With all the talk of government shutdown, threats to democracy and governing by crisis in the United States, it has made me reflect on life in South Sudan. South Sudan is a fragile state. This can be seen in everyday life in the world’s newest country. Just this week, I was in a meeting with a leader of a political party in the capital city of Juba. In the course of 15 minutes, he received six calls alerting him that a fire had broken out at the hotel where he had taken up residence. Initially, he thought that the fire would be contained but a few calls later, he was warned that the fire was much larger than previously assumed. He was at risk of losing everything. He had already sent his car back to the hotel to assess the situation and my driver had the daring task of racing across Juba to get him to the hotel.
I knew from the start that this would not be an easy journey. The dirt road that led to the office where we were meeting was washed out from rains over the weekend and it was hard to maneuver at a slow pace, much less racing to a fire. But our driver, who would later inform me that he once served as an ambulance driver, was a rockstar in navigating Juba’s washed out roads and horrible traffic. In less than 10 minutes we were arriving at the hotel that was completely engulfed in flames. Despite the fact that the fire had raged for nearly 30 minutes, there was not a fire brigade in sight. In the end, the hotel was completely destroyed, along with various other buildings. There was very little the people could do to save the hotel. In the aftermath of another catastrophic hotel fire in Juba, the fire brigade in South Sudan is soliciting financial assistance from the outside world to help them purchase trucks and supplies. It was recently reported that there are only two fire trucks in Juba and there are only 5 trucks in the entire country.
I live on a compound in a country where poverty meets you at every turn. At times, it is easy to forget that I am in South Sudan. But each day that I leave the compound to attend a meeting or to do some shopping, I am reminded of the hard life that 80 percent of the population lives. The city of Juba is growing and expanding so fast that with each new building that rises from the earth, several hundred citizens are displaced, often forcing them into slum like conditions. Just outside my compound is a cemetery that has become a make-shift slum. Each week the cemetery community expands with new residents. These types of communities are rising up all over Juba. Despite the poverty, South Sudan is a country with a very important resource – oil. At full potential, annual net oil export revenues total roughly $9 billion. However, South Sudan is a land lock country and the current oil pipeline runs through its nemesis, Sudan to the Port of Sudan. The relationship between the two nations hasn’t improved very much and the oil revenues for South Sudan suffer when the relationship chills.
I have to remind myself that South Sudan is only two years from independence. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it will take South Sudan sometime to gain its footing. I am not sure what the future holds for this country but the potential is limitless. However, poverty, internal and external insecurities, lack of infrastructure and power struggles among political leaders will make it a difficult for this country to advance as quickly as the international world expects. Citizens are proud that they are an independent nation but realities are starting to set in for citizens and the NGO community that long lasting peace and a democratic government will take some time to achieve.
It is hard to imagine but last week marked a month in South Sudan. I was hoping to post this on last Thursday, my one month anniversary but I was actually outside of Juba, enjoying the pleasant weather of Yei (pronounced Yay) – minus a consistent internet connection. Yei is located in the same state as Juba, Central Equatorial but located about 120 km southwest of Juba, near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. I have been told that Yei is about 28 km from the DRC border. You also realize living in Juba that outside the capitol city, life is a bit more difficult. Electricity in this country is mostly produced through generators and most businesses outside the capitol city turn off the generators overnight. It can be quite difficult navigating a strange room in the darkness of Africa.
Reaching Yei is not for the faint of heart or those likely to experience motion sickness. Although only about 86 miles from the capital city of Juba, the drive is a grueling five hour adventure along a rugged gravel path. The South Sudanese call it dancing – the movement you make as you ride along the washed out roads of South Sudan. As we were dancing along the road to Yei, a sign caught my attention. It was a triangle shaped road signed trimmed in read. The sign simply said, “Bumps Ahead.” I chuckled because I was thinking, what is classified as bumps because the stretch of road that we were traveling was extremely rugged and uncomfortable.
It is easy in situations like these to put on my American blinders and began to judge my environment. But when you think about it, the people of South Sudan are a hardy people. If you told me that I was selected to attend a political training but I would have to travel for five hours along a washed road in the Alabama countryside, I would say no thank you! But over 50 people packed the conference hall in Yei and traveled from four of the six counties in Central Equatorial State. Living in South Sudan has made me appreciate the how essential transportation is to the economy and the standard of living. It also made me think about the similarities that South Sudan share with the early American revolutionaries that designed and built the American democracy. I was recently in a meeting and an international official was complaining about the slow process in South Sudan. A fellow colleague asked the official, ‘what did you expect, a country full of George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons walking around.’ South Sudan stands only two years from independence and if you know American history, the British surrendered in 1781 and America did not get their current government structure until 1787. During that time, the new American colonies tried the Articles of Confederation before moving on to the present day constitution. It is also important to remember that the United States had a strained relationship with the British and returned to war in 1812. The situation is different in South Sudan but new emerging democracies face threats from various directions – including from the governments that they decided to leave and unruly neighbors.
