Cellphones, Roads, and Girls in School. Is This South Sudan?

By Abraham McLaughlin writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 24, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Cellphones, Roads, and Girls in School. Is This South Sudan?


Abraham McLaughlin writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Imagine having to build a country from scratch. Richard Herbert doesn't have to try too hard.

The former Sprint PCS engineer from Newport Beach, Calif., now is creating southern Sudan's first cellphone network from the ground up.

Until last month, if you wanted to talk to someone across town in southern Sudan's capital, Rumbek, there were two options: Go see them face to face, or pay $2 a minute to talk via satellite phone. There are no land-line phones here, and only about 10 miles of paved roads. In fact, 22 years of civil war have left this one the least developed places on the planet.

But as fear subsides, southern Sudan is reawakening and rebuilding. A Jan. 9 peace deal ended Africa's longest civil war - a conflict between north and south in which 2 million died. The first signs of normalcy are appearing: Children, even girls, are going to school - many for the first. (Only Afghanistan under the Taliban had fewer girls graduate from eighth grade.) Some are starting to see a life beyond the battlefield. And commerce is coming back.

Mr. Herbert's cellphone team is on the leading edge of a developing post-war investment boom. When he arrived last August, he had only a few acres of land and a broken 30-foot satellite dish to work with. He had to charter planes to bring much of the new equipment.

"Most countries, even Afghanistan, have at least some infrastructure," he says. "But southern Sudan - zero."

Much of the initial funding for rebuilding comes from international donors and aid groups. The biggest funder, the US, may give as much as $500 million.

But southern Sudan's leaders - former rebels who are joining the national government and will control the south - are keen for private-sector help, too. They invited in Herbert's firm, Network of the World.

Last month, Herbert made the region's first cellphone calls. "We called everyone we know," he says, grinning.

Already 1,000 customers here and in nearby Yei have paid $60 each for a phone. One cellphone-toting construction foreman says he now rings up Ugandan suppliers - and gets materials ordered fast. Locals with family in Khartoum or Kenya are calling them for the first time.

But Herbert isn't finished. Soon Rumbek's offices will have phones that use a wireless network that's as advanced as those in high-tech US offices. The good thing, he says, about southern Sudan starting from scratch is that it can leapfrog old technologies.

Yet the new network's mechanics are complex. For instance, all calls outside Rumbek get routed through Canada, because there are no switching stations here.

The fact that Herbert and his team are making calls at all, symbolizes the complexities of development in Sudan - and yet the yearning for it. "There's a lot of energy" focused on improving things, Herbert says. "Otherwise all the deaths will have been in vain."

No more tree climbing

For Salah Muhammad, peace means no more climbing trees for food.

He doesn't talk much about his life during the war. With some coaxing, the tall, sinewy man will say that he survived by scrambling up trees and taking honey from bees' nests. It was the only way he could provide for his wife and four kids. He'd give some honey to them - and use the rest to barter for food or raggedy second-hand clothes.

Today, he's clad in an Adidas muscle shirt, jeans, and a star- spangled belt. And he proudly drives a dump truck as part of an $89 million UN project that includes building the a new road system in southern Sudan. This is nation that's twice the size of California, yet with only a few miles of paved roads.

Mr. Muhammad and about 30 others work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Their goal is to finish about a half mile of road each day. But that's not easy. There are tens of thousands of land mines in southern Sudan.

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