I was awakened last night by my colleagues informing me that there was fighting between the military and civilians in the streets of Juba. Reports have been unclear and there has been no journalistic reporting on the incident. Gun fire was initially heard at 10:30pm last night and has continued into the morning. You can hear gun fire and explosions in the distance. What I have been able to gather is that the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has been unable to deal with the division among the leaders of the party. This is not new news and most political observers had hoped that the party would deal with the divisions using the bylaws and constitution of their party. However, the meeting of the National Liberation Council was unable to mend the division and now fighting among the various factions is taking place in the streets of Juba. Twitter is basically the only way to get updates on the situation and as you know, there are a lot of rumors and false information being posted on Twitter. International NGOs have been told to shelter in place until further notice. We have internet and some mobile services.
Who would have thought that Auburn University, posting a miserable 3-9 record in College Football last year would pull off numerous upsets and earned a spot in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship Game? The Auburn Tigers are heading to Pasadena to take on the Florida State Seminoles. I am still in a bit of shock that Auburn is playing for their second national championship in four years, and a school from Alabama is playing in a fifth national championship game. Alabama played in the game in 2009, Auburn in 2010, Alabama in 2011 and 2012 and now Auburn. It goes to show you why football is considered a religion in the American South.
Unlike the Iron Bowl, where I was traveling in Rwanda and unable to watch the game, I did not want to miss the SEC Championship game. The security situation in Juba is rather dicey and expats are encouraged not to be out in the streets late at night. Most NGOs have a curfew, some as early as 8:00pm. The only place to watch the SEC Championship game was at the U.S. Embassy Residence, where you can enjoy the Air Force Network (AFN). The game started at midnight, which meant that if I went to the Embassy to watch the game, I would be there the entire night. I would not be able to leave when the game ended, and would have to arrive at least four hours before the game started.
I arrived at the Embassy at 8:30pm to settle in for a long night of football that started with the Oklahoma/Oklahoma State game and ended with Michigan State and Ohio State. There was an additional Auburn fan and an Alabama fan that watched the SEC Championship game. While it was easy making it to 4:00am when the SEC Championship game ended, I struggled to keep my eyes open to watch the Michigan State/Ohio State game. Finally, at 7:15am, a car arrived to take me back to my compound.
When I arrived at home, Michigan State had taken the lead in the Big10 Championship game and the prospect of Auburn going to Pasadena was too much to go to sleep. When the game ended there were numerous Skype calls back to the US and celebratory comments to post of Facebook. Eventually, sleep was too difficult to avoid and I finally hit the sack at 9:30am.
I am a little late in wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving…
This year, I am truly thankful for friends who live in nearby countries and who allow me to join them for Thanksgiving. I had an amazing time visiting with dear friends in Rwanda. If anyone knows me well, you know that Rwanda is one of my favorite countries to visit and Kigali is probably my favorite city in the world (hands down my favorite city in Africa). I love the rolling green hills that dot just about every inch of the country. The weather is mild and unlike Juba, most of the roads are paved.
For the weekend, we took a trip up north to the town of Gisenyi. Gisenyi sits on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near the base of an active volcano and on the pristine shores of Lake Kivu. We stayed at the Serena Hotel. The Serena Hotel is 15 star hotel compared to my living arrangements in Juba. The bed was probably the most comfortable bed I have slept in since departing the US. It was one of the reasons that I missed the most epic play in college football – make that American football in general.
The night of the Iron Bowl, I was unable to watch it on TV or online. I decided to listen online through the Auburn network. I even paid $2 for a Coca Light to help me stay up. But the bed was too powerful. I drifted in and out of sleep as I listen to the game. Just after 2:00am, after Alabama scored to take the lead, with just four minutes left in the game, I decided this game was over and I should just enjoy this comfortable bed on my last night. I never imagined that Auburn would win the game with one second left on the clock. When I checked my phone the next morning, I had over 30 messages from friends/family congratulating me on Auburn’s win. The highlight was a text that stated Auburn was holding a Leprechaun hostage – insinuating that was the reason for Auburn’s wins against Georgia and now Alabama. While I am sad that I missed the ending of the game, the good night sleep and amazing breakfast brought me must needed comfort.
