Life in South Sudan

A blog about working and living in South Sudan.

Month: July, 2012

Time to rest and recreate

I met a man at my overnight hotel in Addis. He looked sad, sighed deeply and said, “I miss home.” I asked him how long he had been in Juba and he answered, “Five days.”
“Five years?”, I corrected.
“No, five days”.

The man was from Zambia. He had been on a short mission in Juba. He explained that he had traveled before, to other African cities, and before it just felt like changing cities. “But Juba… Juba is different. It’s harsh. Life is difficult.” He asked me if I like Juba.

I do like Juba. But I don’t realize how stressful it can be to live there until I leave. This is the second time I leave South Sudan and just like the first time I got overwhelmed by my experiences during the last month.

It’s difficult to explain but I guess that “scary fun” describes part of it. You go to a party and get stopped by armed policemen.

It’s a world full if opposites. Not “poor and rich”, as there’s hardly no luxury. Juba is better described as “war and peace” or “laughter and tears”. One example is the children living in a mud hut outside my house. I’ve seen them play with toy cars made out of old juice packages and bottle caps. It is sad to see the poverty but at the same time beautiful to see the creativity and to watch them play happily.

In Juba you should also expect the unexpected. Like getting proposed to at work or getting stuck in traffic and suddenly and see a monkey in the middle of the street carrying its baby.

Even though it makes me tired and scatter-minded I’m enjoying the unexpected, exhausting and scary fun moments in Juba. I guess that as time goes by they will get less exhausting and scary. However, I’ve heard from colleagues who have been in Juba for many years that I should still expect the unexpected. It can happen very unexpectedly and that seems to be the only thing I can be sure of.


Three men and 200 cows

I was talking to the owner of the shop around the corner from my home when three men in a car started waiving their hands at me and calling me to come over to their car.  “We just want to tell you something!”

I said no. I know better than walk up to a car with strangers. So they drove the car to me. As the shop owner held a watching eye on the situation I walked over to them. They introduced themselves and one of them said, “We just wanted to say that you are the most beautiful khawaja (white person) we have seen. And we want to meet you sometime.”

I thanked them for the compliment and smiled back at the three smiling men. Curious as I am, I had to ask just to make it clear, “All three of you want to meet me?”


“I’m sorry,” I answered, “I don’t feel comfortable going out with three strange men.”

“You are right. We should get to know each other better first. Can we meet to get to know each other better?”

“I’m sorry, but no. My boyfriend wouldn’t approve.” That line had worked before but not today.

“That’s ok! We South Sudanese men compete for our women. We don’t mind a competition. We will offer 200 cows for you! And you can bring your boyfriend along to have dinner with us!”

They wanted my phone number but I refused and said that I wouldn’t go out with them so they really didn’t need it. When they couldn’t get my number they wanted to know where I worked. I said I worked for the government.

“Which ministry?”

“I won’t tell because then you can easily find me.”

“We will find you anyway. We will search all the ministries!”

“That sounds a bit scary,” I replied.

“No it’s not scary. South Sudanese are not violent. We are friendly. Now give us your number.”

They were persistent but still very nice and I laughed at the strange situation as I once again refused them my number. To end the conversation I said they could know my name. After some negotiation they also got to know my nationality. They finally drove away with a promise to find me at one of the ministries. I’m very curious to see if they do.

At last I got to know my bride price. Now I have a good starting point for negotiation. 200 cows is a good deal. As a comparison, I heard that the man who married the president’s daughter paid 300 cows. However, I’m a bit confused about if the deal included all three men or if I had to choose one of them. I’ll ask them if they show up one day at the office.

Safari in Nimule National Park

I just got back from my very first African wild life safari in Nimule in South Sudan, close to the Ugandan border. I’m very tired after this weekend’s adventure that turned out to be a fantastic African experience – scary and fun and a bit inconvenient.

