After decades of internal conflict, a shaky peace is threatened by upcoming elections, political quarreling and a referendum on independence for the south of the nation.
An oppressive government in the north, known to have harbored terror suspects in the past, has earned Sudan international outcast status. Sudan, which was home to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida during the 1990s, is one of 14 countries the U.S. government airport security officials recently singled out as deserving extra scrutiny.
Ethnic infighting in the south over dwindling resources, brought on by a widespread crop failure, has led to thousands of deaths in recent months.
Rebel movements throughout Africa have proven to be devastatingly cruel to civilian populations, but the Lord's Resistance Army, now operating in the south of Sudan, is extreme even by the blood-soaked standards of the continent.
Few things on this earth can be more depressing than the pediatrics ward of a provincial hospital in southern Sudan, as witnessed by a recent visit to the town of Lui near the Ugandan border.
Yet the songs of school children within earshot of the same dilapidated hospital are among the sweetest you will ever hear, the optimism of a shopkeeper is nothing short of contagious and the passion a young Sudanese man living in Houston feels for his native land upon his return is overwhelming.
Understandably, Americans, even those of us in Northeast Alabama, tend to care most about the far-away world when the U.S. military is involved. Iraq and Afghanistan are never far from the collective consciousness. And we care when the human suffering is so staggering that it cannot be ignored. The catastrophe in Haiti is a stunning reminder of the fragility of an entire society.
Americans care less, again understandably, about those foreign disasters-in-waiting or those distant celebrations of life. We have our own worries — macro-economic trends that threaten the stability of the nation and micro-economic trends that threaten the stability of the household, just to mention a couple.
A Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll conducted earlier this month proves it. Afghanistan was cited as the lone international story "closely watched" by respondents, and it was well below domestic concerns.
Still, we gain a broader understanding of the entire world when we know the story of places such as the south of Sudan, where an oppressive government and a horrific civil war have brought untold pain and suffering to a population. Over two decades an estimated 2 million have died in fighting there.
"We don't want to go back to war," one southern Sudanese man said recently. "But this government in the north, it will only continue to oppress us, it will only continue to make war on us. So we must have our own country."
As Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, has noted, "Absent responsible state authority, threats that would and should be contained within a country's borders can now melt into the world and wreak untold havoc."
Sudan was third in the Fund for Peace's 2009 failed state index, trailing only Somalia and Zimbabwe. Such conditions can trigger dangers that can easily spread to the wider world, threatening even Calhoun County in ways large and small.
At the same time, it is important to know something about life's great riches, in very small ways, in other societies, in other people's lives.
For the next four Sundays, The Star will explore life and politics in southern Sudan, in words in the Insight section, and in voices, song, additional photos and music on its Web site.
We hope you will come along for the journey.
John Fleming is a former southern Africa correspondent for Reuters.