On Sunday, we headed back down to Kigali and on Monday, I flew back to Juba. And my amazing weekend came to an abrupt end. The Juba International Airport has a way of dashing whatever hopes and dreams you had for the coming weeks. I am now counting down to the next trip out of Juba. That trip comes in 13 days…
Until then, keep me in your prayers…I can use patience and strength to withstand the hassles of South Sudan.
My playmate over the weekend – Jimmy.
I didn’t think much of my work trip to Lakes State, South Sudan. I was traveling to the capital city of Rumbek to conduct a workshop for a political party. But what seemed like a routine trip to one of the ten states in South Sudan turned into a fascinating trip into the heart of Dinka Territory. I had learned a great deal about the Dinkas in my readings about South Sudan. One of my colleagues is from the Dinka tribe. But in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, people come from all over the country. There are tall Nuer, short Kakwa, brown and black skinned people. The capital is a melting pot of South Sudanese tribes and ethnicities. But arriving in Lakes State, I felt that I had traveled to a new planet, where the shortest person was 6’1. As an American of slightly above average height (6’0), I felt short among the giants of the Dinka tribe. The workshop towered with men and women whose heads were only inches from the ceiling. It was a sight to behold.
The highlight of my trip to Lakes State was getting to know 21 year old Peter Matau Atel. Peter had just recently joined the political party that we were training and he was excited to participate in our workshop. Over the course of the three days, he became my translator for the women who spoke only Dinka. For some reason the women took a keen interest in me (it would be later revealed to me why they were fascinated by looks). In talking with Peter, they were intrigued by my gums – yes, my gums. While my skin color and mannerisms were different, my gums had a striking resemblance to their gums. It was a trait that we shared and they wanted to know why. I tried to explain that my ancestors had also come from Africa so I am sure it one of those things that was passed down through genetics. While I think Peter understood what I was trying to say, the women giggled to themselves and mumbling a few things that I could not understand and eventually walked off. I was later informed by my co-worker that teeth and gums were an attractive feature on men. So maybe I was being hit on and had no clue what was going on. After our discussion on ancestors and lineage, I began to refer to Peter as my cousin since we both had family lineage in Africa (my connection to Africa arrived in the US about 200-300 years ago). He laughed each time I made the reference.
One of the greatest joys about living in South Sudan is getting to know the people that live in this new nation. They have completely changed the way I see people and how I form first impressions. I really enjoy hanging out with my national colleagues and the people I meet in this country. Living among people and “trying” to see them the way God sees them, has helped to breakdown stereotypes and misunderstandings that are often formed about people when I see them through my American lenses. This is not to say that I do not get frustrated by the culture at times or challenged by the living conditions.(I am posting this blog from outside South Sudan because I was in need of a break) I’m human and I have formed my own social norms. But I have enjoyed my three months getting to know the citizens of South Sudan – especially outside of Juba.
I spotted it on my initial flight into Juba. A rocky mountain dotted with green trees and high grass. In trips in and around the city, I caught glimpses of its boulder size rocks and various rock quarries. I researched the mountain and discovered that it had a hiking path to the top and very popular among the expat crowd. After two months of planning and plotting, I finally got my chance to hike Jebel Kujur. While Jebel Kujur resembles a smaller version of Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah Mountains, the climb to the top was not as taxing or difficult as Old Rag. We tried to get an early start to beat the South Sudan sun, but even at 10am, the sun felt as it was riding on my back. After about an hour of hiking upwards, we arrived at the top of Juba. The view from the top gave me a bird’s eye view of Juba and its surrounding villages. The city has spread around the mountain, constantly growing as members of the South Sudanese Diaspora returns and villagers move into the fast growing Juba.
