25 January 2013

Sudan: Jubilant Juba

Juba — Here is a bird's eye view of Africa's newest capital and its jolly citizens.

Tall dark men. Taller dark women. Their equally long and endless shadows. You cannot ignore the towering figures when you get to Juba, and even on the flight from Addis Ababa, you begin to notice the South Sudanese. They rise to 6 feet 7, 6 feet 8, 7 feet 2 and are even taller. In the evenings the men sit around drinking Tea, and are quick to smile, dwarfing the seats within which they have placed their frames. It's a miracle that the well built tall man can get into the seat, I tell my friends. We laugh impressed with the country. The seated men exchange the latest news in town. The height of a people can be an aspect of a country's tourism, I am sometimes tempted to think, especially when it is adorned in traditional attire. Juba confirms this. We arrived the airport at Juba on a sunny afternoon. Everyone seems to be smiling, even though the queue is long, the weather is hot, and we have to wait a bit before it reaches our turn. When I mistakenly knock down the equipment for taking our photographs at the counter, the dark complexioned immigration official smiles at me. I smile back at him.I try not to outsmile him. I spent a while rejecting hotels as I went round with William Ganiko whom I had met during an earlier visit to China last year. He was very helpful during my stay in Juba. Finally, I pay for a room at a hotel which is just ten minutes walk to the University of Juba. I later discovered that the hotel is owned by Eritreans, who seem to be very prominent in the Juba business circuit. Some of the guests in the hotel were Sudanese who import food into South Sudan from Uganda, with which South Sudan shares a border.

The country imports most of its food from East Africa. Once a day the hotel rooms are cleaned, and I liked my first floor room which allowed me a view of a little part of Juba. Sometimes, at night I would stand on the balcony and just take in the sights. Bread and soups are the common fare in the capital, as well as rice which is eaten with soup or stews. Pounded Yam wasn't easy to come by. I heard of a Nigerian restaurant which I couldn't find. My contacts said the restaurant would have pounded yam if I could find it. Later, I saw great wisdom in the choice of hotel, because Dr William Hai Zaza, who became a very reliable contact and guide, lectures at the University. So, I could hurry to him at short notice. He too, could reach me at the drop of a hat. We always ended up laughing whenever we met. Interviewing him was a delight, for he kept on giving me headlines as we moved from one topic to the next. Sometimes, we had lunch together. The University Staff Club always had good meals, and so I learnt to go there myself. Juba is a young growing city, which is still quite small. People are coming to town. These include diplomats, journalists, businessmen, scholars, adventurers, all sorts.

A lot of construction work is going on, and I am shown the spot where Juba's Sheraton is under construction. There are many cars here, and the traffic wardens are a great help. They are both male and female. Commercial motorcycles are many, and they help the visitor to get around.It wasn't funny one morning when we were almost run over by one of the many big jeeps in town.We had to park by the roadside, and recover from the shock before heading to one of the many ministries in the city. One day I was headed for the Ministry of Information. The commercial motor cyclist instead took me to parliament. I didn't see any boards outside so I never knew we were in the wrong place. I sat in the waiting room,and suddenly I had a suspicion that I was in the wrong location .The security presence indicated that I was at the wrong place. I asked questions, and realised that we had made a mistake. So; off I went to find the ministry, chuckling to myself as I walked down the road.

At one of the popular roundabouts in Juba, very close to Jebel market are a long line of Umbrellas .Beneath these are many men who are engaged in exchanging dollars for the South Sudanese Pound, or vice versa. A Dollar note printed before 2006, earns you a lower amount of South Sudanese pounds.But if you produce notes printed from 2007 onwards, you get immediate value for your money. I learnt this the hard way .Visitors to Juba should take note. Next time I am travelling, I will look for Dollars printed from 2007 onwards. But the roundabout, with its sea of umbrellas is still a colourful memory. It's a place so difficult to forget, not just because of the money changers, but also because of the great human throng there. Later I went to the tomb of John Garang, a hero to the people of South Sudan, one who is synonymous with their struggle for sovereignty.

My first attempt failed, because I didn't have the necessary document from the ministry of information which allowed me to work in the country for the period of my visit. When I finally got the document and returned to the tomb, I was told that I ought to have come with a photocopy of the document for their records. We all burst out laughing, for the soldiers now recognised that I had been there a few days earlier. I then asked them to allow me to look at the monument, and after which could one of the soldiers escort me to a nearby plaza where I could make a copy? They agreed. The tomb is well kept, and it seems to be part of a stadium. There are nice flowers all around the tomb making it look somewhat inviting to the visitor. I had the impression that it is well looked after, and that the flowers are watered every day. Pagan Amum, Secretary-General of the SPLM and Envoy of the country's President says of John Garang. 'He was the founding father and visionary leader of the SPLM. He rose to provide leadership at the most difficult moment of our history. He built an army out of poor, ill equipped, ill prepared peasants and elements from the marginalised people of South Sudan, into a force that was to be reckoned with." I also visited the University of Juba with the help of Dr Hai Zaza.

The buildings there are made of stone, and this lends some uniqueness to the campus. When you enter you come across a tall, slightly exaggerated statue of an Undergraduate in a small roundabout. Nobody can doubt that these people are tall. There is a University Tower, as well as many dormitories, all constructed with stone, which seems to be in abundance in the locality. Of course, there are the many lecture halls. One day I was by the airport doing an interview in one of the hotels in the neighbourhood. The hotel lay along the path of departing planes, and so the interview was interrupted many times. The planes came down so low. I wondered how people were able to sleep with all that sound. I looked around as the planes passed, but the guests looked like a merry lot. I guess they are used to it. One afternoon, I came across a man on a bicycle.He was doing something unusual.He was seated facing the back wheel of the bicycle, rather than facing the front section.

He had reinvented or recreated the bicycle to perform a new function. Instead of aiding him to get round the city, it was now made to file knives and matchets. So, whenever he put his feet on the pedals, the bicycle would sharpen the knife, and because it was fixed to the ground, it would not move from its spot, but would file the knives till they became very sharp. He did all this with a smile of victory, and he was in a sort of jubilant mode. The whole activity reminded me so powerfully of the country: bold, young, inventive, aware of its talents, eager to make a mark on the global stage.

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