Bentiu, Sudan—Nyakuoth Jon arrived at a local polling station at 3 a.m. on Sunday, when voting began in southern Sudan’s self-determination referendum. Even at that early hour, she found many people already crowded in line. Jon, the mother of nine children, sat on the ground outside the station (which, any other day, serves as a primary school) for five hours until the voting booths opened. As she told me, there was no question that she would wait that long: Jon wanted to be make sure she cast her ballot on the first day of the week-long vote.
Local media and authorities have been working tirelessly to remind people that voting—and voting early—is imperative in the referendum to make South Sudan the world’s newest country. “Today is your day to vote. Don’t go outside of it. Don’t say you are sick or have something else to do. Now is your time so people will remember you to your great great great grandchildren,” radio listeners here in Unity state, a southern region, were told by former Governor John Jol Makok. South Sudan’s new national anthem has also been playing on the airwaves at regular half-hour intervals.
Unity Governor Taban Deng Gai cast his vote early Sunday, and then introduced his 15-year-old son to local reporters. “My son is too young to vote, so I am representing him. It’s a big day for my family,” he said. The theme of voting for the next generation was prevalent in the responses of many I spoke to as I traveled across Bentiu, where polling stations are set up in schools, under trees, and in churches. But there were other constant themes, as well, prayers that the referendum will pass without violence. At one station, a beheaded cow lay to the side of the voting queue, and butchers were carving up the body. The local administrator, Bilal Kong Malual, had ordered the animal to be slaughtered “to bless the beginning of work so we can begin in peace.”
Then, there were the frequent reminders of history—about what this vote means to the southern Sudanese, who have lived through so much violence and turmoil. At one polling place, women sang in the local Nuer language, “Today, the widows are rising!”—a reference to southerners whose husbands were killed in years of war and genocide. Nyakume Both, 54, was among those singing. “I’m very, very happy. The only pity is that there is only one of me. If I could multiply myself five or ten times to vote again, I would.” Beside her sat Mary Nyanin Mut, holding a tree branch for a walking stick. Mut doesn’t know how old she is, although her voter registration card puts her at 79. “What I heard from my parents when I was little was that one day you will have a government that is good,” she told me. “Thank God this day has come because now, what my parents told me I have seen with my naked eye. It is true the war was very bad, but, since I woke up this morning, I know today is the day for peace”
Indeed, so important is the vote to the people of southern Sudan that nothing, it seemed, could keep them from the polls. One woman, Nye Kuole Gatluak, was in visible pain when I saw her, with wasted legs curled up underneath her body as she was pushed in a rusty wheelbarrow. The family that was with her told me Gatluak, unable to walk, needed to go to a hospital. But first, they said, she wanted to vote.