As soon as i saw that wide and long river stretching through sun-parched lands, I knew it’s White Nile and I have almost arrived. I was glued to plane’s window as we were getting nearer and neared to land in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, the newest country in the world. Already in plane just by looking at the city i could tell it is really hot down there. (Does heat have a color?) And, it looked big. Apparently, since 2005 the number of inhabitants of Juba has increased 2-3 times due to separation of Sudan and South Sudan, return of South Sudanese people back from North Sudan, growth of oil business, influx of Chinese aid and labor. Since July 2011 when South Sudan gained independence lots of things have been done in order to set up a new administrative and political system. Both Sudan and South Sudan are also getting closer to final agreement on exploitation of massive oil resources (and sharing revenues, most importantly) and the exact border between both countries. However, one can easily tell – this country has a long and difficult road to walk.
On my arrival to the airport we were sent to the arrival room, which was very small and can not welcome all the travelers unless they forget about their ‘private space’ (just like on tube in London on Monday morning around 8am). In this room each traveler had to go to a desk in one corner to show passport, then to another desk in another corner to open and show content of hand luggage, and then to another corner to get your checked-in bag, which would be just thrown in the room through a ‘window’ from outside the building. All these three ‘checkpoints’ had to be visited in conditions like in tube at 8am in London. Plus, everyone in the same time is trying to visit those ‘checkpoints’ and it’s around +35C outside. The only thing which made me a bit stressed was – not to miss my checked-in bag, but TV with Al Jazeera programme on helped me to kill waiting time. When I happily got my bag, I needed to go again to another desk to open the luggage and show what’s in there. As a sign that it has been checked they draw a circle on the front of my bag with a white chalk. Just near the exit of this room i am asked again to show my passport AND my yellow fever certificate. As i have both these important documents with me, I am finally out of this room.
Juba just like any city in developing countries demonstrates that unbelievable co-habitation of luxury and poverty, modern buildings and bamboo huts. It’s a city of extreme contrasts either you look at architecture, roads, transport, food, accommodation or people.
One example of this surrealism and huge contrast between rich and poor was this Notos lounge (it has even its page on FB!) where i had a dinner one night. From the street the place does not stand out; it fits well into this ‘development in progress’ vibe. Before entering this restaurant nothing would indicate that it could be a special place and not normal to local standard. But as i entered this place, i saw perfect definition of ‘lounge’ with some smooth jazz in the background and cool stylish dark brown furniture mixed with local stylized wooden/ bamboo decorations. This could be easily a place somewhere in central London or any other European capital. Food was delicious and place is a great attraction to expats living in Juba. Only upper class South Sudanese would come here as the prices are maybe fine for Westerners, but certainly not for average Juba inhabitant. I felt quite embarrassed when the driver, who took me back to our compound after the dinner, asked how much i paid for the dinner. That was at least 8-10 times more than he would pay for his meal from a regular street-food seller.
Though country is poor and economy is brand new, prices are just shocking here. Some of the things are even more expensive than in London. Just to give you few examples (I did not have much time (or need really) to do shopping): rent of a studio apartment is about 1500USD per month, rent of a 3-4 bedroom house at least 6000-7000USD per month, glass of wine – 5USD, 1 litre of juice, pack of biscuits and half litre of yogurt – 10USD, a meal in restaurant 10-20USD.
It will be very interesting to see how South Sudan’s economy will develop. So far the main problem has been its almost total reliance on oil revenues preventing other industries to develop, attract investment and grow. For active, brave entrepreneurs though this is the right moment to develop non-oil business as because of history there wont be much competition except import (in supermarkets it was almost impossible to see anything produced in South Sudan), and there are lots of people willing to work (though, skills initially may be an issue). From the other side, these new entrepreneurs – either foreigners or South Sudanese who have been living abroad – can be quick in establishing businesses and using the huge opportunities to get a slice from this country/ nation building process, but it will make a positive impact on country’s development ONLY if it is done in a sustainable manner (adequate prices and profit expectations, use of local human and physical resources as much as possible). If i were a businesswoman i would probably do something about solar energy; with so much sun this country could achieve total energy independence of households by having their own solar panels and producing all the energy they need for their own consumption. They said there are options to get solar panels in Juba but it has not become a popular energy solution so far. Possibly, the price as well as experience, knowledge is the reason.
Because of fragility of this new economy, stability of currency and currency market as such is also a very interesting thing. There are practically no chances to buy South Sudanese pounds abroad (as far as I know). Then, the small arrival room in airport does not offer currency exchange services either. Yet. Then, there are several options: to go to the bank, to the shop with dollars and get change in local currency, or to the black market. The difference is that the exchange rate can vary quite significantly using these three options, but equally a risk to get involved in fake currency exchange case can also be different. I did my currency exchange by shopping in supermarket (mostly products from USA, Egypt, Middle East), by paying in USD and receiving change in local currency.
