On Sunday, millions of southern Sudanese began voting in a referendum for independence as required in the 2005 peace agreement with the Muslim-majority national government in Khartoum.
The high expectation could be seen in the faces of many and the excitement could be felt in the air as women sang and danced around a voting center in Nairobi, Kenya. Old age and sickness did not deter people from casting their ballot. Elizabeth Nyuon, 66, sat in the sun, patiently waiting to vote.
Thirty-year-old Jacob Akol traveled from the coastal city of Mombasa to Nairobi, Kenya, a distance of more than 290 miles, to vote in the South Sudan referendum.
He was at the polling center at Thika Road by the time the station was opening at 8 a.m. on Sunday. His reason for making that long journey: "I don't want future generations to live under the same terrible conditions that we have lived in!"
Like many other southerners, Akol has a personal experience of how the war in Sudan has affected millions. His father, uncle, and cousin were killed in war by "armed men from the north of country." He fled his home and has lived in Kenya as a refugee for more than a decade. He says that his mother died of natural causes because of the lack of medical infrastructure in the South.
He had been in the voting queue for more than 8 hours by the time Christianity Today spoke with him in the scorching heat of the day. And like many others who had also traveled from far and wide, he was not going to give up until he cast his ballot, "so that we can have our own country."
He has high expectations that things will be better with the South becoming a separate state: "Before, we suffered persecution as Christians, but now we are going to be free from imposed Shari'ah law."
Besides, he sees the birth of a new nation bringing new opportunities, especially for young people. "There will be improvement in education since we will not be forced to use Arabic. Our natural resources will be used to develop our land. We [as southern Sudanese] will no longer be discriminated against in employment."
Akol said that he would be voting for secession, just like many others CT spoke to at the center. With the prospect of having their own country, Akol now says he is ready to go back home after finishing his studies in Kenya.
Voting Proceeds Slowly
Many people at the center had left their homes in the wee hours of the morning just to be at Nairobi's polling station by the time it opened. Some came from as far as Nyeri, 110 miles from Nairobi.
Arok Manyok, 26, said that she was shocked to be able to cast her ballot because she had never imagined this day coming to pass. "I don't have brothers and sisters because [they died in] the war. I am glad that that experience is coming to an end today," she said, holding a banner with the Sudanese flag on it.
Observers included the Sudan Council of Churches, the Interim Independent Electoral Commission of Kenya, and All Africa Council of Churches.
One election observer, Tobiko Naisiaa, said that the process started on time and was peaceful, but he was upset that it was so slow.
The center's manager, the Rev. John Chol Daau, agreed with this problem, saying that officials took a lot of time to help illiterate voters and some blind voters.
At one point, there was almost a stampede when people in the line became impatient and started pushing through the small gate leading into the center. The Kenyan security forces closed the gates and restored order. The same thing happened in another polling center, at the Railways Club in Central Nairobi.