For the next two months, ReadCONTRA founder Rajiv Golla will be living in Juba, South Sudan, working with the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms, local journalists, and a number of local politicians, professors, and community leaders to paint a picture of the Third South Sudanese Civil War. This is the fourth in a series of articles about his travels.
I spent the morning pacing between the window of my hotel room and the laptop on my bed, once again wavering between the relaxed Saturday morning of the city and the paralyzing reports from the US embassy and the UN on my screen. But I decided to give it a rest and get some air. I packed my bags, ready to depart for Jebel site, where my new residence was, but just as I locked the door and turned around my adoptive benefactor, whom I had met at the airport, appeared and protested my early departure.
“Come get some breakfast! I’ll take you to Jebel after I finish some business in the afternoon.”
I followed him downstairs to the courtyard and saw the same gang whose reunion I had stumbled upon the night before. My hand was shook around and I was asked the polite array of questions about how I slept, what I thought of the room, and what I would like for breakfast.
Before long I was brought a traditional Indian dosai (a thin lentil crepe as most indian restaurants explain to their white customers) and a spicy sambar (soupy dipping and drinking side usually served with breakfast carbs). I sat with the group as they discussed their daily business, dealing food and drink commodities around East Africa, privy only to the details they let slip in English between their Hindi.
One-by-one they got up, shook my hand once more, wished me luck on my journey, and head out into the wild of Juba to wrangle their next client and shipment. Soon enough I was the only one left in the courtyard, save a man repairing the thatch roof of his kahawa stand and a South Sudanese MP and his two guards enjoying a leisurely lunch in their military fatigues.
I asked a waiter how to get a SIM for my phone, he asked for my ID and 10 South Sudanese Pounds (~$.90) and a few minutes later he returned with a Vivacell SIM. I called the Reuters stringer I was supposed to meet a day prior, a professor at the University of Juba, a local reverend that had started his own NGO, and a local radio journalist and set up meetings for the rest of the week. I pulled out a book I had packed and waited for my new friend to return from his meetings and take me to Jebel.
Early in the afternoon the owner of the hotel I was staying at was having lunch with two colleagues at a table to my left. I looked up when I smelt the familiar scent and heard the familiar sizzle of restaurant-style tandoori chicken and saw my friend had followed his own senses to that table. They called me over and pulled up a chair and we began to eat.
I was introduced to one of the colleagues at the table and told that he spoke Telugu, the language my parents speak at home. He shook my hand and gave me a sordid look. Then in Telugu he said, “I’m telling you this in Telugu because I don’t want to cause a scene. I don’t know why you came here and I don’t know your plans but this is a very bad place. You should not be here. Before I leave, I will speak to you privately.”
And once again my stomach was tossed into the paralyzing fear that the high walls of the hotel compound had assuaged for the morning.
But the table soon swelled with four more local Indian businessmen and the fear melted away among the laughs and seemingly endless supply of beer and biryani that was being bussed to the table by what seemed like the entire hotel staff. Perks of making friends with commodity traders. But the irony was not lost on me that here I was—having traveled across the world to understand a lifestyle removed from my own, one of scarcity rather than luxury— having my plate forcefully piled higher and higher while not even five minutes away by foot, thousands in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS- pronounced as unamiss) were given a small sack of grain a day to sustain families of 6 or more. But it seemed not to weigh on the minds of my table mates and for now I was content to feel at home half a world away.
I was sat at the foot of the table, flanked by two men in their early 40s wearing green lanyards. They had been in South Sudan for the past few years with Tristar oil, the sole fuel provider of UNMISS, which monthly consumed an average of 3 million liters of fuel, not much in terms of most cities and operations, but tremendous in Juba where the airport runway constituted one of the longest and smoothest tracts of tarmac in the state.
It was a sick irony that a state that earned 95% of its government revenue from oil had to depend on foreign contracts to supply themselves with fuel. South Sudan has existed its entire modern history in a precarious state of underdevelopment that forces dependence on Sudan, a byproduct of English occupation which purposefully underdeveloped the south as a buffer zone for their investments in the North. As such, while South Sudan has tremendous oil reserves, it must depend on Sudan for refinement and rent. And once refined, the oil finds its way to the Port of Sudan where it is exported around the world with nary a drop seen in the South. Tristar, the only corporate and legitimate seller of oil in South Sudan and contracted with UNMISS in three year blocks, sources its oil out of Mombassa, Kenya and from there it is shipped to Juba, which serves as the distribution hub for the rest of the country.
Though gripes about poor infrastructure and communication dogged the operations of these businesses, it was unanimously voiced at a table representing interests in fuel, food, drink, textile, etc, that the largest obstacle to development in South Sudan was a government predicated on paternalism rather than legislature or at the very least, navigable ideology. But nevertheless, these displaced entrepreneurs trudged on and enjoyed the fruits of their monopoly, as evidenced by the large luxury watches that adorned the wrists of every man at the table.