Hiking the mountain can also be dangerous, especially if you wonder off the well worn trails that lead up and around the mountain. During the civil war that plagued the region, Jebel Kujur was a prized outlook for both sides of the war. Between 1992 and 1994, a battle raged for control of Jebel Kujur. The battle was one of the bloodiest episodes of the north-south war. The area around the mountain is littered with unexploded ordinances (land mines) planted during that battle. There are weekly reminders of the dangers that exist in Juba from the continuous civil war. Two weeks ago, five children were killed in a neighborhood of Juba as they dug for scrap metal. There are several organizations working in Juba to ride the country of landmines. But sadly each year people are killed and maimed by undetected land mines.
It was a beautiful day for a hike and I hope to hike Jebel Kujur again very soon.
Last week, my colleagues and I headed out of the city for a walking safari in Nimule National Park. Leaving Juba is not always an easy proposition. There is only one paved highway in the entire country of South Sudan. So traveling around the country is quite the task. But the beauty of Nimule National Park is that it is located on the paved road that runs from Juba to Uganda. Not only was I able to cross to the east bank of the Nile River for the first time since arriving in Juba, I got to travel the famous “Juba-Nimule road.” The road was a project of USAID and the Louis Berger Group (LBG). After spending ten hours traveling along South Sudan’s bumpy, chaotic gravel roads, I have a new appreciation for the two lane highway traveling between the capitol city and Uganda. If you were traveling to Nimule in 2009, it would have taken eight hours to travel 194 kilometers. Today, it takes a mere three hours to reach the Uganda/South Sudan border. This road has revolutionized the ability to get goods from the Kenyan ports to South Sudan.
Nimule National Park is a large wildlife preserve in southern South Sudan. During the continuous civil war, all the fighting forced the animals to flee. Since the peace agreement in 2009 and independence in 2011, the animals are slowly returning to South Sudan. At one time, South Sudan was the home of one of the largest migration of animals outside of Kenya and Tanzania (the famous Serengeti migration). It is not uncommon to see elephants roaming the park (there is also a problem of the elephants trampling villages or crops as the elephants move between the two countries). Although we did not see elephants on our walking safari, we were tracked by a baboon that was warning us that we had ventured into his territory and surprised a herd of kob (from the family of the antelope). We saw hippos sunbathing in the distance and startled a baby crocodile that was enjoying the rapids of the Nile. It was nice to get away from the hot and stuffy Juba and experience the beauty of nature.
The highway between Juba and Nimule
The team on our walking safari
It happened in the most unlikely of places. I knew this day would come but I was hoping that I would be further into my stay in South Sudan. It happened once before, as I was traveling in Africa on my first trip to the continent and I was reminded by friends who have spent time in Africa that eventually this movement would arrive again…and arrive it did! And sadly, the three unsuspecting men working the shop had no clue what was happening and I eventually apologize for my overzealous desire to get what I needed.
The week started with the announcement that the office would be closed on Monday and Tuesday of next week to observe the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha. For those of you not familiar with Islamic traditions and holidays, Eid al-Adha is the holiday to honor the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his first born son, Ishmael. God’s instruction to Abraham was a test of his obedience and God provided a lamb to sacrifice instead. As a Christian, I know the story of Abraham but from a difference standpoint. Instead of Ishmael, God’s instruction to Abraham was to sacrifice his son Isaac and instead of a lamb, a ram was the sacrifice. While I have truly enjoyed my time in South Sudan, after two months, all I could think of was taking a trip out of the country to be free from the imprisonment of the compound I live on in Juba. However, there were a few obstacles standing in my way. I do not have a multiple entry visa. So if I leave South Sudan, I will have to pay $160 to re-enter. I was unable to get a multiple entry visa when I arrived because my single entry visa was only a week old. So I inquired on Monday about getting a multi-entry visa before Friday but was told the process takes about seven days. So there went my dreams of escaping South Sudan.
