Shaking off the effects of war

2013-02-22 09:39

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War-ravaged South Sudan still lags behind in development but indications are that the country stands on the brink of a great future, writes Lucas Ledwaba

The wreckage of a fighter jet lying along the runway is not something you would like to see just before touchdown at any airport.

But alas, this is exactly the sight that greeted me as we approached Juba International airport in South Sudan recently.

The wreckage is one of many remnants from the wars that plagued this north African country for the past 40 years.

Elsewhere along the roads leading out of Juba, the capital city to the remote areas further to the north, lie rotting shells of tanks and other military vehicles left over from the wars.

Soldiers in flip-flops, green military uniforms and AK-47 rifles occupy every intersection, market, bridge crossing and main road. They monitor the coming and going of every car, bus and taxi at the entrance of every rural village.

For the lack of proper steel boom gates, the soldiers on guard improvise by using pieces of string tied to poles on opposite sides.

At busy intersections, traffic police in white uniforms defy the equatorial heat to direct the traffic of taxis, buses and the boda-bodas.

The boda-boda, a small-engine motorcycle, is the cheapest transport mode of choice in the country. They load everything and everyone from hawkers, professionals, soldiers and police.

You are often likely to be greeted by the sight of a rider buried under a heavy load of live chickens, crates of beer, a live goat tied to his waist or a bunch of firewood.

Strangely, nobody, either the drivers or their passengers, care to use a helmet. A ride into town from our lodgings in Jebel, costs 10 South Sudanese pounds.

It could cost you your life as well. Fatal accidents are a frequent occurrence here.

This last thought forced me to cut my trip short. I had to reluctantly part with four South Sudanese pounds after telling my Ugandan driver I was disembarking at the market.

There, I indulged in the local delicacy of matoke, a starch paste made from melon and two pieces of beef swimming in a tasty soup.

My adventure was cut short at the market when, while taking pictures of excited locals, a policeman who turned out in plain clothes appeared from nowhere and ordered me aside.

He demanded to know, not rudely, but firmly, who I was, why I was taking pictures and if I had permission to do so.

In the end, I was forced to retreat to the bar at Jebel Lodge, to beat the heat with a couple of cold, Nile Special Lagers.

The plain-clothes man at the market had warned me that it would be dangerous to continue taking pictures in the town because some of his colleagues might mistake me “for some other people” and get me into trouble.

The continuing tension between South Sudan and its Islamic foe to the north, along with the threat of rebel groups operating in the upper regions of Juba, has made the local populace and the security establishment uneasy.

In Bor, a village located in the north of Juba, my adventurous spirit was challenged by warnings that foreigners would do well to stay indoors after dusk, as the local war-weary people could use their sticks and, in the worst case scenario, AK-47s on strangers suspected to be spies.

Although Bor is only 180km from Juba, the drive there takes six long hours on roads with potholes the size of graves. Cargo trucks, buses carrying passengers to Juba and UN convoys carrying supplies to far-flung places, all struggled along on the road.

Venturing off these roads into the bush could have devastating consequences, as the land is still land mine riddled, an abiding legacy of the many wars fought here.

Though it’s celebrated as a capital city, Juba resembles a long-forgotten village with no municipal services to speak of. Enterprising locals, instead of engaging in service-delivery protests, have set up businesses drawing water from the mighty Nile River which roars past the sprawling “village”.

Every business enterprise and household worth its salt operates with a power generator because power outages are a common feature.

When I enquired from a group of South African expatriates if it was safe to leave my camera bag in the car while we went for a meal on the banks of the Nile, I was told crimes such as smash and grabs were unheard of here. Anyone caught stealing risked a severe public lynching.

But despite the glaring poverty and underdevelopment, South Sudan’s biggest asset is the resilience of its people, most of whom have known nothing but war.

Despite the challenges, they go on with their lives like a people who have accepted that hard work has never killed anyone, and that they don’t have to wait for government to provide everything for them.

The country has great economic potential. However, that’s if they manage to resolve, once and for all, the impasse concerning the rich oil fields with their northern neighbour Sudan. Juba is crawling with expatriates, aid workers and potential investors waiting in the wings to take advantage of the many opportunities that exist here, after the political storm has died down.

Indications are that should political stability be achieved, South Sudan has all the potential to become one of the region’s strongest economies.

As we fly out of Juba on a very hot afternoon, I ponder the Nile River meandering lazily across the land like a giant serpent.

I wonder what the future holds for South Sudan and its people, who have been through so much suffering – a misery not brought about by any actions of their own.

The words of former president Thabo Mbeki from his celebrated I am an African speech filled me with hope: “Whatever the setbacks of the moment, nothing can stop us now! Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace! However improbable it may sound to the sceptics, Africa will prosper!”

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