These men represented the most adventurous and enterprising people that India had to offer. Everyone I talked to had initially been reluctant to come to South Sudan but decided to come anyway in corporate pursuit, beckoned by a rapidly expanding and largely unregulated economy.
As put eloquently and rather cynically by a young man I met later this night, “We don’t care about our life. All we care about is the money.”
After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005 ended 50 years of North-South civil war under the guiding hand of post-9/11 American diplomacy, many expats and members of the diaspora descended on Juba, hedging their bets on a prosperous future and holding peace.
Unfortunately, the seeds of civil war which had been planted in 1991 when an ethnic massacre against the Dinka was conducted by South Sudan’s Vice President-cum-opposition leader, Dr. Riek Machar, during a split in the then-rebel SPLM was left unresolved by the hasty and pressured American led peace negotiations in 2005. And in 2013, the country was plunged once again into civil war and Juba was enveloped in ethnic violence on December 15, 2013. Political leaders quickly mobilized ethnic divisions to their political causes in a situation that currently sees no forthcoming resolution, tens of thousands dead, and millions displaced.
But that didn’t stop these men. They bunkered down and confined themselves to their homes for the few days of violence in the city and emerged ready to revive the commodity trade and pounce on the increased demands of the influx of NGOs in the wake of one of the worst humanitarian crises the region has ever seen.
As course followed course in the sea of Indian food, the conversation hushed from its jovial peak as heads turned to each other in low tones to discuss business in native tongues, over the head of an unwitting and stumbling young freelance journalist at the foot of their table. As deals were sealed, meetings were scheduled, and deliveries were promised, these cowboys of the wild East African economy rose from their seats and started up their ubiquitous Toyota Landcruisers.
But, true to his word, the Telugu man came to me after lunch and walked me to the corner of the courtyard with his hands in his pockets and his head slung low.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m doing research on media culture and working with some local journalists to produce some material for a few projects I’m working on.”
“You couldn’t just read the books? There’s plenty of information online. Why did you have to come here? It’s not a safe place.”
“Books can’t –“
“Look, none of that matters. You’re here now. If you ever need anything. ANYTHING. Financial, security, food, medical, anything. You call me.”
He left me his number, shook my hand, wished me luck, and went on his way.
I returned to my seat at the table which by now only held my friend from the airport, the owner of the hotel, his grade school daughter visiting Juba during her summer break from boarding school in India, and another of his commodity suppliers, a young man barely older than me.
The conversation continued in Hindi leaving me to pretend to do something important on my iPhone which didn’t have any service.
It was about 6PM when the table rose once again, this time to take a walk around our neighborhood of Juba to check on some of the other properties belonging to my sponsor.
We strolled down the road leading to the airport, lined with unfinished construction beckoned by the same sense of hope that called my newfound company. The roads buzzed with white SUVs emblazoned with UN and ICRC stickers, cheap motorcycles, and vans carrying far more occupants than their designers had intended. Billboards advertised directions to basic public services provided by INGO’s and offered banking services unnecessary to the daily lives of most of their audience. We turned onto the dirt path back roads navigable only to the most well maintained Landcruisers and bravest bikers. And it seemed that every road we turned to, regardless of how run down or desperate it looked, someone came up and smiled heartily at the man leading our motley troop. The efforts of these Indian cowboys were truly being appreciated at every level. At least in the short run.
We arrived at the first property, a two story motel style outfit occupied by Greek NGO workers wearing board shorts and t-shirts. I played pretend with my phone again as the men discussed business. We got up after a bit and made our way to the next property and followed the same routine.
Right as the sun was setting we made our way to Panache, a multi-level plaza housing a bar, restaurant, apartments, and small business storefronts. We took seats at the front of the courtyard and sure enough the very same gang I had spent the morning with joined us at the table.
With business out of the way and the day all but over, conversation turned to more broadly appealing topics. After some tense debates about the roles of tribalism in the politics of India in contrast to the South Sudanese situation I asked the group about their beginnings in Africa and it became a round robin of tales of adventures and misadventures in the unconquered continent. From being assaulted by Somalis while taking photos in a market to surviving 22 days under house arrest with power or water during the Congolese Civil War, these truly were men trying to tame the wild and bend it to their will.
And for the most part, they had succeeded. They represented some of the world’s largest corporations, had amassed great fortunes in a matter of years, developed some of the continent’s most conflict affected areas, and carved out a piece of the African pie for themselves. When I asked if they thought they would ever go back to India, they all scoffed at the thought of returning to dull lives and ridiculed the “typical” Indians that took stable professions and settled in stable states. And while they all claimed to be chasing the money, even claiming the value of their lives secondary to their net worth in some perverse understanding of reincarnation, I sensed that the money had stopped engaging them years ago. No, these were cowboys and wranglers through and through, swapping whips for sat phones and leather chaps for khaki slacks, in it for the love of their lifestyle and nothing more.”
(Title image via).