South Sudan, Letter 4, Flying Out of Juba.

April 20, 2012

Nairobi, Kenya

Dear Friends,

Suzi and I were upgraded to a suite at the Fairview in Nairobi, which is a good thing because every possible surface on which I could lay out clothes is full and any hook like object has clothes hanging from it.  Everything I have is soaked, but that’s the end of the story of today’s travels.

On Thursday the Germans working on building a brewery (one of those “peace dividends” after years of “dry” Islamic rule in South Sudan) were ordered out – now.  So they left.  Then we learned that Ethiopian Airlines had decided to drop flights to Juba.  War jitters. On our way to the airport Jon said “I probably shouldn’t mention this, but the guy who runs the Yei Road Camp (where Jon is staying) said the airport had been closed.”  The airport was open with only two extra checkpoints on the route, both of which waved us through.

P1190054Someone should write an instruction manual for the Juba airport.  It operates differently from any airport I have experienced.  Juba International would be a good training ground for Rugby Union because during much of the experience I seemed to be carried along in a scrum of passengers.  Jon told me I had to readjust my attitude. I am just too polite.  To get out of Juba I need to forget polite and adapt the attitude of an NFL linebacker.  Here is how it works.

Before we get to the front door we put our luggage through an x-ray machine.  Then we try to schlep our bags, through a sea of people, to a scale where someone grabs your bag, weighs it, and writes the weight on your ticket.  You leave your bag near the scales, where someone lines them up, and you head for the Kenyan Airline counter.  There is no line, just a crush of people waving tickets and passports. If you are lucky someone grabs them and starts processing your boarding pass.  Once shed of baggage I actually was pretty good at plowing through the masses.  At the counter one man checks the reservation on a laptop and passes your documents to a woman, who hand writes the boarding pass, assigning you a seat, and the baggage tags.  I can’t get close enough to her to request a window or isle, getting on is good enough.  She finishes her work and waves the passport, boarding pass and baggage tags. Someone grabs them and passes them back to me.  Then I have to fight my way back through the press against the counter to find my bags lined up near the scale.   I point my two out to the weigh in guy, hand him the baggage tags and he wades into the bags and tags them.  You have to take care that he puts the tags on the right bags.  Then you leave them, right in the middle of the terminal floor, and hope they make it onto the plane..

Now it’s through immigration and passenger screening.   The x ray machine is broken, as is the metal detector.  So with a cursory look at your carry on and a brief frisk, you’re in the departure lounge. There are, of course, not enough seats, but having a white beard and gray hair someone offers me his seat. When was the last time that happened at SeaTac?  Every so often someone comes out and hollers, “Uganda Air,” or “UN flight to Loki,” and the room empties a bit. Our plane is supposed to be next but is not.  It arrives an hour and a quarter late.  A woman yells “Kenya Air, Nairobi,” but beckons us to a table about a third of the way back from door. She and her colleague will do another bag inspection.  This one is a little more thorough.  (I had to remove my camera battery for scrutiny) but is still hit and miss.   After we pass her table we’re pushed into a part of the waiting cordoned off by chairs. She keeps pushing more of us into that area until we are packed.  She moves the table back 5 feet, giving us a little more space, and herds more people into our pen, where we waited 45 minutes as a tremendous thunderstorm hit the airport.  When the rain slacked we slogged to the plane.  My bags must have been moved to the Tarmac before the rains came, which is why my hotel suite is lined with wet clothing.

The flight from Nairobi to Juba and back is spectacular.  On the way to Juba I got great views of Mt. Kenya.  The flight back started with views of the Nile and then the Great Rift Valley with its escarpments browns and greens with the shadows of puffy white clouds mottling the scene.

