Welcome to the Wild West
The world’s youngest nation is a land of opportunity, packed with gunslingers, boda-bodas, and hope.
I departed for South Sudan two weeks ago. I’m here, working with UNICEF, War Child Holland, and my teammates back in San Diego, to build a new platform, based on the work we've done with KA Lite, that will deliver free, high-quality, locally curated educational materials to offline communities. Since arriving, half my time has been spent in the field, touring schools and interviewing teachers, and the other half has been spent in Juba. What follows is an interpretation of my personal experience and observations in the capital thus far. In my next post, I’ll share updates and reflections on the work we’re doing.
Dust permeates everything here. It gets kicked up by big NGO Land Cruisers, trundling their way down what’s referred to as a road, but is more like an alleyway of sandy moonscape, doubling as a landfill during the day and a space for trash-fires at night. Boda-bodas—motorcycle taxis that are common here, but perilous—beep as they pass the 4-wheeled giants, their drivers’ attention locked on reacting to the upcoming ridges and gullies formed by too many rainy seasons and no maintenance, while their passengers cling to the saddle for dear life.
On this road, white-collar, blue-collar, and no-collar meld together to create the neighborhood of Thong Ping. Along either side, 10 foot walls rise up from the ground, differentiated only by tiny signs marking the offices of countless NGOs, government agencies, and employee residences that have opened up shop here. Depending on the organizational style, the compound is topped with an artful arrangement of either razor or barbed-wire. The residence for American embassy workers towers above its counterparts, far outdoing the rest of the block in unnecessary might and creativity with double gated security, 30 foot walls, and—in addition to both barbed and razor wire—metal poles with spiked blades welded on at threatening angles. Inside these compounds, expats live their lives and do their work in relative luxury, with paved floor, intermittent electricity supplied by generators, and decent Internet access.
Throughout the other neighborhoods in the city, the contrast between extreme poverty and wealth is heart shattering. In one community, a stretch of thin sticks have been lodged into the ground to create a decorative fence, shielding an assortments of dirt-floor shacks, constructed from just wood and sheet metal. Amongst these homes, half-clothed children play, sweep the dirt, or simply sit. This miniature shanty town backs up to a Western-style 12-story hotel boasting a restaurant that would be at least 3.5 stars on Yelp, if they knew or cared what Yelp was here. Open-faced shops tout their wares and services, their names stenciled with spray paint onto the signs and walls of their business, that could have been — and possibly were — adapted and then charmingly misspelled from a Texas history textbook, like: “Best Shoes Repair Co. Ltd.”, “Joseph’s Pharmaceuticles”, and “Put Good World First Trading Outpost”. Near the airport, a stretch of 2 or 3 miles of solid cement walls line a well paved road, dotted with military checkpoints. These walls, and the armed guards that stand at their gates, defend the mansions of the President and other South Sudanese government officials.
Men and women in uniform are everywhere—both military and police—sometimes with radios, sometimes with AK-47s slung across their backs, driving around in camouflage trucks with SPLA plates. But rather than feelings of safety or security, in large part they trigger anxiousness. They are underpaid and bored, and there have been increasingly more nighttime incidents reported of police and military in crowds of 20 and 30 stopping vehicles on the street, forcing passengers out of the car, emptying their bags and pockets and stealing all of their money. In situations like these, common sense dictates it’s best not to resist. They have guns, they have numbers, and they've frequently been drinking.
Yet despite this clash between old and new, and apparent instability, life in Juba seems to press on at a lively, optimistic pace. The majority of this country is full of intelligent, albeit unschooled, hard-working people that have endured a 50 year civil war, and now are primed to build their new nation from the ground up. Opportunity is lurking around every corner.
Due to the nature of my trip, I am living and working in one of the many NGO compounds along the road. It’s a large, comfortable space with 10 offices, a residential unit with 7 or 8 rooms for the out-of-town staff, a visitor’s bedroom—that’s me—a kitchen, and a staff meeting room. I work from a little desk in my room, or sometime the staff meeting room, occasionally poking my head into the kitchen to check on what Sam—the compound cook (and my new best friend)—is making for lunch. He’s a phenomenal chef, and I’ve had the pleasure of digging into many traditional African dishes thus far, such as beans, rice, chapati bread, mixed greens, goat stew, steamed Nile perch, and ugali. The only other reason I get up is to dig into the endless supply of Nescafe made available in little stations throughout the compound. It’s worth noting: I have become an absolute ninja with the ratios of condensed milk and sugar required to make a delicious mug of steaming, chestnut colored faux-espresso.
In the corner of the compound sits my favorite installation: a rumbling, gas-guzzling, electricity-birthing burnt-orange monstrosity, also known as ‘The Generator’: giver of air conditioning, lights, and wireless Internet. It runs most of the day and powers the entire compound, taking short breathers only now and then to cool off and be refueled.
I’ve come to love the times in the compound when the generator is shut off. I can sometimes hear muffled noises from the road beyond the wall, but mostly, the quiet and stillness is so complete, it’s palpable. The heat gradually starts to build as the last of the cool air slips through cracks in the doors and windows, and nature forces its presence on the room. I can feel my body preparing to sweat, and then, bead by bead, moisture begins to form at the roots of my hair, and in the cavity of my chest. The WiFi and its infinite capacity for entertainment is gone. The lights do not work. The compound is enveloped by silence, and I am alone with my thoughts.
Then—after an hour or two and a roar—the generator comes back to life. Yanked out of a meditative state, or some journaling, I get back to whatever document I was drafting or snippet of code I was writing, and silently thank the laws of the physical universe for air conditioning, Tim Berners-Lee, and modern satellite technology.
And thus life continues in my temporary new home.