On our way to Nimule our car broke down. Our driver detected a fuel leakage and we had to stop. The driver and five local men tried to fix the car. Worth mentioning is that one of them wore a green jumpsuit with the text “AMBULANCE” on his back and he had red toenails with decorative feathers painted on them. We sat in the shade and watched how they were working on the car and removing parts from it. After a while I went to see what they were up to. Next to the car lay the fuel tank, with a big hole in it – the reason for the leak. Beside the fuel tank was a yellow plastic container in which they had carved a hole big enough to fit the fuel pump. They were trying to construct a new fuel tank out of the plastic container. I begged Sam to come and she made it very clear that “You cannot make a fuel tank out of that! It is very dangerous! We need another car!” After an hour another car arrived and we were on our way again.

When we finally arrived to Nimule National Park we were too late to go on a boat trip. The park ranger suggested that we “hurry to the waterfalls” before the approaching rain storm hit us. As we hurried through the park an elephant suddenly appeared in front of us. We backed the car a bit and the park ranger went out to check on the situation. After a few seconds he waived his hand at us and said: “Come out of the car and see the elephant!” With shaky hands I reached for my camera and went out of the car to see the big animal that was blocking our road. We took some pictures and continued when the elephant had wondered off.  We reached the waterfalls before the rain caught up with us.

We stayed at Paradise Hotel, a misleading and not very suitable name. Their sign promised “mouthwatering dishes” but they didn’t serve food. Instead we had dinner served from a small iron sheet shed next to the supermarket on the main road, with chickens and pigs moving around us. Back at the hotel I had a shower in a swarm of flying ants. Generators were turned off at 10.30 so there was nothing more to do at Paradise than to sleep.

Today we got to take the boat trip to see hippos. I’d heard that they are the most dangerous animal in the world and I got nervous when one of the hippos kept getting closer and closer. When I asked the ranger how close is too close he laughed and answered: “Don’t worry about the hippo. He’s just coming to greet you.” Not a very convincing or comforting answer.

I was still scared and excited when we went ashore and continued the safari by feet. When we started our walk through the high grass, I suddenly remembered that there are snakes in Nimule. In my head I slowly, for the first time, started questioning my choice to go to Africa. I’m not very adventurous and I’m scared of dangerous animals. But this year seem to be the year when I face all my fears, so I decided to deal with it, be brave and move on. Also, it became fun again as soon as we got to see warthogs and antelopes.

We arrived safely to Juba this afternoon. For me it was fantastic to finally see something else of South Sudan than Juba. Scary fun and inconveniences are exhausting but I have to point out that most African experiences are beautiful and touching. I particularly enjoyed watching the morning activities among the mud huts outside of our hotel; people having breakfast, children pumping water and women carrying stuff on their heads. Seeing these things for the first time is special, but I hope I won’t lose the ability to look at them with such a childish amazement.

Data is missing due to heavy rain

Someone asked me the other day why it takes us so long to conduct a survey and why we sometimes are not able to publish statistics in time. Well, there are several obstacles to overcome when producing statistics in South Sudan and many of them are connected to the circumstances here.

Weather conditions

There are mainly dirt roads in South Sudan and during the rainy season roads disappear or turn into mud. That makes it difficult to go to the field and do surveys, as our vehicles get stuck in the mud or brake down. This limits us to do large surveys during the few months of dry season.

Even smaller high frequency surveys are affected by the rain. A few days ago we didn’t receive data because there was a heavy rain and our enumerators couldn’t go to the field. Sometimes the rain also makes it difficult for people to even get to work.

Slow internet

I started laughing when I was downloading market prices that were sent to us by e-mail and the countdown said “2 days, 3 hours and 5 seconds remaining…” That day the connection was extremely slow. Normal days it takes an hour to download the data. Bad internet connection also makes it difficult for our regional offices to send us data. In one city they discovered that the connection is better between before 6 am, so they are sending us information early in the morning.

No fuel

The fuel shortage once got us stuck at the market after collecting market prices. No fuel also means no electricity since we use generators. Information was once lost and had to be recreated because they shut down the generator to refill it with fuel.

No maintenance of technical equipment

I’ve been working together with the data processing team trying to scan survey forms. In the last big survey they had been able to put large piles of forms in the scanner and had scanned them without problems. This time the scanner fed several pages at once and paper got stuck. We ended up having to scan form by form and sometimes page by page. This of course halted the work. The problem was the scanner’s worn out rubber wheels and when I asked if we could buy spare parts or if someone could fix it, the answer was that you cannot buy spare parts or scanners in Juba and there is no one here who maintains or repairs scanners.