Eye Radio1South Sudan is very good at fighting wars but not yet so good yet at running things, like airports.  But South Sudanese can be pretty good at running radio stations.  SRS-FM’s station manager is a remarkable man who was recruited as a child soldier at the age of 9, saw combat in his teens, and then managed to get his secondary diploma, university degree and an MBA. He is younger than either of my kids.  Working with him is one of those experiences where you learn more than you teach. He is coping with moving from the military command style of management (he rose to the rank of Captain) to trying to apply what he learned in business school. He has very good instincts and is a pleasure to work with.

As I’m writing this we’re having an evening thunder storm in Nairobi, not good for getting things dry, but listening to and watching this storm is a pleasure.  The thunder sometimes sets off car alarms.  In Juba the storms are more violent because of high winds.  I felt like my metal cabin was going to blow over, the whole place shook, the rain was torrential and magnificent. Just as I left Juba the grass was coming through the brown earth.  The road from the Jebel to the station is deeply eroded in parts, fast moving water forming gullies which mandate the high clearance 4WD Land Cruisers the project uses.

Radio Station (2)The newsroom is “action central.” One day this week we had a long discussion of what to call Heglig, which is the Arabic name for the oil field that the south captured (and according to the BBC just withdrew from.)  Its Dinka name is Panthau, which is what the South Sudanese government would like us to call it.  But there are other tribes than Dinka that have their own names for the place.  We spent a lot of time trying to decide how to handle this and decided to go with what the most people could recognize, Heglig.  There were a lot of strong feelings.

Newsroom brainstorming brought up other issues as well.  For instance, South Sudan is a new state with no air traffic control. That is still handled from Khartoum in the North.  What happens if the Northerners just stop air traffic control? We also talked about persistent rumors that the North has been flying its Antonov cargo planes (converted to bombers) over Juba every morning.  Neither side will say anything and the planes fly high enough that it is hard to determine if anyone who has “seen” them actually knows what they are talking about.  While rumors persist, there is no story there.

Refugee Center (3)The station is located near the UNHCR refugee processing center.  I drive by twice a day seeing the powder blue UN flag in a compound ringed by concertinas of razor wire on which the refugees, some living in huts made of white UN plastic branded by the same powder blue logo, have hung their laundry.

Refugee Center (2)SRS-FM is like a radio station in the 50s.  There are programs rather than programming in this land where radio is king because of a 70% illiteracy rate and the lack electricity for TV.  In many ways it reminds me of old time educational radio in the US.  It even broadcasts about four and a half hours a day of English lessons instruction, which includes a lot of math, weights and measures, nutritional and health information worked into the programs. The “Learning Village” is broadcast for schoolroom use, where teachers, sometimes in thatched schools, have the radio on to go over lessons with kids.  In the afternoon we have beginning English for adults where people gather to listen and a facilitator works with them.  Then later in the evening there is intermediate and advanced English run for people at home, without a facilitator.  In a country with a shortage of teachers these programs are vital although it reminds me of KUOM at the University of Minnesota in the 60s with its Minnesota School of the Air.  Instruction is mixed with very good news coverage, features, and long form programs on women’s issues (one program called on women to demand that their fiancés pay a lower bride price in cows than their clans would wish.  The high bride price means that men cannot afford to marry so these men often go on cattle raids to meet the price, leading to feuds.  No more 500 cow girls, please.) There are also programs on children, health, parliament, government and youth all punctuated by a wonderful mix of African music, which, according to their definition, includes some reggae, hip-hop and soul.  Kinshasa dance music (Congo music, as they call it) is particularly popular.

Refugee Center (1)When I left I was presented with some local music, including the national anthem, written by the Music Director, who is also a former colonel in the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army.)  He seems too young to be a colonel. I’ve met several very young vets.  It’s spooky to meet 30 year olds with 20 years military experience.

Given the rain that has become so plentiful it is hard to imagine the dry, parched land I came to a month ago. People are still getting their water from the tank trucks.  This week the government announced that it will crack down on those trucks taking water directly from the Nile.  I saw one truck this week with a sign along the side of the tank that said, “Water, the gift of life, a gift from God.”

Take Care,

Rich McClear

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