Surviving South Sudan

I was a bit nervous boarding the flight to Juba!

South Sudan has had a torrid time of its new independence…, the youngest country in the world, the Christians of South Sudan achieved a hard-won independence from islamic Sudan in July 2011. They managed two years of stability, but there has been an ongoing civil war more or less since then ( between the Dinka and the Nuer).  Famine has been declared , 100,000 people are starving, and a million more people are on the brink of it, and almost five million more are described as food insecure.  1.8 million people have fled to neighbouring countries.  An adolescent girl in South Sudan is now three times more likely to die in childbirth than to complete primary school.  The tragedy is that South Sudan has more than enough resources to go around, but the government is at war with rebels, no-one is growing food as they are too scared, and years of aid don’t seem to be working.   Apparently there is a ceasefire on right now, I will keep my fingers crossed.

$10 urns…. they were enormous

Juba was voted the worlds worst airport earlier this year, apparently it doesn’t even have loos! That’s a first. By all accounts there are few tourist attractions, and photography is apparently banned. The few blogs I had read from other travellers were not that encouraging. I had thought about heading out of town, but that isn’t advisable either. Oh well, with the help of my trusty Facebook group of other nutters trying to visit the whole world, I had at least booked a reputable hotel and found a fixer to take me around while I was there.

The president’s cathedral

I was heartened by the presence of a few gringos on the flight, even two women who were in their 20s. Aid workers I would guess. I managed to get to the immigration shipping container booth in the tent (yes the terminal is a tent and a shipping container attached and a dirt floor) pretty early but they took their time processing me as the poor men couldn’t understand why I was here as a tourist.

View from the hotel – the local soccer field

After immigration, I waited in the sun for a while, chatting to a nice British woman who lives in Kampala and runs a charity that does work in Juba, and my driver didn’t show up but hers did. When she heard that I was contemplating walking to my hotel if my driver didn’t show, she demonstrated the kind of sisterhood I have gratefully become accustomed to when travelling, and promptly took me with her and dropped me at the hotel.

I eventually got some WiFi and my driver came found me, and off we went on a tour of Juba. Bad news first, it is basically impossible to take photos in Juba. Tourists aren’t allowed to without an exorbitantly expensive permit, and if you try the security guys, police, and endless military on the street will give you real trouble. (Note there are fewer photos than usual as I only took them when Peter said I could.)

hippos made in uganda, sold by Ugandan women in the handicraft market

I guess the good news is that you aren’t really missing anything by not having photos. Juba is basically a random collection of shipping containers, corrugated iron and barbed wire, thrown together without much care, with some rubbish strewn around it, on top of gritty sand. There are a few nice old buildings and some modern monstrosities but these aren’t hugely redeeming

Rajaf Cathedral

We drove around town, checking out some handicraft stalls, the mosque, and the stadium. Then we parked up and went wandering around Konyo market, which was the usual wonderful African cacophony of blaring music and shouting vendors, with smoked fish, rotting tomatoes and flies. I checked out the fixed wheel Chinese bikes, at the bike market, and the vendor was surprised when I told him in Burundi these were used as taxis, as they couldn’t afford moto taxis (yes there are poorer countries than South Sudan). There were some amazing hand hewn beds, and also some African urns for $10 (one of the few photos I took, but they promptly asked for money after they let me take it). The difference in this market though, relative to the rest of Africa, was that very few people smiled back when I smiled at them. Peter my Ugandan guide did say that he thought the south Sudanese were pretty grumpy and rude compared to his countrymen.  When you put it in the context of whats going on in the country, it isn’t a surprise that people here aren’t too happy.

Abandoned cathedral near Rajaf

As he drove me round town, Peter pointed out the crazy crazy tall Dinka people with scars on their faces (self inflicted – I guess it’s a form of tattooing). I am not sure I have seen taller or skinnier people, these guys thighs were the size of my wrist. Apparently the taller you are as a woman, the more cows you command as a bride price. Sadly I was informed I wouldn’t get more than 40, but a proper tall Dinka woman would command 100 cows.

Endless plains of bush near Juba

A bit more driving and we saw St joseph’s church, the central cathedral and another mosque. Then we took a spin around the posh leafy suburbs with ministries that were built in 2013, and admired the bullet holes on the president’s palace wall.  We headed out of town to look at the mountains. We contemplated walking up but the first man we met demanded cigarettes before we could proceed.  Sigh!.

