RUMBEK, SUDAN — Imagine having to build a country from scratch. Richard Herbert doesn't have to try too hard.
The former Sprint PCS engineer from Newport Beach, Calif., now is creating southern Sudan's first cellphone network from the ground up.
Until last month, if you wanted to talk to someone across town in southern Sudan's capital, Rumbek, there were two options: Go see them face to face, or pay $2 a minute to talk via satellite phone. There are no land-line phones here, and only about 10 miles of paved roads. In fact, 22 years of civil war have left this one the least developed places on the planet.
But as fear subsides, southern Sudan is reawakening and rebuilding. A Jan. 9 peace deal ended Africa's longest civil war - a conflict between north and south in which 2 million died. The first signs of normalcy are appearing: Children, even girls, are going to school - many for the first. (Only Afghanistan under the Taliban had fewer girls graduate from eighth grade.) Some are starting to see a life beyond the battlefield. And commerce is coming back.
Mr. Herbert's cellphone team is on the leading edge of a developing post-war investment boom. When he arrived last August, he had only a few acres of land and a broken 30-foot satellite dish to work with. He had to charter planes to bring much of the new equipment.
"Most countries, even Afghanistan, have at least some infrastructure," he says. "But southern Sudan - zero."
Much of the initial funding for rebuilding comes from international donors and aid groups. The biggest funder, the US, may give as much as $500 million.
But southern Sudan's leaders - former rebels who are joining the national government and will control the south - are keen for private-sector help, too. They invited in Herbert's firm, Network of the World.
Last month, Herbert made the region's first cellphone calls. "We called everyone we know," he says, grinning.
Already 1,000 customers here and in nearby Yei have paid $60 each for a phone. One cellphone-toting construction foreman says he now rings up Ugandan suppliers - and gets materials ordered fast. Locals with family in Khartoum or Kenya are calling them for the first time.
But Herbert isn't finished. Soon Rumbek's offices will have phones that use a wireless network that's as advanced as those in high-tech US offices. The good thing, he says, about southern Sudan starting from scratch is that it can leapfrog old technologies.
Yet the new network's mechanics are complex. For instance, all calls outside Rumbek get routed through Canada, because there are no switching stations here.
The fact that Herbert and his team are making calls at all, symbolizes the complexities of development in Sudan - and yet the yearning for it. "There's a lot of energy" focused on improving things, Herbert says. "Otherwise all the deaths will have been in vain."
For Salah Muhammad, peace means no more climbing trees for food.
He doesn't talk much about his life during the war. With some coaxing, the tall, sinewy man will say that he survived by scrambling up trees and taking honey from bees' nests. It was the only way he could provide for his wife and four kids. He'd give some honey to them - and use the rest to barter for food or raggedy second-hand clothes.
Today, he's clad in an Adidas muscle shirt, jeans, and a star-spangled belt. And he proudly drives a dump truck as part of an $89 million UN project that includes building the a new road system in southern Sudan. This is nation that's twice the size of California, yet with only a few miles of paved roads.
Mr. Muhammad and about 30 others work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Their goal is to finish about a half mile of road each day. But that's not easy. There are tens of thousands of land mines in southern Sudan. And the region has one of the world's largest swamps, which feeds the Nile River.
Following a mine-clearing crew, Muhammad dumps loads of dirt into potholes or muddy ruts that could swallow small cars whole. A grader follows him, shaping the road into a gentle arch, so rainwater will drain off.
When this road is finished, it'll cut travel time from Rumbek to the neighboring country of Uganda - a 300-mile trip - to two days. Now it can take several weeks.
Already, the work is paying dividends.
The UN plans to bring a record 174,000 metric tons of food this year to feed southern Sudan's hungry masses. Because of bad roads, it used to have to airlift in 80 percent of the food - at a cost of about $1,100 per ton. Now it trucks in 42 percent of the food - at only about $275 per ton.
Local markets are improving, too. Most used to be so anemic that they were barter-only: Want a chicken? Better have some salt to trade.
Now traders demand cash. Prices have fallen by about 30 percent in Rumbek. When Muhammad goes to the market, he sees imported items like pink Joe Boxer underwear, Casio watches, and fresh fruit.
Soon, unheard-of products like refrigerators will arrive. Until now, the roads have been too risky for such high-value items.
But Muhammad is proudest that he now earns $375 a month - enough to put all four of his kids in school for the first time. "The children," he says, "they must be in school."
For 15-year-old Deborah Acot, peace in southern Sudan hasn't yet changed her ambition to be a bomber pilot.
Standing in the dusty courtyard of her school, the steely-eyed waif explains why.
When she was seven, a bomber from Sudan's Arab north attacked her village. She hasn't seen her family since. And soon afterward, she joined the south's rebel army as a cook and porter. Often she went days without food. She rarely had clothes. And her thirst for revenge grew. "I want to be a pilot," she says, "so I can kill Arabs."
Today, five years after her commander ordered her to go to school, that raw desire drives her to study hard, despite her school's limitations. Its 830 students share eight classrooms, which leak badly when it rains. Teachers use tattered pamphlets as curriculum guides. There are few textbooks.
In all, Deborah's story illustrates the challenge of building the south's education system: Kids who are embittered after growing up in a war zone, and too few schools with too few supplies.
The region had just 1,700 schools for its 1.4 million school-age kids in 2003, the UN says. So less than a quarter went to school. And just 6 percent of teachers were formally trained. At Deborah's Deng Nhial school, all the teachers are volunteers. It can't afford to pay them.
But the building effort has already begun.
The UN, for instance, set up 174 all-girl schools last year. They aim to address the fact that many parents expect daughters to do chores, not learn. At these schools, 5,000 girls attend classes in the morning, then go home to do housework.
Deborah does her part by studying hard. She's ranked fifth in her class of 45, most of whom are boys. In fact, she's one of just three girls in the entire school. If she makes it to high school, she'll be one of only a handful of southern girls who do. And since there's no college in southern Sudan, she'd have to go elsewhere for advanced studies.
But Deborah is warming to peace. "The life of education is better than the life of war," she admits. And she's starting to imagine a future without conflict. Rather than bombing Arabs, she allows that she could see herself airlifting in medicines, food, or other supplies. "I could fly," she adds, "to help my country."