The other day i talked to one of our drivers who in his childhood with his family ran away from the war-torn Sudan to Uganda as a refugee. I asked him how it was and he replied: “it was great! I got education for free.” Primary education is not for free in South Sudan, therefore for many children it becomes an unachievable dream. It is extremely sad that such a fundamental thing as primary education can be luxury and someone has to become refugee to feel privileged to get this primary education. This driver is certainly doing quite well in Juba, he has a good job and, i believe, he is gaining lots of additional immaterial benefits of this employment, like motivational environment to learn, grow, strive and achieve something in his life. He certainly has hope. I could see that.
Security is one of the biggest issues here. Recently curfew hours have been introduced by UN recommending its staff to avoid public places between 22pm and 6am. Robbery, car-jacking is a normal thing, and as economic situation is very poor, which worsened due to increasing inflation (it is about 40% comparing with 2011) and recent problems around oil extraction, foreigners are particularly an attractive target to get some cash.
In this respect i have to mention also that i was very much looking forward to make photos whilst in Juba, however after telling about this to my colleague, I was given written security reports on recent 4-5 cases when people have been arrested/detained because of making photos in public area. Political instability (a country never can be stable when half the population is hungry, can it?) naturally leads the people in power to increase the control over what’s happening and what can potentially damage their position. I resisted at the beginning but still managed to take some whilst driving around the city.
I’m not a driver but i truly believe that in order to drive in Juba one has to be a really confident driver. I know very well what bad roads mean but this was quite special experience. As I said, there are lots of things to be done in Juba, including – getting some spades and doing something about those extreme pot holes; either evening them out or filling in with something (but not plastic rubbish, please).
Because of high risk of malaria and other diseases, i was taking anti-malarial pills (no weird dreams like last time) and sleeping under the mosquito net. For some reason i find mosquito nets funny, and at times it makes me feel like a bird in cage. So, i find here some slight discomfort with using them, but, because i got one very strange insect in my room which was the sort of a mix of spider and big beetle, and which was peeping non-stop during the night, this mosquito net for me was life-saving, i think. Though, to be honest, after a bit of hide and seek game, i killed him/her, ….which was in a way sad. Because, it just illustrates so well what i hate about humans: that we often fear/harm/ kill someone/something just because we don’t know who they are and without being sure how and if at all they can harm us. Maybe this spider+beetle thing was totally harmless to me, but i chose to kill, just in case… So stupid. But, well, regarding killing insects, i learned in Juba that you should never kill an insect on your skin but blow away first, because its entrails may actually be harmful to one’s skin.
World is small. In another evening whilst having a drink with my colleagues I met this guy Giorgio, from Italy, Sicily who back in 1987 was working in Latvia, in a town of my district (Liepupe) in an environmental project. How surprising! I’m pleased when people say they know where Latvia is (often they dont know 😦 ). But to meet in Juba someone who has been in Latvia and has visited not only Riga, but a town from my area, it is simply out of this world. And then, after having few more drinks, Giorgio came over to me again and said that while he was there he had a romance with a young arts student Anda. They were trying to maintain long distance relationship after he returned to Italy and were sending love letters by post to each other for a year… How romantic the age of no-FB must have been, don’t you agree?
Huhh, but talking about personal relationships whilst in the field, I learn again from personal stories how big and difficult compromises people make when choosing this kind of work. Some leave whole family back at home, but, because they may be the only ones bringing in money and it is more than what they could earn back home, they choose to do this humanitarian work which is rewarding, but also extremely stressful, demanding and lonely. Some don’t have families or partners waiting back home; they meet someone in the field, but as these are often not long-term posts, then they also often split; and then they meet someone else…or dont..
When I come back from a country where people have so little, i feel i probably need much less than i usually would think i need. That ‘ buy buy buy’ mantra i see/ hear/ feel here everywhere and all the time is mind-blowing.
I appreciate more that i have a running water in my house which i can drink and that energy is available whenever i need it not only in certain hours of the day; i don’t live behind fences and i can feel relatively safe.
At times we are afraid of poverty and poor people. Yes, poverty is linked to various social problems including safety, but i think, the greater the inequality, the more difficult it becomes for these two extremes actually to interact, communicate.
And, in conclusion, one last story: when i was waiting for my transit flight from Nairobi to London, I was sitting in the cafe, having a tea and doing some work, and, as you can imagine, at some point i needed to go to the toilet. I had my suitcase, hand luggage including two laptops and camera with me and obviously i could not go with all of that to the toilet. So, there was a man sitting at my table and after giving a bit of an unobtrusive look, i decided to ask him if he would mind looking after my bags whilst i go to the toilet. He said – well, tell me the value of things you got so that i know what price to ask for them. Well, i took it as a joke, smiled and ran to the toilet having my most essential things with me, of course. When i got back, he asked me if i really did all i needed to do, because i was so quick! And then he continued – you did not fully trust in me, did you? You tried to run back as quickly as possible just in case i would decide to run away with your bags? I nodded. I’ m not good at lying. Yes, it is all about trust. And, though there are so many situations in life which teach us not to trust, still, at the end of the day, we need to overcome that fear and trust. Sometimes, if somebody is expected to be not trusted, he or she will be. Trust empowers.