We went to see the memorial to John Garang, probably the most influential man in South Sudan’s history.  He led the Sudan peoples liberation army Plane crash, and was the first southerner and christian to take a position of power in the government of Sudan – as Vice President in 2005 – after signing a peace agreement which guaranteed power sharing, and secured autonomy for South Sudan.  He died three weeks after he was sworn in as in a helicopter accident.  The largely extreme muslims of the ruling party were blamed.  I love what his widow Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior said, promising to continue his work stating: In our culture we say “if you kill the lion, you see what the lioness will do”After more meandering around town, we retired back to the hotel.  No-one goes out after dark in Juba.

Bridge across the Nile on the top left

I had a fantastic Shish taouk and hummus for dinner (the advantage of the Syrian and Lebanese diaspora it seems is the ability to eat good Arabic food everywhere), and the hotel manager came to say hi as he had helped with my visa invitation. Our conversation was another stark reminder of how lucky I am. Robert had a Syrian passport, is from a Christian family and is adamant he never wants to be a refugee as it is too difficult to work. So instead he goes and works in the few places where Syrians can get visas (he was in Lagos before Juba). It’s a helpful reminder to myself to be damn grateful for where I was born and the choices that come with that.

The next morning I had hummus, pita, Labneh and eggs, and a gossip with the receptionist who knows a few of the people off my nutters Facebook group of global travellers, tourists are rare here so she remembers them all.

Then I headed off with Peter to check out the sights on the exterior of Juba. We crossed the Nile on a wonderful old rickety bridge and drive for a few hours checking out the small villages along the Nile. We went to Rajaf market to see the Dinka’s long horned cows who were quite amazing. It was a slightly friendlier market than in town. You have to love commerce in Africa – my favourite stalls were the mobile charging stations, were they have a small generator and for 10cents will fully charge up your phone. While there are power lines running to the village, they apparently have never had power running through them. There was a rickety billiards table with some feisty betting going on (a punch was thrown at one point), and endless men and women frying chapattis and patties which looked delicious.

We drove further and saw the huge Rajaf cathedral, it could seat several hundred and it is in a village of perhaps fifty. Further up the road was it’s predecessor which has been abandoned. Whichever direction I looked it was just dry hot ground. Women and men wandered slowly up the dusty road en route to the market, it’s 40 degrees so no one moves anywhere fast. Dotted along the road are numerous military bases and abandoned aid ventures. We passed two trucks filled with soldiers and enormous guns, that always makes me worry. I don’t ever trust the police or the military in Africa (or anyone with a gun frankly), but they drove on after giving us a look over.


We eventually headed back to the dust of Juba, checking out the view of the bridge from the Da Vinci hotel, and Peter told me I could take a surreptitious photo. We then headed down to the afex river camp, where for $300, you can stay on a grubby motel unit. This is what happens when aid agencies and the UN take over a town, the prices go crazy. The restaurant though is very good, and has a lovely view over the river (although no photos allowed). The pork chops were sensational accompanied with some frozen broccoli, watching the half the town swim, bathe and do their laundry in the river below. Some more enterprising kids had made a raft out of a sack of empty water bottles and were floating along using a couple of squashed bottles as paddles.

more horns

After a leisurely lunch we seemed to be driving aimlessly around taking a highly circuitous route to the airport, I was getting a bit suspicious and then Peter started smiling. We had found a big herd of cows with huge long horns. I had admired the cows horns earlier in the day at the market and Peter had laughed and said they weren’t long horns, so he went and found me some. We chatted to the farmer who asked us to go and buy a watering can with him, and took some more sneaky photos (at peters suggestion – to be very clear I was never going to get him in trouble)

Got to the airport. Departures was slightly nicer than arrivals. Imagine two big wedding marquees which are filthy with dust and some rickety desks, atop a platform of warped and pitted plywood. There was a toilet (the economist article lied), and you could smell it from 100m away. After 40 minutes of queuing to process the 8 people in front of me I made it to the ‘lounge’ tent and sweated profusely for another 35 minutes until the flight boarded.

I had an entertaining time, but won’t be rushing back. I think it will take a while for tourism to develop here. My fingers are crossed for the south Sudanese, as would be great to see the worlds youngest country prosper!


Stayed at the crown hotel – which was terrific value for money relative to what else I saw in town

Definitely eat at Afex, it was breezy and lovely

Organised peter the driver through Vickie at atlas tours (email, or contact Peter direct on +256700128899

Juba February 12, 2018

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