I had no idea what to expect, and have been surprised for better and for worse. In many ways, Juba embodies the stereotypical perceptions of Africa. Many of the streets are battered and unpaved with piles of burning trash defacing the overall landscape. The days are shrouded in oppressive heat, leaving me exhausted despite minimal exertions. Men in camouflage uniforms move through town in open-back military lorries, clutching AK-47 rifles. Red dust hangs in the air at all times, often coloring the water in the bottom of a shower. I’m usually much dirtier than I think.
Perhaps naïvely, I am surprised by the hard exterior of people here. While I frequently dislike capitol cities for their hardened collective personality, I have yet to encounter one quite like this. I’ve seen little of the overt friendliness that commonly defined my previous experiences in Africa, even in war-torn regions. Facial expressions here are commonly tense; furrowed brows & taught lips. Crime, corruption and violence are pervasive and impact the atmosphere in a palpable way.
I attribute Juba’s coarseness to several basic factors. The war in this region lasted twenty-two years and cost more than two million lives. An additional four million people became displaced, both internally and externally. The brutality and length of the conflict took a ravenous toll on survivors, many of who demonstrate signs of untreated psychological trauma. Additionally, the presence of so many foreigners, both white and non-white, creates tension between Sudanese and those perceived to be encroaching on their authority and sources of income. It seems that among Sudanese, foreigners are sometimes viewed as the beneficiaries of suffering. Finally, in order to make way for “development,” many of Juba’s most impoverished residents have been forcibly relocated to shanties on the outskirts of town. Now, further from work, they must ride overpriced buses, which eats into already meager wages.
All that said, some aspects of Juba that are a pleasant surprise. Many of the main roads leading into and through the central areas of town are newly paved. This is a stark difference from many hubs in the region, including Gulu, in northern Uganda, which has only two or three paved roads. Despite highly inflated prices, many things are available here, including cheese, ground beef, canned tuna and an impressive array of personal hygiene products. It’s typical, however, to pay double the price in the US or Europe. One can of tuna, a tube of Pringles and a pack of eight chicken sausages cost nearly $20. There are restaurants in town that charge $15 for a hamburger.
I move slowly and with caution. I’ve been repeatedly warned against taking indiscriminant photos. “Our people can be very wild,” the Director of Information explains on my fourth attempt to collect a press pass. “You must first obtain permission for any photos you wish to take.” One of his subordinates later tells me that security personnel sometimes detain and beat journalists who disregard this. “If you cross them, they can treat you very harshly,” he says. “By the time we become involved, it is sometimes too late,” he says.
At a recent BBQ gathering, BBC news reporter Will Ross confirms the challenges of working in this region. On a trip to Malakal, northeast of Juba, Ross and two colleagues were detained for the better part of a day. “A guy in plain clothes approached us and asked us to get into a car,” Will says. “When you live in Nairobi, you quickly learn not to go anywhere with people who won’t identify themselves. So I said no.” Ross later learned that the man is in fact the local head of security. He recounts a harrowing day of interrogation & intimidation at the hands of revolving officers. While the team ultimately left unharmed and with all of their gear, it sounds like a very unpleasant experience.
I feel great about my first few weeks in Sudan. I have gained a basic sense of my surroundings, shaken hands with several local officials and laid basic groundwork for an upcoming story. It’s a challenging environment and I therefore feel satisfied with these basic accomplishments.
On Thursday, Jehan and I leave Juba for Kuwait where we will spend one week visiting her parents. The calm environment there will provide an opportunity to unwind and reflect about this new location and the best way to proceed upon return.