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Building hope in Sudan

From London, Ont., to southern Sudan David Tennant went to Africa to prove a point. Now he's building hope in a place that needs it badly

By Andrea Huncar

It's hard to say which soccer team has the upper hand: the one made up of southern Sudanese rebels seasoned by decades of fighting, or the kids, mostly barefoot, with youth on their side. But in a place where two years of peace lets people run for pleasure rather than their lives, having fun seems more important than keeping score.

Hundreds in the swelling crowd laugh and cheer for a Canadian businessman on the field. Off the field, they're rooting for David Tennant too. He is working with communities in southern Sudan to start a company and create an infrastructure so people can cash in on their own resources. The project is still in its infancy. But in a place short on water, food, schools and medical clinics -- services taken for granted in Tennant's hometown of London, Ont., where he is a member of Byron United Covenant Church -- it offers people a large dose of hope.

Gum Arabic is at the heart of all the commotion. The tree resin ends up in a variety of day-to-day products around the world, from Coca-Cola to the soles of your shoes. But should the venture succeed, Tennant won't have a Sudanese dinar to show for it -- he wants to reinvest the profits into the community. "It is a tremendous natural resource that can bring foreign currency into this region."

In January 2005, the northern Islamic government in Khartoum signed a groundbreaking peace and power-sharing agreement with the Sudanese Liberation People's Army. Since then, southern Sudan has been picking up the pieces of a horrific civil war that killed and displaced at least six million people. There's little money to pay for the rebuilding effort.

Tennant's strategy is a far cry from the traditional handout. "When you drop a tonne of food, when that food is gone, then you have to drop another tonne of food," he says.

"Our idea is to show these people how to do business. So that when we put one dollar of aid into the economy it has a multiplier effect."

He calls it "smart aid." The idea came to him one night after a small-group study session for couples at Byron United. Tennant says he was iffy about attending. But his wife wanted to, so he reluctantly joined in, flipping through the pages of Rick Warren's bestselling manual for Christian living, The Purpose Driven Life. Tennant says at the time he interpreted the book to mean life was mapped out -- that God has planned everything and everyone. "You mean I have no choice?" he recalls thinking. Tennant didn't like it. So on the drive home he told his wife, "I'm going to start something in Africa."

"It was in spite of Rick Warren," he emphasizes with a laugh.

But it wasn't out of the blue. Tennant has long been active in his own community, and since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Africa had been on his mind. "I was perplexed about Africa; how much tragedy could happen on one continent."

It wasn't long before he would see for himself amid the dust and scrub of southern Sudan. "When I landed, I just shook my head and thought, `How arrogant can you be that you think you can do something here.'" He based himself at a Catholic mission, got to know the people, ate beans and rice every day and looked for ways to make a difference in the agricultural sector. Then, a chance conversation pointed to an opportunity right under his nose.

A successful land developer and former police officer, Tennant had never even heard of gum Arabic until he arrived in southern Sudan. Harvested much like maple syrup, it's used as a binding agent, emulsifier, thickener and sealer in everything from food and beverages to beauty products and pharmaceuticals. The ingredient is so prized that the United States still imports gum from Sudan, despite nearly a decade of economic sanctions to protest the country's links to terrorism. Sudan provides more than two-thirds of the global supply. And southern Sudan is home to the talah tree, the local name for a species of acacia that produces a very good quality of gum.

Up until now, the gum has been exported via the much more developed north, where it is shipped out from the Port of Sudan by the partially government-owned Gum Arabic Company Limited. "But the reality is this product is indigenous to southern Sudan," says Tennant. "People should be able to utilize the resources they have in their area."

So now Tennant is doing everything he can to help the southern Sudanese harvest, ship and sell their product. In a world with dirt tracks for roads, three months of non-stop rain, no banks and minimal telephone service, there have been some bleak moments. Sometimes Tennant seeks solace in the nearby church. Inside its cracked stone walls riddled with bullet holes, he says he feels close to God, mostly because of the optimism and resilience of the people who go there. "They don't need to be told about the power of faith, the power of prayer," he says. "They know it." He says their faith sustains him, too.

Two years into the project, the business plan is still a work in progress. But the highest levels of the southern Sudanese government support it. And Tennant has proven it can work: last summer, the South Sudan Gum Company made its first earnings from a 35-tonne shipment of gum purchased in Dubai.

Still, there's a long way to go for both the company and the country. This past November, clashes in the southern town of Malakal killed at least 150 people and wounded another 500. It's hard to say how the developed world will perceive a little healthy business competition in a country where fighting has largely been about resources.

None of this is lost on Tennant. But he puts on his business cap to assess the situation. "I think you have a problem in any business setting if you take away a monopoly," he reasons. "Someone's not going to like it." He says the onus is on the government to make sure guns no longer solve grievances.

Rather than worry about what could go wrong, Tennant says he's focused on what's gone right. But he takes little credit for it. "It is not the result of just the people involved, it is with the help of the big guy above," he says. Tennant says his faith has been strengthened by the experience. "This would have been a significant achievement if the business had been started in Canada," he says. "To do it in southern Sudan is miraculous."

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