JUBA, Southern Sudan — As with most elections seen around the world, prospective voters in South Sudan’s referendum had to produce some sort of identification to verify that they were legally eligible to register for January’s vote. In a region long plagued by war, where people have often been on the move, and state capacity and reach minimal, one might anticipate some problems verifying South Sudan’s voters.
But remarkably, verifying the identity of southern Sudanese for the January 9 referendum may have been one of the easier parts of the process, thanks to women like Catherine Paul.
Dressed in a striking turquoise and orange dress and matching headwrap, Catherine seemed to tower over the interactions taking place between the registration booth staff and the men and women who came to sign up. Catherine is a tall woman, but her presence also came from the reverence given to her position as an “identifier.”
At each registration booth, two elders from the community were selected to serve as identifiers. If someone came to register who didn’t have an ID, the identifier’s job was to verify that he is who he says he is and that he meets the eligibility criteria. Asked whether there had been an instance when she didn’t know a person, Catherine shook her head. “Never.”
“I have many years, and I have lived many years in these parts,” she said, saying that she is 42 years old and has lived in this neighborhood of Juba ever since she was young.
Catherine’s husband was a soldier based nearby in Bungu during the 1983-2005 civil war. Though he was a southerner, he fought on the side of the North’s Sudanese Armed Forces – “Bashir’s army,” Catherine emphasized. In 1992, he died in battle. A few months after his death, a bullet hit Catherine as she tried to flee fighting that had erupted in her neighborhood one night, carrying her infant daughter. “I was shot right over there,” she said, pointing toward the entrance to a market across the street. Her left arm had to be amputated at the shoulder. But even after losing her husband and sustaining a debilitating injury, Catherine stayed. “There is no other place to go,” she said. “This is my home.”
Catherine’s registration center processed around 4,400 voters. (Though the official numbers are not yet available, Catherine said they used 22 booklets of voter registration cards, and each book contains 200 cards.)
From a Western perspective, where people living down the hallway in the same apartment building may not know each other, the idea that Catherine would be able to identify every person who came to her booth may seem hard to fathom. But in southern Sudanese society, where names and in some cases physical attributes like traditional scarring are quick giveaways of ethnic group—and thus, area of origin—Catherine said she could easily know, at least by extension, every person who came to register because she knows every person who lives in her community.
Members of that community selected Catherine as a local leader years ago, and the referendum is the third time she has worked as an identifier. But she said she is most proud to be part of the process this time. “People here need to be away from the North,” she said, ignoring the rule that people involved in the polling process should avoid expressing their personal opinions. “After the referendum, life here will be good,” she said.
“People are tired. [It is like] they have been footing [walking] for 21 years,” Catherine said, pausing as if to consider the sacrifices that have led to this historic vote. “If my husband was alive he would be with the SPLA.”