Not all problems can be solved by capacity development or more money. You just have to learn how to work with and not against them, and how to solve problems with a bit of creativity and a lot of patience.

Independence and peace

Preparations for Independence Day have been going on during the last week in Juba. They have been sweeping the streets clean from red dirt and dust, decorating the solar power driven street lights with South Sudanese flags and there have been numerous road blocks where armed policemen have been searching cars for weapons. Celebrations started this weekend and today was the big day. South Sudan celebrated their first year as a nation.

I met up with some friends to walk over to John Garang Memorial where the celebrations took place. Because of various reasons; security, heat, traffic, we normally don’t walk in Juba. But today we walked and there was hardly any traffic.

It’s a special feeling to celebrate peace and independence when there is still so much evidence of war and conflict. As we walked, we passed abandoned check points and greeted the armed policemen who were sitting in the shade instead of stopping cars. We met cheering people, soldiers every 50 meters along May street, vehicles carrying machine guns, children waving flags and the crowd grew as we got closer to John Garang Memorial.  The celebrations were peaceful and happy and  supervised by military with weapons and smiling faces. Opposites combined. And when when I observed the scenes taking place around me I had to redefine the word “peace” to myself. It didn’t look they way I’m used to see it.

I would like to finish this blog post by writing something wise about all this, but I just can’t. I feel overwhelmed by today’s new experience and I stand quiet and humbled by the fact that I know nothing about war and, as it turned out, very little about peace.

Living on a downward sloping curve

Earlier this year South Sudan shut down their oil production and cut off 98 % of their income. If I look at the situation as an economist this is all very interesting and exciting. It is not very often you get to see up close what happens when a country loses its income. Since South Sudan is not exporting oil anymore, foreign currency is not entering the country and therefore the South Sudanese pound is losing its value. In fact all curves showing the economic situation are pointing down, except from inflation. Annual inflation hit 80 % in May and gave the inflation curves very dramatic shapes.

The fuel situation has improved but it’s still a problem. The shortage slows down production and transportation becomes difficult. Transportation problems make it difficult to deliver food and other goods to the northern states and prices are rising even more in the north due to the high costs of transportation. Since there is no city power people use generators driven by fuel. Therefore no fuel also means no electricity.

If I take off my working glasses and look at all this as a normal human being, “interesting” or “exciting” are really not the proper adjectives to use for describing the situation. To experience life on a downward sloping curve is somewhat different from studying it.

Salaries have not been adjusted for inflation and this week the government announced that government employees are getting wage cuts. So people are getting poorer because of lower wages and higher prices.

The fuel shortage has caused some small inconveniences in daily life, like not being able to get to work, or Arabic lesson being cancelled because the teacher couldn’t get a transport. Other effects are more severe. People die in hospitals because there’s no electricity. People also keep petrol inside their houses which in combination with cooking over open fire has caused fires and even death. Add to that the challenges connected with starvation and water crisis in some parts of the country. With a growing population caused by refugees and returnees coming from Sudan, the need of water and food is growing.

What is surprising in all of this is that life goes on like there is no problem. People seem to accept it and work their way around it. Colleagues told me that people have started cultivating to be able to survive. There are no protests like in Khartoum, no riots and no one is hoarding food or supplies. People I’ve talked to still seem optimistic and say that “we have suffered before, we can suffer again” and that the current situation is still better than it used to be before the country got its independence. I sure hope this is not the calm before the storm.

Rest and recreation in Norway

Because of the difficult circumstances in South Sudan many foreigners working here get paid rest and recreation leave. I spent my first R&R in Norway with friends and family. It wasn’t much of a rest as I had plans to do things every day, but one thing I noticed was how easy everything felt  in a familiar environment like Oslo. It was so relaxing to be able to walk around outside without registering all impressions, not worrying about how to get from one place to another, speaking my mother tongue and to enjoying all the food I’ve been missing. Even though I kept myself busy my head got some rest and recreation. Now I’m back in Juba again and after a week in S. Sudan I have already so many stories to tell I don’t know where to start.