South Sudan is not a country that will have you drooling with excitement every time it’s mentioned as one of your next possible destinations. You will have read stories about all sorts of horrendous acts and gruesome murders and kidnaps and you will wish the “South” is removed so you can at least end up in Khartoum.
If it’s your first time, your family will pray for your journey mercies throughout the night. They will spend the rest of the day praying for your safety while you toil for their (and your) future. Your friends will think you are going to make lots of money so you can buy “house” them if you return because South Sudan is such a high risk area that your company must be paying top dollar for you to work in such an environment.
You will hope the stories you have read in Western media were exaggerated, and that South Sudan is some really cool place where you can afford to take a selfie in the middle of the road without some angry teenager accusing you of having snatched the handset from his uncle in the army.
You imagine you are going to have a fairly good time until you get to the airport and some mean-looking Seven-foot chap grabs your luggage and you have to fork out 10 South Sudanese pounds before he can release it to the guy receiving you.
You are dumb-founded. You do not have local currency, but that is none of his business. You will try to forge a piteous look, but he has probably seen hundreds of sorry faces that your attempt at faking bewilderment will come across as a piece of streetwise playacting. He simply doesn’t mind. Pay him and your luggage will be yours again.
Juba is searing hot and you will be sweating from every pore of your skin by the time you take refuge in some air-conditioned apartment with a noisy generator in the backyard. Somehow you will have to get used to the noise because there is no hydroelectricity and solar is not as commonly used as it should be.
Every once in a while you will hear sporadic gunshots after 10 PM in the night because every rich guy owns a gun. You cannot tell whether someone pissed them or they are doing routine shooting practice. You just don’t wake up and feel safe and secure even if your apartment is a stone’s throw away from the UN apartments on Bilpam road.
Semi-affluent locals here eat meat with bread, but there is variety of Ugandan food if you can find your way around. There are lots of eateries strewn all over the place, housed in makeshift wooden structures. There are hotels, of course, in case you feel like leaving a chunk of your savings in Juba every once in a while.
A number of market stalls sell Ugandan food as well. Like Mama Walcott’s just off the Juba-Nimule road. I could have taken a few shots, but you just do not take photos anyhow in Juba. All government establishments appear to be out of bounds for any irksome wannabe photographer. Once, I almost sent my chauffeur into panic mode when I pulled out my phone to snap at the porous bridge on the Nimule-Juba road.
There are no Visa ATMs in Juba. You have to carry all the money you need with you and hope it will be enough. There are no forex bureaus either. You either settle for the bad bank rates or look for more friendly exchange rates on the black market.
The Ugandan community in Juba is quite big, so you cannot lose your way unless you are some 15th Century hermit. Once in a while, you will bump into Balaam Barugahara wearing one of his 15,000 orange T-shirts.
09th October found me at the Ugandan ambassador’s residence. Every year, Ugandan professionals in South Sudan meet at his place to have their own version of independence celebrations. People meet, make merry and dance to Ugandan music.
For a moment, you imagine you are breathing Ugandan air until people start sneaking out after 9 PM. Then it finally hits you. You are approaching the wrong hours. You are better off holed up in your apartment or else you will have to make it to your place like a commando.
I had overheard someone narrate one of his nocturnal experiences the previous week and you could still sense the fear in his speech. On the fateful night, he was stopped by an AK47-weilding guy near one of the junctions that lead out of the city.
The AK47 man then did a thorough security check on his garments, relieved him of his wallet’s contents before letting him proceed with his journey. But he was the lucky one. Others had not been that fortunate. One was forced to give someone a lift, only for him to be murdered along the way and his car taken.
Another – a Caucasian expatriate working with one of the telecom firms – once had his spectacles stomped on and crushed by an army guy after the latter was asked to assist and pick an item our short buddy could not reach, on the upper shelf of one supermarket. He instantly regained his vision and left the country. He has never resurfaced since.
But it’s not always gloom in the South Sudanese capital. Juba has another side to it. There are sprouting buildings at almost every corner. My chauffeur tells me some of these are owned by Ethiopians, Eritreans and some Ugandans among others.
A quick look at these reveals a number of mushrooming salons and massage parlors too, mostly run by Kenyans. I checked a few of them of them and the service was excellent. By default, they speak Swahili to anyone that does not look like South Sudanese.
"You see that lady over there", said my chauffeur, pointing to a light skinned lady that had just zoomed past us in a pearl white Toyota Nadia. "She used to be a low-end hooker back in the day. She is Ethiopian. She must have finally hit a jackpot with some Sudanese general". He tells me Ethiopian prostitutes sell like hot cakes because South Sudanese are smitten by their cute faces and light complexion.
We once stopped by a traffic cop on one of the morning trips to the workplace. He muttered some Arabic to our chauffeur before checking on his driving license and signing off with a phrase that sounded like tamam. It was not the first time I was hearing this word, so I asked him what the traffic cop wanted with him.
"He wanted to see my rukhsa (driving license). These traffic cops can sometimes mean to waste our time", he goes on, rather absentmindedly. He tells me tamam is Arabic for any of well, good, or okay. It is sometimes smuggled into formal English conversations. So if you ever happen to be in Juba and someone asks you if things are tamam, don’t give them a blank stare.