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.
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).