"I am so happy I have now voted; you can see the ink on my finger," said Thomas Maingi*, a Sudanese Christian. "I want to go back to my country. I believe God will bless our new country."
In addition to the voting across southern Sudan, thousands of Sudanese were expected to vote in neighboring countries -- including eight locations in Kenya -- in a referendum on independence that, if passed, will officially designate southern Sudan as a new nation. Sudan has been ravaged by years of civil war between the heavily Islamic, Arab-dominated north and the predominantly Christian and animist south. The conflict has driven many southern Sudanese to flee to neighboring countries.
The referendum, however, brings hope to refugees for a return to an independent homeland.
"This is a great day for Sudan and for Africa," Sudanese voter Michael Muzusa* said. "I have been in Kenya for 16 years. When the voting is over I am going back to my country."
His sentiments were shared by many of the Sudanese voters in Nairobi. Some, like Jane Wanjiku*, believe their move to Kenya was orchestrated by God.
"From the very beginning of the struggle, I feel that God has had a plan for us," Wanjiku said. "I think He sent me to Kenya so I could prepare myself for going back to Sudan."
Northern and southern Sudan have been at odds since 1955, when civil war erupted as the region gained independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt.
For those remaining in southern Sudan, life has focused on survival. Rather than attending school, boys are sent to cattle camps, where they defend their livelihood with spears and AK-47s in clashes with northern-supported militias.
The referendum in Sudan and other countries extends through Jan. 15. Fighting in disputed areas of Sudan has been reported since the voting began. At least 23 people have been killed in clashes, according to news accounts. International observers and diplomats, however, said the early stages of voting appeared to be going well.
Sudanese Christians are praying for a peaceful outcome -- and asking other Christians to pray with them.
"We are praying that we may celebrate without violence; whether we separate or unite, we shall give it to God," David Wambui* said. "Of course I am afraid of violence, because enough is enough. We have lost too many lives and souls to violence."
Christians also hope a new country will provide religious freedom and equality. "We are praying to God for the secession of southern Sudan so that we can be black Africans in an independent land," said Eric Karanja*, another Sudanese believer living in Kenya. "We don't want to be in the womb of Arabs. It is time for us to pray to God hard so that He can give back our land."
Crude oil exports from Sudan generate millions of dollars for the country. Many observers cite oil as a factor in the proposed referendum. Sudanese Christians, however, say they are more concerned with freedom to practice their faith -- and freedom from the north's harsh enforcement of Islamic law. According to BBC News Africa, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has announced he will implement a stricter version of Sharia Islamic law in the north if the south secedes.
If the referendum passes, a new Southern Sudan is expected to be established by July. But much work lies ahead to overcome the effects civil war has had on the region, including poverty and poor infrastructure.
"When we are beginning our new country, the first thing we need to do is build schools and put up churches," said David Mwolo*, another Sudanese Christian. "People should have freedom and this is how we want to begin our new country."
The referendum is the final benchmark of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended more than 20 years of North-South civil war in Sudan.
*Names changed. Jacob Alexander and Zoe Allen are members of the International Mission Board's global communications team.
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