South Sudan is marking a year of independence after separating from the north. It has a new currency, international dialing code and internet domain (.ss), but it's a long way from changing its status as one of the poorest and most illiterate countries in the world. So how much do eight million South Sudanese have to celebrate? It depends who you ask.
Seen from the air, South Sudan's vastness is matched by the enormity of its challenges. On the ground, newcomers gasp at the lack of infrastructure, while old timers marvel how much the capital, Juba, has developed in just a year. But there is a lot of unfinished business with Sudan to the north, some of it bloody: border disputes, ethnic conflict and complex issues over oil wealth.
"Things can get really messy," said Paleki Matthew, a 24-year-old law graduate. "Personally I think it's better that we have separated. Let's just stay good neighbors, instead of being together while things are not getting anywhere."
But being good neighbors is anything but easy. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir is accused of war crimes and wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. South Sudan was heavily criticized for its April incursion of the Heglig oil fields across the border. For months, attacks described as ethnic cleansing have forced thousands of northern citizens—whose communities were accused of siding with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement during the 22-year civil war—to flee the Nuba Mountains and seek refuge in the south.
An ethnic Nuer whose family has roots in Upper Nile State, Paleki grew up in Khartoum. When she moved to Juba four years ago, she gave up a much higher standard of living. But she has no regrets.
"Life was better there, but I was the one who told my parents, I want to go to South Sudan!" she remembers. "There was only one proper road here, and no electricity, proper water or infrastructure. People sleep once the sun sets. I thought, God, what kind of life is this? It was just something I wasn't used to. But I'm glad I'm in my country; this is my home."
It still takes a four-wheel drive to navigate Juba's deeply rutted dirt roads. Most locals ride on the back of boda-bodas, the ubiquitous motorcycles from neighboring Uganda that serve as taxis.
Despite the fertile soil, there's no commercial agriculture, so food is expensive because most of it is imported.
Sipping a cool drink as UN peacekeeping troops splashed around in a swimming pool one broiling afternoon, Paleki shared an experience she had on the losing side of job discrimination: a kind of favoritism she thinks is holding her country back.
"When I finished my law degree, I was at the top of my class for four years," she said. "But when I came to apply to the Ministry of Legal Affairs, I didn't get a job."
She wasn't sure what happened. "When I went to apply, they asked me, 'Who sent you? Who recommended you?'"
Meanwhile, she added, some of her colleagues who hadn't cleared all their subjects were already working as legal advisers.
"It's a very unfair system," she concluded.
Paleki diversified for a while, working at an organization promoting press freedom and as a TV news anchor. She can sympathize with some of her compatriots who've found themselves in tough situations after returning from the Diaspora. But she's surprised at their lack of motivation to accept jobs that immigrants from neighboring countries are eager to take.
"A lot of healthy men in Juba sit from morning till night drinking tea on the street," she said. "They're not disabled; some of them are actually university graduates. But they'd still rather sit around than work as waiters and bus drivers," she mused, pointing to an attitude problem she thinks will take some time to change.
Many locals are poorly qualified because the war obliterated their chance to get an education.
"That is something we can all understand," she said. "And on the other hand, there are cases where some Ugandans and Kenyans forge documents and get jobs by claiming to be South Sudanese. I just want to see the right people in the right places."
Matthew's can-do spirit eventually won out. She expects to get her law license this month and plans to open her own practice. She has also joined the South Sudan Women's Empowerment Network, a grassroots organization campaigning for greater awareness of women's rights and constitutional reform. High on the group's agenda is a provision defining a legal marrying age, since many girls are married off before they turn 18.
As the country prepares to celebrate a year of nationhood, the ninth of July is tinged with sadness for Paleki: her father, who campaigned for more rights in southern Sudan, died on the same date exactly two years earlier. "He didn't live to see the birth of this country," she said, so she wants to spend Independence Day alone for reflection.
After that, it's back to nation building.