A good article on South Sudan’s (in)ability to move goods from the Kenyan coast to Juba. It will help you understand why goods in South Sudan are so expensive and how the rainy season contributes to South Sudan’s food woes.
Tuesday was a very exciting day. After surviving my first month in South Sudan, I got a very special package. The items that I shipped from the United States arrived to my delight and excitement. While most of the items are nothing to “write home about”, I am happy to have hangers to store my recently pressed shirts, my toiletries (shampoo, mouth wash, and soap) and books that I haven’t gotten around to reading…and most importantly, gummy worms, peanut butter and Special K red berries. Breakfast here in South Sudan just got more exciting. I had the same feelings that I had on Christmas morning when I was a child!
The most difficult part of living in South Sudan is the outrageous cost of living in this city. There is a large NGO population stationed in Juba and so the prices are geared to the excessive amounts of money that follows NGOs. The United Nations has several compounds scattered around Juba and the camp where I lived has three NGOs working from this location, that’s excluding the temporary workers that come in for six month stints. Hotel rooms in Juba run between $150-$300. However, do not let the price fool you; these are not Hilton quality hotels. While some hotels provide a nice rest spot, it is important to do a little background research on Juba’s hotel industry.
Juba is changing at such a fast pace that if you were here a year ago, you probably would not recognize this city. In addition, the government has been building a new terminal for the airport. I hear they have been working on this terminal for over a year but when it opens, it will provide needed relief to the current cramped arrival and departure terminal. The question is when will it open? I guess I will have to wait and see. I hope that it is during my time in Juba. The lack of transportation infrastructure is also apparent each and every time I leave the compound. The pot holes and crevasses that have been created because of the rain are large enough at times to swallow an entire vehicle. And the roads are made worst this time of year as we are in the rainy season. While it doesn’t rain every day, each storm that passes has the ability to bring this country to a complete stop. Just think Washington, D.C. and the threat of a few inches of snow and that’s Juba in the rain. But when the storm arrives, it arrives with the force of a category 1 hurricane. On Sunday, I found myself (along with 25 others) trapped in the mess hall (which is actually a permanent tent) for over an hour as we waited for the storm to pass. Finally, I decided to make a run for it because I wasn’t sure about the safety of the tent. In the short run to my bungalow, I was completely soaked.
Here are some new pictures from my new home. Also, my post from this weekend is below.
I wanted to let you know just how expensive it is to eat in Juba. This is $18.00 worth of food from the local supermarket. The Smuckers peanut butter and jelly was $8.00 by itself. I am waiting for my possessions that were shipped to arrive so I can start cooking.
A few nights ago I was having dinner with a government official and we were discussing the state of his political party and the future of South Sudan. We were discussing his background and where he was during the civil war. He told of how he was forced into the army at 13 and how his village was razed to the ground. I was fascinated by his perseverance and his optimism for the future of South Sudan. He then told me of a trip to the United States a few years ago.
He was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where his son was receiving medical treatment at a local hospital. One night, he and his wife decided to walk over to McDonald’s for dinner. They were approached by a black woman who had seen them walking around Baton Rouge earlier in the week. The woman inquired into where they were from because “they didn’t look like they were from Louisiana.” He informed her that he and his wife were visiting from Sudan (at the time, South Sudan was still part of Sudan). She informed the couple that she had never heard of such a place and asked where Sudan was located. When he told her it was in Africa, she hesitated for a moment and then asked, “So you are telling me there is a country run by black people?” She was amazed that in Africa, the black people are in charge of their own affairs. Being from the South, I laughed at this story but then he asked about Americans’ knowledge of geography, especially the African continent.
America’s isolated location in the world has allowed us to become an example of stability. However, that isolation has also contributed to our lack of knowledge and understanding of what is happening throughout the world. National Geographic conducted a geography surveyed of 18-to-24 year-old Americans a few years back and discovered that only 37 percent could find Iraq on a map. Since 2003, the situation in Iraq has been discussed non-stop in the American media and in current event programs.
I am always amazed with how much people outside the United States know about our government, culture and current events. I recognize that a lot of that knowledge comes from Hollywood and current events. This past weekend, I was presenting at a workshop with students and young adults about political parties and comparing the system in the U.S. to South Sudan. The students were able to guess that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican President (after I gave them the hint that Lincoln is credited with freeing the slaves), recognized Karl Rove in a photo with George W. Bush (I told them that Karl Rove got his start as a university student working for the College Republicans) and could give me a play by play analysis of the 2012 Presidential election. I was a little taken aback by their knowledge…
At the end of the event, one of the students asked what examples South Sudan could take from America to become a stable and strong country. I told him first, the country must be patient, because the American Democracy is still a work in progress. America is still correcting the wrongs of past generations. In addition, I told him that South Sudan needs a constitution that, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, grants citizens life, liberty and the protection of property. It is extremely important that a country protects its citizens and their property. Finally, I told him that South Sudan needs institutions that allow citizens to settle disputes in a civil way and not through violence. In some parts of this country, there is lawlessness because South Sudan does not have the institutions in place to deal with violence and crimes. A trained military and police force would help move this country closer to a more civil society.
