Easter in Uganda is a four day holiday and Kampala quickly purges itself of expats who head in various directions for the long weekend. Matt Lowes and I decided on north. Juba is the capital of the soon to be independent country of South Sudan. Neither of us knew/know much about South Sudan so we emailed a couple folks who have recently worked there. Here’s a taste of their responses:
“You’re probably looking at a near 24 hour journey by bus.”
“In any case, do not walk at night! The odds you’ll get mugged while walking at night are near 100%.”
“There is nothing to see. [My other friend] risks his life climbing around on the Jebel [nearby mountain] because he is so bored..”
“You should drink beer by the Nile. Visiting Rejaf is fun too. And don’t forget to sweat. Lots.”
With that we were sold. Wednesday we visited the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) office in Kampala and were very impressed by how simply and efficiently they processed visas. Thursday afternoon we purchased bus tickets from a rickety picnic table under a umbrella in the bus park and promised to return that night for a 10pm departure. By 7am, after eight glorious hours of rocking out to blaring Ugandan hip-hop (yep, all night long), we reached the border, stood in some lines, ate an overpriced rolex, drank some tea, and tried to take in what seemed like dozens of languages being spoken all around us. We finally made it to Juba by around 2pm and I distinctly remember saying to Matt, “Hey, lets go find an ATM, grab some water, and then head to the hotel to rest for a bit.” Fateful words. We took bodas across town to one ATM, and then the next, and then the third and final ATM in Juba, no luck. Plus, it was Good Friday and so everyone assured us, oh, don’t worry, the banks will reopen on Tuesday… Finally we headed back to the hotel with no Sudanese Pounds and some thinking to do. We decided it was as simple as calling our parents (yeah, that’s our first response) to have them call the banks and to enable our ATM cards to work in Sudan. The reply from my mother was priceless and at least a little bit surprising: “You clearly didn’t do your research before going to Juba! American ATM cards do not work in Sudan, period.” Whoops. Unfortunately that wasn’t a piece of advice shared by any of our informal trip advisers/detractors.
We took stock of our supply of Ugandan Shillings and calculated that we could now afford only a two night stay, instead of three, and probably no souvenirs (not that any were readily available). That settled, we crashed in our cramped, overpriced, air-conditioned, pre-fabricated room at the Sunflower Inn for a few solid hours. We reemerged in the evening and headed to Juba Town to wander around and get some dinner. Mzungus on foot is apparently a pretty rare sight because people frequently asked us what we were looking for or if they could help us. All in all nearly everyone we bumped into was very friendly and ready to give some guidance to two wanderers. The food was great – fool, a flatbread called Kisra that is essentially a thinner version of the Ethiopian injera, lentils, and beef in sauce. Every restaurant, no matter how small, had an array of fans which were much appreciated even at 8pm. At this point we had fed ourselves and were content with this small victory and called it quits for the day.
Saturday we walked across town to see what we could see. Highlights include an exchange with a woman at the market:
How much is that pineapple?
Seven Pounds [$3].
Yes, it comes from Kampala.
Oh, we came from Kampala just yesterday.
Where are you from?
We met more Ugandans, Kenyans and Somalis than we did Sudanese. Boda drivers, restaurant owners, women in the market, transporters – everyone sees South Sudan as the best place to make money now. No one we spoke with plans to stay for too long but everyone insists that if you have some capital or business connections, now is the time to work in Juba. They also discussed that the Sudanese are none too pleased with this arrangement but in reality these foreign arbitrageurs are needed because they are the only people with enough capital to start businesses and engage in international trade. On a more tender note, multiple very articulate foreigners raised the issue that thirty years of war, a generation of war, has bred a culture that they, as outsiders, find difficult to understand. One exasperated restaurateur, a Somali who grew up in the Netherlands and worked in hotels in the UK before coming to Juba to open his own shop, seemed resigned when he said “for them, what’s right is wrong and what’s wrong is right.” It’s impossible to pass judgment on these sorts of attitudes during such a brief visit but it was an interesting sentiment.
Just as we were warned, Juba is a sprawling hot dusty city with wide roads – some paved, some in progress – positioned in the first stage of a massive construction boom. Interesting sights include: many empty small plots of land with thatched fences being constructed to demarcate boundaries; a recently constructed and very clean market area at the foot of Jebel mountain with large stores on solid concrete slabs; a slew of UN and GOSS ministries along the main paved road leading towards Juba Town; some really great grilled chicken restaurants; the requisite third-world-capital Chinese restaurant; and finally, a sign of the growing pains of development, two large plots of land adjacent to the current Juba University, scattered with the razed remains of hundreds if not thousands of temporary homes. The government has recently moved to reclaim the land to rebuild the university and, as one boda driver put it, life for the former inhabitants “it is very hard these days.”
Sunday morning we hitched a ride to the bus park in the back of some NGO truck for our 6am bus headed south. We saw the sun rise over the Nile as we headed out of town and made it back across the border with about $15 in our pockets. All in all it was a fascinating if brief experience. Matt’s Arabic was a big hit but you can certainly get by in English. Wiki-travel should update their page with a large bold warning regarding money access, but I imagine / hope that will change soon. As I said before I went, I wasn’t expecting to see much but I don’t know when the next time we’ll get a chance to see the birth of a new country and that wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to pass up. And for a souvenir I have a copy of The Citizen, South Sudan’s daily newspaper, from April 23rd, 2011.