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 sixth in a series of articles about his travels.
I yelled obscenities in my head, screaming at people to get out of the way, hoping my boda boda driver would slow down, and praying that we didn’t hit a loose patch of dirt that would send us headfirst into the rocky red road upon which we were flirting with death.
Kennedy had shown up at the gates of my compound at 10 in the morning with his trusty steed, a dusty red Boxer motorcycle with blue grips that bore the 007 logo, stylized with a pistol and all. Our man himself was no less well appointed, with some of the tightest pants I’d seen in Juba, where most men wore awkwardly large western clothing too baggy for the sheer length and skinniness of their extremities. He donned a green graphic t-shirt with nonsense English and black leather driving shoes that began the day polished and clean.
Our first destination was the Ministry of Information in the same neighborhood as my previous hotel. Kennedy expertly weaved through the dirt roads, more concerned with pot holes and ravines, carved out by the harsh Juba rains, than with the other vehicles and pedestrians we shared the road, and sometimes walkways, with. After being redirected by confidently clueless passersby, we finally arrived at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, just in front of the Presidential Palace and the in the company of several other ministries including Mining & Industry and Economy.
I walked into the building prepared with the documents and fee payment that UN guides had informed me of weeks prior and asked for Jacob Kumbo, the Minister of Information. From talking to local reporters, UN staff, and expats working in the city, I was truly looking forward to meeting the amiable and talkative bureaucrat for whom I had heard nothing but praise. Unfortunately he was out of the office so I was ushered to his second in command, a man known to most everyone simply as “Chol”. He was polite and gave me my forms but passed no time with the conversation and affability I had been prepped for. I handed in my forms and he told me to return in one hour.
Kennedy never left the side of his beloved Boxer for fear of theft, not even in the midst of soldiers and police that swarmed the area tightening security in preparation for the Independence Day Celebrations. We got back on the road and made our way back to Jebel for an appointment with some local staff at EyeRadio.
After going through the process of signing in and getting stared at and side-eyed, the customary security procedure for most buildings in Juba, I met with Nichola Mandil of EyeRadio, formerly their news editor but now back to his preferred post as a special story journalist. We had spent some time the previous night at my compound, the first meeting between us, though we had been communicating by email for a few weeks. He showed me around the office and introduced to everyone from the manager to the security guards. I was finally led into a room where I was supposed to wait until he got out of a security briefing for his coverage of the celebrations on Thursday. There I met an Indian journalist brought to Juba by USAID under a program to train local journalists and build professional capacities. Most of the organizations here have lacked the professionalism and moral codes that Western outlets claim to operate under. The education systems and political culture just has not permitted it. USAIDs program was just one of many to bring South Sudan more squarely into participation with the international community.
While waiting, I became audience for a USAID administered class for EyeRadio’s stringers. Though I was ready to pass the class off as another simple corporate style training that insulted the intelligence of its attendees, I found myself scrambling to take notes. And when we went around the room to talk about why we wanted to become journalists, I found my prospects were no different than those of my South Sudanese counterparts.
“We all chose journalism for different reasons, but for sure, we did not choose it for the money.”
Nichola made his way back to me and took me over to Internews, the former parent organization of EyeRadio before it became its own entity, out of American oversight and under the watchful eye of the South Sudanese government. After making another round of introductions, he sent me back on my way with Kennedy.
We headed back to the Ministry of Information to pick up my press pass which should have been completed by now. But after the 30 minute ride across town I was told that the security office had not signed off on the pass and I was to wait another hour. Instead of hanging around bureaucrats and soldiers, I got back on the boda and we took a tour of the city.
Juba is not a city one would assume was the epicenter of an incredibly destructive civil war. Its violent history is betrayed only by the innumerable red bereted soldiers riding in pickup trucks, colorful banners honoring veterans on every median, and the curious absence of the telltale Nuer facial scars (6 parallel lines), which demographic transcripts suggest should adorn the foreheads of about 30% of the men in the city. But these men were not in hiding, exile, or a fiction. Instead, these Nuer men resided in UN protected sites on the borders of the city with their children and families, surviving only through the efforts of the international community. The few that remained out and about did so at their own risk or were insulated by their high posts in corporate or political interests friendly to the government, as evidenced by the 200 Toyota Landcruisers parked outside my compound in attendance for church services at the only remaining Nuer church in Juba—the very same that current rebel leader and former Vice President Dr. Riek Machar attended.
Juba is a city that oozes wealth in every crack and crevice but it is also a city whose wealth flows through its streets like a sieve. The only cars that populate the road are those heavy duty SUVs of NGOs marked boldly on their doors and hoods, those of government figures that carry the more discrete “GOSS” mark on their tags, those of the military painted in jungle camo and always filled with young, bereted, Kalashnikov wielding soldiers, and those of private interests only identifiable because they don’t bear any telling signs. Even the most simple and outdated of Toyota Landcruisers, the top choice of most cash-strapped NGOs, will run about $50,000 in this country with no private industry and no developed overland infrastructure outside its capital. All other vehicles on the road are Chinese motorcycles with flatbeds and three wheels, Indian style auto-rickshaws, and cheap Asian-made motorcycles, all of which may act as either passenger or cargo vehicles depending on their driver.
The houses of this city are the same found in most underdeveloped countries. The poor live in sheds of bundled sticks more often than not draped in white tarpaulins bearing the UNHCR logo. Those a little better off can afford walls of corrugated tin or flat woven sticks the width of two fingers, both of which can be bought at some of main market centers in the city. The rest of the homes are concrete or brick structures that are guarded by ten foot tall walls topped with barbed wire and lackadaisical uniformed private guards. These are usually the residences of the same people that own the SUVs mentioned above.
And despite the apocalyptic news reports coming out of the city about an economic crisis, life goes on. For a population that’s lived through 50 years of civil war, hundreds of years of occupation, and only malady after malady after their hard-fought independence in 2011, this is but another drop in the bucket of South Sudan’s issues. The only evidence one sees in the bustling city of a South Sudanese Pound losing value daily are the inflated prices of imports, i.e. just about everything in the city, and the empty mid-tier restaurants and hotels, the sort of which I have taken up residence. But despite a currency that most other nations and investors won’t touch for fear of its volatility, the central bank still trades at 1 USD for 3 SSP. But only in that direction. One of the key events that triggered the current economic crisis was the federal reserve running out of money and the ensuing scramble to pick up US dollars, seen as a more stable investment. USD is in such high demand that on the street corner you can get 12 SSP for your dollar.
There are a number of remedies that, on paper, seem obvious to bring South Sudan up to par with the rest of world. The most often put forward solution is a diversified industry. Seems simple right? Just pump more government funds towards local industry, lower regulations, decrease taxes: Republican ideology 101. But when about 80% of your budget is dedicated to supplying an army with weapons and uniforms, it’s a little difficult to spur economic growth in the civil sector, especially when you have one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. It’s even harder to promote local industry when the Chinese can provide any good at any price and when the Ugandans have intervened militarily to protect their export industry. The cards are undoubtedly stacked against South Sudan. But what it does have, at least in Juba, is a culture that’s truly inviting and all encompassing. Despite a common enemy of the jallaba Arab for half a century, Muslims are welcomed in the city and wealthy neighborhoods are unflinchingly named after the Arab occupier. There is no hostility to most outsiders (other than journalists) and there is an incredible sense or propriety for a country that took millions of lives to come to fruition. Even though the current political state of South Sudan may be forsaken, the people of South Sudan will never accept it as their fate and they will fight until they see a country they deserve.”
(Title image via).