Juba Letter 1, First Impressions

April 1, 2012

Juba, South Sudan

Dear Friends.

At the bar Saturday night (anti-malarial gin and tonics or Stony Ginger Beer) an American raised as a missionary son now working for a USAID funded fish farming project building ponds along both the Nile and Congo said, “Welcome to Africa.  Kenya and Uganda are just ‘Africa lite.’ This is the ‘real’ Africa.  You’re not in Nairobi anymore.”

I’m staying at the Jebel Lodge, a fenced compound of metal pre-fab buildings.  I have my own cabin near the fence on the far side of the compound from Rock City, which is a good thing because the Rock City disco is loud and rocks long into the night.  The cabin is comfortable with a queen bed, desk, two chairs, fridge, TV, shower and AC.  A lady comes every morning for my laundry.  The Jebel has a host of hard-core aid contractors who can tell stories that make mine look pale, although, so far, I have been able to hold my own.  I love good storytelling sessions and odd conversations.  For instance, at the bar one night an old Africa hand expressed appreciation of Somali pirates for clearing the coast of trawlers.

Arrival at Juba airport is an experience that I will add to my story repertory.  The runway is close to the Nile so the airport is hot and humid.  Several planes land near the same time.  There are no lines, just a mass of arriving travelers and baggage in one cramped “holding pen.”  You hold your ground until you get the lay of the terminal and then work your way toward the immigration window.  Fortunately I had a visa so I didn’t have to push my way to two windows.  After I got my passport stamped I worked my way back toward the center of the full room, a sweating salmon swimming upstream against a pack of passengers heading toward the windows waiving passports.  When the baggage came the handlers pushed me back toward the immigration windows and pushed the bags onto the floor terminal where I had been standing.  When my bag comes I take it to the counter for inspection.  I had been chatting up one of the customs guys while waiting for my bag, Alaska is always a good opener (yes he asked about Sarah), so when my bag came I plunked it down in front of him and he chalked OK on the bag after a cursory search.  A little flirting seems to help some women move along.  Some arrivals got a good going over.  After the inspection I worked my way through the same crowd, passengers still trying to reach their bags, to get outside.  It would help if there were some circulation in the movement, but there isn’t, people at the end of each stage of the process have to work their ways back across ground they already covered several times.  I was completely soaked by the end of the process, and it wasn’t raining.

I arrived at the very end of the dry season.  The earth is mostly brown and dusty with a number of small trees.  The last few days have presented some clouds, a little thunder, strong winds, and a touch of rain.  Colleagues tell me in a couple of weeks, after the rains start, I will not recognize the place, which will become lush green.  This Sunday morning it was cloudy and cool enough for me to take a walk outside the compound.  I did not bring a camera because everyone has told me that people are nervous about having pictures taken and don’t take well to cameras.   I did rounds with reporters on Thursday, one story we covered was the polio vaccination campaign sponsored by Rotary.  The vaccinators all wear distinctive yellow vests.   The station driver tells me only to take pictures when the Land Cruiser is rolling, which, given the bone jarring roads, means it’s hard to frame a picture, let alone get it in focus.  But I understand and respect the restriction.

During my walk I was followed by a troupe of little kids, very neat and clean, the girls in frilly dresses, using their English.  A woman called hello to me from her porch and showed me the needlepoint she is working on.  I can talk with local people in villages because many speak English along with their tribal language (more speak simple Arabic.)

The roadside is trashed, with remains of plastic bottles and other rubbish.  However people keep the area around their homes clean.  On the way to work I’ve watched kids out sweeping the packed dirt around their tukuls (round thatched huts).  Stately women with impressive posture balance loads on their heads.  Their long colorful skirts sway with their walk, giving a very sensual impression.  The cleanliness of everyone in the middle of the dust and trash is impressive since I can’t be out for more than 10 minutes without having sweat-stained shirts and caked dust on my perspiring face.  And I have all the water I need, unlike Rock City residents.

This section of Juba has no piped water or electricity (there is good 3G cell phone and fair internet service.)  Water comes in trucks.  Stacks of yellow water containers sit near most homes.  Water is very expensive by local standards.  Trucks take Nile water around the neighborhoods.  The government required that all water truck drivers be South Sudanese.  Since many of the drivers were from Uganda, they took their trucks home.  The government also required trucks to get clean water from Juba’s water purification plant.  A long line of trucks at the plant slows delivery.  Some ignore the rules and pump directly from the Nile.  While the idea of providing clean water is a good one, no one knows if trucks coming from the plant had their tanks cleaned well after they carried Nile water.  The Jebel uses trucked water (the radio station has a well with an ultra violet filter.)  Because water is so dear I almost felt guilty taking showers.  The cabin has an “electric shower,” a device at the shower head that heats water.  You always have hot water but the wiring looks dodgy.  I don’t have to use it.  The water is stored in black tanks so it comes from the tap warm enough for a shower, hot enough but not really refreshing.

Rock City makes a living by making gravel.  The Jebel, or hill, behind us provides the rock.  People burn old tires on an exposed rock face, making the rock brittle.  Workers with sledges take out hunks of rock and bring them to Rock City where the whole family breaks it up into different sizes and arranges each size in piles waiting for dump trucks to come by to bargain for each pile.

I spent most of the week at the radio station or at the Jebel, or on the road between, which is about a 45 minute drive that would, on a good road, take 15.  I got into Juba Town proper twice.  Once when I did rounds with reporters and on Saturday when I lectured to about 40 students from Juba University and the broadcasting school run by the Catholic Church.  I got to spend some time over lunch walking downtown.  This week I spent more time learning than teaching.  Perhaps next week I can be useful to the station.

Take Care,

Rich McClear

Many of the pictures in the gallery were taken through the window of a Land Cruiser so you may see some reflected glass.

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