South Sudan continues to struggle four and a half years after independence

Will 2016 be the year that peace finally comes to South Sudan?

Despite a peace accord in place since August, other recent events make that seem doubtful. And yet there are still reasons to hope.

Let's start with the hope: Despite the violence still occurring in some areas, Solidarity With South Sudan continues to train and graduate new teachers and health care workers, both desperately needed in the fledgling country.

De LaSalle Christian Br. Bill Firman, the group's executive director, wrote in his November Letter From South Sudan that some students from the group's Catholic Heath Training Institute in Wau and the Solidarity Teacher Training College in Yambio were unable to get home in November because of violence on the roads, so the group chartered a plane to deliver them back to their loved ones. But because students will have to find their own ways back to school, some chose not to go home at all, afraid that even if they got home, they might not be able to get back.

Some students have not been home in three years; one woman left her 18-month-old daughter to go to school. This will be the first time she has seen her in two years.

"[The woman] is the oldest child in her family and speaks openly about her responsibility to help the others in her family when she returns home," Firman wrote. "One can only admire her sacrifice and determination to build a better society."

Graduates of the Solidarity Teacher Training College in Yambio now receive national teaching certificates, and all 19 graduates of the group's three-year nursing course were immediately offered jobs with the State Ministry of Health.

But there are no graduates from the Solidarity Teacher Training College in Malakal: The military has taken over the campus, and there is no sign they will be leaving any time soon, Firman wrote.

There are other worrisome developments: Both the rebels and South Sudan President Salva Kiir have proposed redrawing state borders within the country, and each side's map is drawn to enhance the voting power of their own favored ethnic groups and tribes. On Christmas Eve, Kiir said he was putting his plan in place and announced the appointment of governors for each state, all of them loyal to him, Voice of America reported.

Rebels denounced the move, noting that the peace plan calls for 10 states, not the 28 Kiir created. Government officials pointed out that the rebels had a plan for 21 new states and named governors, VOA states.

Firman wrote that these kinds of moves only increase tribal and ethnic tensions.

"The future will be forged when a national, not a tribal, identity is developed," he wrote. "The leaders need to plan and decide for the good of the whole country, not just their own ethnic group. Slow as it may be, the only viable path is forward."

Here's an example of the kind of divisions and diversity in play. The New York Times recently profiled South Sudanese writer Stella Gaitano, who writes in Arabic:

Scores of indigenous languages are spoken [in South Sudan], but the lingua franca is Juba Arabic, a pidgin language. The elite who have studied abroad or with local missionaries generally also speak English, while Arabic is spoken by university-educated people who lived in the north, like Ms. Gaitano.

She learned several languages there, speaking Latuka at home, Juba Arabic with South Sudanese of other tribes and Sudanese Arabic in the larger Sudanese society. She learned classical Arabic in school, and studied pharmacology in college — in English.

Bridging ethnic and cultural differences is never easy, and adding language differences makes it that much harder.

In the meantime, South Sudanese currency has been devalued 84 percent, making an already shattered economy that much more fragile, especially since the nation has to import nearly all of its food and goods.

The devaluation brings the official exchange rate in line with the black market rate. The East African reported that advocacy group Enough Project said that government officials had been manipulating the big difference between the rates to allow themselves to pocket returns of up to 600 percent.

Despite the problems, South Sudan is a haven for some: The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees reports that the country has opened its arms to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in Sudan to the north.

One refugee camp has expanded into a town that is now home to 31,000 refugees, with another 19,000 expected to move there this year.

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[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]