofit, which is to provide supplies and aid to communities of the war-affected Dinka people in the Twic East District of Southern Sudan.

Bul said he started the non-profit organization to help fund projects like the Awer G. Bul Art Mission, which strives to improve the lives of Sudanese children through bi-annual art workshops, provided by Bul himself and give him the chance to document the harsh living conditions to help spread awareness.

According to the United Families for Sudan website, Bul began re-building his small village in Sudan about two years ago. Bul intends to build a well, a grinding stone and a school in Wangulei, a town in Southern Sudan. For now, the focus has been on building a well according to Micheal Lucero, an undergraduate at VCU student who helps Bul run the United Families for Sudan.

Lucero said the most recent fundraising projects included Band Together for The Well, a benefit event that took place Aug. 22 and featured bands, speakers and artists; and a documentary screening of “Blood is the same,” on Sept. 29 at the Byrd Theatre.

This was the second large screening of Bul’s first documentary, which he made with Gabriel Williams (another VCU alumnus) back in 2007.

Lucero said after the three fundraising events United Families for Sudan was able to raise enough ($12,500) to cover the costs of the well, which was originally estimated to be $12,000. He said he and Bul plan to continue to raise funds until they have enough money for Bul to travel to Sudan to lead the construction efforts. The estimated cost for one person to travel to Sudan is $5,000 – this includes food and living expenses.

Although, Lucero said ideally they would raise enough to pay for two or three people to travel to Sudan (making the total cost of the project to range anywhere from $17,000-$27,000) and aid in the well’s construction so Bul might have more time to focus on his newest documentary, which would capture the events leading up to, during and after the upcoming independence referendum in Southern Sudan.

However, Lucero said safety concerns might prevent Bul from taking the trip at all. He said he and Bul will be monitoring the country’s state, and if it becomes too unstable then the well will be built by Sudanese contractors instead.

Even Bul said he is concerned with Southern Sudan’s referendum, but he still plans to document the Southern Sudanese people’s sentiments over the decision while simultaneously working on constructing the well with United Families for Sudan.

“How will Southern Sudan support itself? These people have no infrastructure and no foundation – the only foundation they have is from people who are trying to give aid,” Bul said.

The government of Southern Sudan, according to Bul, does not have enough resources to support its people.

“I’m concerned about that,” Bul said. “My main focus now is to be able to build the well so we can move onto other things. We want to be able to go before the referendum takes place to be able to document how the referendum will impact their lives.”

Currently, Bul said the government focuses on Northern Sudan, while the South remains neglected.

“That’s where the hospitals are, that’s where the clinics are, that’s where the clean water is,” Bul said. “For me, I want to see how much of a difference it will make. I think it will be a good thing for me to go to see how my country will change because we have been known for war, but if the referendum comes, I want to be a part of that with my people.”

Bul said he will continue to work with the Awer Bul Art Project and The United Families of Sudan to raise funds for the well and to document the upcoming referendum. He said the reason behind using music to unite people for awareness comes from his past in Southern Sudan.

“When I was a little boy in Sudan I used to drum everyday. Drumming was an important part of Sudanese life,” Bul stated on the event Facebook page. “I remember one time when I asked my mother to let me go and play. She said ‘no’ because my friends were far away, and she was worried. However, when I made the Tin Can Drum and beat it, my friends heard the sound of the drum, and they came and joined me.”

For more information about the fundraising efforts of United Families for Sudan, visit the nonprofit’s website at http://unitedfamiliesforsudan.org/.

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