So in anticipation of my new multi-entry visa and the fact that my current passport expires in 2014, I decided to be proactive and get a new passport. I called the embassy and made an appointment and got my passport photos from our staffer who handles all the paper work for immigration. When I arrived at the embassy everything was moving along very quickly and I thought, “Wow this is going to finish up much quicker than I expected and I will be back for my meeting in no time.” But then came those dreaded words, “Mr. Barnes, your pictures are the wrong size.” My response, “are you sure, I got these from my colleague who handles issues like these.” He then proceeded to show me that my photos were too small and suggested that I could go out and get new photos and he would process my application when I returned. It turns out that my photos were sized to South Sudan’s requirements. If I was going to get my multi-entry visa, I would be just fine. So off I went to find one of the few photo labs that are able to print US passport photos. The lab was even recommended by the US Embassy.
When I entered the lab, they quickly took my picture and started to print the pictures. I tried to inform them that the printed size was not US Embassy standard passport photo. After five minutes of arguing with me that the size was correct, the other photographer stepped in to help me. The small studio was extremely hot and the vibration from the music that was resonating from the speakers was shaking the pictures on the wall. I was slowly losing my cool. After two more unsuccessful printings and after my suggestion of checking the US State Department website was ignored, I finally pushed my way to the computer and asked, “how is it that the US Embassy recommends your studio for passport photos and you have absolutely no clue what you are doing.” He mumbled something and suggested that he had it correct this time. He printed the updated photos and I just decided to purchase the photos and leave because I could tell the situation was escalating. I told the driver to take me back to the compound (work) because I needed to calm down and pick up the photo I used for my initial visa. Upon arriving at the office and consulting with the State Department website, I recognized that the photos that I had purchase were as close to US regulation as possible. I decided to go back to the photo lab to print the passport photo that I used for my visa application and to apologize to the staff for my outburst. As it turns out, they were unable to print my photo and I was forced to use the previous printed photo taken by the studio. I returned to the US Embassy and in the matter of 15 minutes, my application had been processed, my money taken and informed that my passport should be ready in 10 days. It was a very stressful day and my patience was tried on numerous occasions, but in the end I got what I needed and was able to renew my passport. I also recognized a business opportunity – to print passport photos for USA expats and those wishing to travel to the US. I am not in it for the money but for the exceptionally service that I will deliver. On my next trip to the US, I will be purchasing a photo printer to start my business…
And the weekend is not a complete lost. I spent an amazing night of worship/fellowship/dinner with some friends and will heading down to Nimule (on the border of South Sudan and Uganda) on Sunday. I will get to travel South Sudan’s only paved highway connecting cities. All roads in South Sudan outside of Juba and the road to Nimule are gravel (or as we say in the American South – dirt).
After recently writing about the fire at one of Juba’s hotels, today, we experienced a fire on the Nile River. As I was working at my desk today, I noticed smoke rising above the trees just outside my window. I didn’t think much about the smoke as people are always burning trash in Juba and the smoke was rising up outside the compound. However, about 45 minutes later, my colleagues noticed that the smoke was now rising above the trees where our apartments were located. Our first thought was that the fire had spread from the neighboring compound to our compound. So we rushed out of the office and headed to the living quarters. As it turned out, one of the oil barges that often float down the river was on fire. While we don’t know the cause of the mystery floating fire, this is not the first time that this occurrence has taken place.
Before I arrived in Juba, a similar event took place; however, this episode damaged homes. A worker was smoking on the barge when it caught fire in the harbor. As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, there are very few fire trucks in Juba so instead of waiting for the fire brigade to arrive, the workers decided to push the boat out into the water. The barge floated down river until it ran aground and the fire consumed several houses before it eventually burned out.
I actually heard the sirens of the fire brigade today. I learned that once the fire brigade is alerted of an emergency, it must pump water from the river to use on the fire. So by the time it arrives at an emergency, its objective is minimizing the collateral damage versus saving the structure that is currently on fire.
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.