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South Sudan: Changes

by Lee McKenna

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December 17, 2012

South Sudan: Changes

What has changed in a year? As I move about in the Tong Ping neighbourhoods of this town, the capital of this toddler country, three things stand out. The potholes are deeper. The gated, concertina wire-topped walls of the politicos’ compounds are higher and far more numerous. The smouldering heaps of street garbage more pervasive. And they impart a common message. 

Though towering billboards, a year and a half after South Sudan’s secession from the north, continue to urge celebration, that it was worth it, that the ‘blood of 2.5 million martyrs cemented the foundation of this new nation’, it is difficult to find anything to celebrate. The billboards’ assertions only serve to deepen the cognitive dissonance.  Piles of garbage – all of them lit, it would seem, at the same time, around 5:00 in the afternoon – are more than evidence of the lack of a waste management plan:  they are a sign of despair. The plastic water bottle-induced stench that chokes the air also fills it with fine, black streamers that are picked up by the post-rainy season breezes and deposited in one’s hair, dinner or throat. The potholes are filled with the flattened-out remnants of yet more water bottles, along with household and market refuse, picked over by hopeful, if emaciated, cats and dogs alongside entire extended families of ducks or small geese. 

Not far from here, signs on those high walls indicate the presence of ‘Warrior Security’, a burgeoning industry and a bulwark against the grasping reach of this country’s human throw-aways. Juba City’s sprawl seems to have neither rhyme nor reason, with the mud and thatch of tukuls and the bamboo, tin and tarp of the marginalised tucked in amongst the gated compounds. Hotels are springing up like the mushrooms in my ravine garden in the springtime. Posters outside luxury apartment complexes boast of washers and dryers with every unit. 

In a country bereft of all but the most minimal of education systems for much of the last fifty years, with the world’s second lowest literacy rate, and occupied for much of that time with the business of revolt, there is a dearth of people skilled in the trades. 

Unlike last year’s hotel which was thrown up out of materials that felt like something between plasterboard and cardboard, whose walls moved with the wind and closing doors and the lightweight of feline bodies having a late night set-to, this one is poured cement and cinder block. Here the electricity is doled out sparingly, with the power going off at 7:30 in the morning, returning around 6:00 in the evening. Once past the jet lag and adjustments to a hard, if bouncy bed, I am rarely without air conditioning through the night.  However, this four month-old hotel is already falling apart, towel racks coming off the wall, bed-side commodes sitting in pieces, bathroom taps already spinning off their foundations, the toilet lid and seat resting on the floor, the bowl leaking and the overhead light wiring shot.

It’s a city in a hurry – scrambling to meet the demands of the world’s NGOs, multi-laterals, embassy and corporate staffs and development tourists setting up shop here, demands for accommodation, electricity, water, sewers, appliances, furniture and the supplies of daily living for first-worlders trying to settle in. Prices have gone through the roof, affecting the local markets whose prices are meant to stay within the range of the impoverished many. Before I had checked out the much more interesting and lower-priced local shops, I bought myself a toothbrush for the equivalent of five Canadian dollars in a Lebanese-owned everything-store not far from the U.S. Embassy.

Apart from the vans that constitute public transit here, ferrying Jubans through the growing knots of traffic, there is the boda-boda – motorcycles with generous seating for both Martin and me or a family of five. There is no real way to distinguish the young men who are offering their two-wheeled taxi service from young men with motorcycles. So you just walk up to one of them – or a row of them – and ask, ‘Boda-boda?’ Prices will vary depending on their assessment of your seasoned-ness:  I think she’s just arrived; we’ll try ten pounds. Or, I’ve seen her about, she probably knows the going rate. Yesterday, I saw one of them, passengerless, on a tour down the neighbourhood main street, taking the potholes as if he were on a dirt-bike track or a ski-run obstacle course, catching air, landing in the middle of the great curving hollow, sending ducks and water bottles flying, sailing up over the top of the next mogul, swerving to follow the heights and then diving once more...

One could lose hope here.  It feels like one vast mistake, a boiling cauldron of contradictory ingredients, run by a bunch of cooks more interested in meeting their own capacious appetites than serving the basic needs of South Sudanese people.  They’re not like South Africans post-1994; it’s as if they have been there, done that, forgotten the dreams that evaporated within days of the country’s birth with the return to inter-tribal violence, cattle-rustling massacres, turning their formerly Khartoum-directed violences inward. 

Just up the road, two men brushing their teeth at the village well get into a fight when one accidently flicks toothpaste on the other. ‘You spat on me,’ says the one.  ‘No, no!’ insists the other. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, my brother! It was entirely unintended, I can assure you!’ The first refuses to consider the other’s apology and he throws a brutal punch, the other returning in kind. They both fall to the ground, pummelling one another, the red dust rising around them. Members of the men’s respective clans arrive on hearing word of the mêlée at the well. Seven men are dead when the accounting is through. 

Training participants arrive each day with fresh and personal reports of generalised violence, kidnapping, theft, beatings and arson. Young, jobless men, demobilised but not yet quite disarmed, left out of the marriage market for lack of cows in a society in which a man’s power is sealed by cattle, wives and children, choose the only tool of survival they can see in front of them: theft of things and children, murder of those who get in the way or challenge their sense of their power with the slightest of provocations. Many are war children, still lost Lost Boys, often only marginally literate, raised in violence, turning to violence, without hope and, whether they can articulate it or not, abandoned by the dream-peddlers who now live behind high walls.



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