Here are a few pictures from the workshop.
Photography in Juba (and South Sudan) is not viewed the same as it is viewed in other parts of the world (especially along the National Mall in Washington, D.C.). While taking photos with permission is permissible, the government frowns upon taking pictures of government institutions but it is hard to determine government buildings from non-government buildings. So, in an effort not to have my camera taken from me, I have decided to only use my iPone to capture scenes of Juba and to also use it discretely. Here are a few snapshots from around town…
A slum-like village has sprung up in the cemetery leading into the Afex camp. We pass by this site everyday as we leave and return to the camp.
A view from my office…Land Cruisers – the car of Africa (and the developing world).
I often pray for patience…patience to see things through to fruition or patience with tourist who often overwhelm Washington, DC’s subways and sidewalks or patience with friends and family members. I truly believe that God teaches us patience through various experiences in our lives – maybe it’s being stuck in traffic or queuing in a very long and slow moving line OR living in a culture where the social norms are drastically different than what you have grown accustom to expect. While I have only been in South Sudan for a week, I am learning to have patience in all situations. Meetings causally begin 20 to 40 minutes after the start time and it’s not automatically assumed when you enter a restaurant that you will need a table or a menu. Those things come at your request. And the friendly, chipper waiter/waitress that meets you at your table in the US is nonexistent in South Sudan.
Patience is important when you are experiencing a new culture and the ability to leave your social norms at home will allow you to have a greater appreciation for your new environment. I like to think of myself as a patience person and living in South Sudan will only help me grow in that matter.
A few years ago I was visiting friends in Rwanda and we decided to take a camping/safari/rafting trip through Uganda. It was a pretty amazing experience sleeping along the river banks as the hippos moaned and groaned below and seeing lions resting in the savannah. However, our trip back to Rwanda on one of the cross country buses tested my patience and desire to experience new cultures. While the six of us wanted to be on the same bus, we were unable to buy tickets in advance because the operator told us that the bus was sold out and he would not know if there were available seats until the bus arrived in Kampala (the capital of Uganda). Afraid that we would be stuck in Kampala another day, we booked tickets on two separate buses. I was paired with one of my friend’s roommates who was use to Africa’s rugged travel accommodations. The bus was expected in from Nairobi, Kenya at 10pm and we were supposed to arrive in Kigali, Rwanda at 6am. The bus did not arrive in Kampala until 1am and once we started the boarding process we noticed the ticket agent had over sold the bus and I initially did not have a seat. I was exhausted, sleepy and hungry. I was also saddled with three bags and in no mood to handle the situation. Luckily, there were two Dutch women on the bus who also didn’t have seats and they complained loudly and in the end people were forced out of their seats to make room for us. As I look back, maybe I should have been ashamed that people were forced to sit in the aisle on the bus trip but at that time, that small measure was the least the driver could do to placate my frustration. I was hoping to get some sleep on the bus but if you are familiar with the roads in East Africa, you know that potholes are used to limit speeders. The 12 hours bus ride consisted of the bus driver speeding forward only to slam on breaks to navigate the potholes. Each time I would dose off the bus would come to a screeching halt. When we arrived in Kigali at 1:30pm that afternoon, my cup was overflowing with anger. When I finally got to my friend’s house, I needed to rest. I laid across the bed at 3:30pm to take a short nap. I didn’t wake up until 9:00am the next morning. Not only did I need sleep, I needed to allow my anger to pass.
But I learned a valuable lesson during that nightmare bus ride across Uganda. It was important to check my American attitude at the country border and embrace the culture that I was experiencing. And that’s my goal while living in South Sudan. Although I recognize that there will be times when I will get annoyed and frustrated but I will embrace what is around me and go with the flow. Someone the other day used the phrase, “let go and let God…” and that is exactly what I will do, let go and not try to control the situation. That phrase makes complete sense in South Sudan…
My colleagues surprised me with a cake to celebrate my birthday on Friday. It was a very nice gesture.
Well today is my 34th Birthday and today also marks the end of my first work week in Juba. I don’t think I would have imagined that I would spend my 34th birthday sitting along the River Nile in Africa’s youngest republic (actually, the world’s newest nation). I live at a camp along the River Nile called AFEX. It is one of several AFEX camps in Juba where a lot of expats live during their stay in Juba. It’s a small community that is actually much more transited than Washington, D.C. The camp consists of several NGO offices and the living quarters for the employees and consultants of those NGOs. I have a two minute walk from my bungalow to my office and a one minute walk to the bar/restaurant where meals are served. I have the commute most Washingtonians would die for! Here are a few photos from my new home…
Going into this new adventure, I was expecting the worst. I had never been to Juba (or South Sudan) and was only able to form my opinion by chatting with others. While the city and country has a long way to go towards infrastructure and development, Juba has a unique quality about it. If you have traveled in East Africa before, you will find many similarities. I told my driver today that so far, I like South Sudan, his response “South Sudan is an infant country.” People here are very optimistic about their future. There is a lot of potential here but at the same time, there are a lot of factors that could hinder South Sudan’s future.