More than 3 million ballots have been counted to date by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission. Official results are expected in February, but if the vote is confirmed, the new country of Southern Sudan is set to formally declare independence July 9.
While many southern Sudanese already have begun celebrating the huge vote in favor of independence, some are still struggling to understand what it all means. Take the rural Toposa people, for instance.
Life among the Toposa resembles what many Americans visualize about the African bush: mud houses in small villages, dirt roads, lack of education, no technology to speak of. They number about 800,000. They communicate orally; fewer than 3 percent can read.
So they're trying to absorb the revolutionary idea of being part of a new country.
Missionaries Shannon and Carrie Lewis are church planters and community developers, living and working among the Toposa through the International Mission Board. Many of their Toposa neighbors registered to vote but have asked the Lewises questions about the referendum and what a new country could mean for them.
"They are really not sure what is going on, and they really don't understand what is happening with the referendum," Shannon said. "For them, this is just something different and new."
News media reported skirmishes along the north-south Sudanese border during the weeklong referendum vote Jan. 9-15. But many international observers have complimented Sudan on the overall fairness of the vote.
Sudan has been ravaged by decades of civil war between the heavily Islamic north and the predominantly Christian and animist south. Millions have been killed or displaced. Sudanese Christians hope a new country will provide religious freedom and equality.
The Lewises, along with their three sons, have ministered to the Toposa for nearly two years. They have relied solely on oral presentations of the Gospel, using methods like chronological Bible storying for evangelism and discipleship.
The Toposa stay busy during the day tending to cattle and gardens, so the Lewises usually visit people after dark, when villagers have finished work and their evening meal.
"That's the time families can gather together with us to learn more about the Word of God," Shannon said.
In a recent blog post (www.toposafamily.blogspot.com), Carrie wrote: "God is doing great things here in Sudan. We are so excited to be part of the work that He is doing. In the last two months, there have been 42 new baptized believers. The Toposa people are now eager to hear God's Word and are responding to Him."
Nine Toposa leaders have emerged from the Christian believers who meet to worship and pray. Many use a "Proclaimer," an audio Bible, to listen to God's Word in their small groups and discuss what they have heard.
"When I go through the villages, sometimes I can hear the Word of God being spoken by the people in their language," Shannon said. "That is very exciting."
If a new nation is established, the Lewises hope it will open the door to a rapid expansion of evangelism and church planting.
"Pray for the whole country of Sudan," Shannon said. "That God will give them discernment and that there will come forth leaders that can move the country forward in the next steps after the referendum."
Jacob Alexander is a writer for the International Mission Board's global communications team.
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