Photos by John Ochira

The South Sudanese Community held elections on March 11 to choose a new leader from a field of six candidates – five of whom were men. Bakhita Saabino received the most votes and thereby became the first woman ever to be elected leader of the community. Her term is two years. 

It is the oldest African community association in Maine. It was founded in 1994 by a group of families that found themselves living in the state. They wanted to be supportive of each other in their new home and live harmoniously, despite the troubled and divisive history of their homeland. The mission of the community has always been to bring together the families and individuals who live here, support one another in times of difficulty, and celebrate in times of happiness. Similar South Sudanese community associations exist in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and members of all these communities support each other. The group’s size in Maine is approximately 3,000 people, the majority of whom live in the greater Portland area. However, the cost of rent has caused people to move, and many now also live in the Lewiston-Auburn and Biddeford-Saco areas. 

Candidate and community members

  A nonprofit, the South Sudanese Community serves as an umbrella organization for smaller ethnic communities – the Nuer, Dinka, Acholi, Azande – and a fifth group known as “Group of friends.” New chairperson Saabino explained that these community leaders act as advisors and liaisons with each other and with the chairperson of the larger association. 

  Former chair John Ochira said the South Sudanese identity in Maine remains strong, although the early arrivals in the 1990s had to go through many different cultural shocks and adjustments. “One of the things the community does well is try and keep our culture visible – whether inside our households or outside in the places we gather,” he said. 

  Saabino is hard at work appointing officers and making plans for a general assembly meeting that will take place in the near future. She intends to lead her community in addressing some burning issues, such as helping people find housing, demystifying the educational and social services bureaucracies, finding an office where community members can gather (rather than scrambling for space each time a need arises), and continuing to help those in need, such as those who are sick or bereaved. 

  And she is also passionate about ensuring that the South Sudanese voice is at the table in discussions at the school, city, and state levels. She wants to see the community included at meetings held by officials, and welcomes overtures for collaboration. 

No newcomer to leadership positions, Saabino has been in the U.S. for 23 years, in Maine for 19, and has been involved in the South Sudanese Community all along, including as chairwoman of the Azande community. She is a teacher in the Portland Public Schools. Asked how she feels about having made – and won – a bid for chairperson, she responded without missing a beat: “I’m ready for the challenge!”