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Young journalist leaves safe haven as his home struggles with independence

Jun 02 2012

When we last left Mading Ngor, he was laughing in the rain. It was January 2006, on the 27th straight day in which the sky had opened, sending Victorians into a damp, gloomy funk.

Having grown up in drought-stricken Africa, Ngor, then an 18-year-old Pearson College student, seemed a likely candidate to present a contrary view, to see the upside of the lifegiving downpour.

"Actually," he said, "it can be annoying."

The irony was not lost on him. Ours is a planet of imbalance and contradiction. "Some people die of malnutrition, some die of obesity," he said that day.

"What is abundant in some parts of the world is a precious commodity in others."

That brings us to today, and the question of why Ngor has chosen to leave the security of affluent, comfortable Canada for South Sudan, one of the poorest, hungriest, mostthreatened nations on Earth. And he has done so as a journalist - not the safest choice as the world's newest country goes through growing pains.

The threats are both internal (Ngor has repeatedly clashed with authority) and external (South Sudan complained to the UN this week about continued Sudanese attacks on border areas, where tens of thousands have fled the fighting).

Ngor returned to his homeland in April of last year, shortly before South Sudan officially split with Sudan following two generation-long conflicts that killed perhaps 2.5 million people.

"I wanted to be part of the declaration of independence, first as a journalist, and also as someone whose relatives fought and died in the liberation war," he wrote this week. "Most of my life I was a refugee and independence means regaining a dignity lost and becoming a full citizen with all the rights in a new country."

Ngor last had a permanent home in 1991, when his village was uprooted after a tribal split among South Sudanese rebels left thousands dead, including some of his relatives.

He roamed the country with his mother and siblings until 1995, when they alit in a Kenyan refugee camp. "It was a hard life. We depended on the UN to distribute rations every 15th day of the month, rations which were barely adequate. A couple of spoonfuls of salts, a few litres of oil, kilos of beans, white flour, and so on."

Salvation came in 2001, when he was welcomed to Vancouver as a landed immigrant.

"My coming to Canada was the beginning of a normal life, free from fear and want." He could actually go to high school without having to run from an enemy attack.

Then came Pearson College in Metchosin, where he was one of 200 students from 88 countries. They included Arabs, the people who had clashed with his own since time immemorial.

Pearson was followed by journalism school in Edmonton, a communications degree from Royal Roads University in 2010 and last year's return to South Sudan, where he hosts a popular morning show - Wake Up Juba! - in which he invites debate on controversial topics and regularly grills politicians.

That takes courage in a country struggling with the concept of free speech. The New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists wrote of a February incident in which Ngor was roughed up by parliamentary security forces, then banned from covering parliament. It wasn't his first run-in with authority. Other reporters have similar tales.

"There is democratic space to criticize the government, to correct it, but it's precarious," he writes. "High illiteracy, ignorance, deep suspicions and a military mentality are complicating what should have been a fast transition to democracy."

Again, remember that he waded back into this voluntarily. That says something about the depths of his beliefs.

"Although South Sudan is slowly becoming a home again for me, I still think about Canada, how much I miss it, how much it has done for me," he wrote.

"My coming back to South Sudan was not a repudiation of my beloved Canada. My coming back home was to say thank you Canada for all you have done for me, what I must pass on in the land of my birth, a nascent country which deserves to be rescued by humanity from years of a turbulent history of violence and neglect."

jknox@timescolonist.com

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