Getting the visa for my visit to South Sudan proved more difficult than I had expected, based on information saying that their embassy in Kampala issued them with just a passport, pictures, and the visa fee. Fortunately, with the help of Facebook, friends, and people willing to help swiftly, I had gotten the visa after all. The newest nation on earth, South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but had sank into civil war in 2013. Leafing through the travel guide, the country seemed surprisingly diverse and attractive, but alas: the political situation makes any visit to the interior too unsafe to consider. Furthermore, it means that taking pictures in Juba, the capital, is regarded as highly sensitive. When I walk the tarmac towards the airport building with a handful of other disembarking passengers, I am surrounded by United Nations planes, World Food Program, and Russian cargo jets parked close one next to the other because the apron is limited in size. It reminds me that in parts of this country, people are surviving only by the grace of foreign aid. I am screened for ebola, and after that, the process turns out to be surprisingly easy. I neglect the taxi drivers, find a bodaboda (motorcycle) driver, and secure a room in an affordable hotel in a safe area of the city for a fraction of the cost I was expecting to pay. The first feeling I get is one of normalcy: life is going on, people walk the streets, shops are open - I am tempted to believe that the situation is better than what I have been told. I meet up with one of the agents who can arrange trips out of the city, and am glad I do. He draws a dire picture of the situation, tells me that outside the city, war is still going on, and he won't send his vehicles out of the city limits. Moreover, it turns out that taking pictures without a permit is not allowed; with a permit, even taking pictures of a church or mosque can land you in trouble. People are paranoid because of the war, and anyone swinging a big camera might be considered a spy. What is more: there is a large secret police presence, who operate in plain clothes. One source tells me there could be around 30.000 of them patrolling the city, which implies one out of every ten persons could be secret police (making the claim questionable). Ministries will be closed for four days because of Easter, so getting a permit is out of the question, and I am not willing to wait until after the weekend for a chance of getting a permit. After all, apparently even journalists with all their documents in order are being harassed: a permit is no guarantee for free shooting.
After a night sleeping on it, I decide to try to explore the city like I always do: just walk, and postpone my initial plans to hire a bodaboda, or a car with driver. I first want to get a feel for the city myself. After hearing all the stories, I am extremely careful, and decide to listen very well to my intuition, and keep all my senses on high alert. Shortly after leaving my hotel, it starts to rain, and I seek shelter. Before I know it, a group of soldiers joins me. It feels odd: here I am, trying to stay away from the authorities, yet we are all humans, and they try to stay dry just like me. We chat a little, laugh at each other, and I wonder how they would react knowing that, hidden in my little backpack, is a camera and three lenses. Whenever I see a person in civilian clothes, I wonder if he is an informant, too, and when I see a car stop in the street, I wonder if they are watching me. I then realize that if I continue thinking like this, I will end up being paranoid, too, and realize it is much better to use a positive approach. I greet every person I meet, wave, shake hands, smile, and in most cases, my greetings are returned. When the rain gets less, I continue walking, and when no one is around, I dare to take my first pictures. Quickly, without paying attention to composition and light, I shoot, and hide my camera again. I walk the main road towards one of the few sights of Juba: the statue and grave of John Garang, the rebel leader and father of the nation, who died in a helicopter crash before South Sudan became independent. I meet a friendly military police, who takes me to shelter when the rain gets bad, and I have a hope he will show me the grave and, perhaps, even let me take pictures? When the rain gets less, he takes me to the barracks, and here I am, surrounded by military police. One of them wants to see my passport and visa, but the rest leave me alone. After a while, I wonder what is happening, and cautiously ask if there is a possibility to visit the grave of the nation's hero. Alas: they claim it requires a letter from the President's Office, which of course will be closed until after Easter, so I drop the idea. When walking past the statue, I see several armed guards near the tribune across the road, and decide not to risk it here. I do take a picture of the street with images of the president with his cowboy hat. When I stop opposite the grave of Garang, a gang of four guys aggressively asks me what I am doing, and whether I am "snapping". They also warn one of the armed guards, and I am called over by the armed guard. I play stupid, and get away with it. But my heart is racing: so this is how things can go here, and no one even saw my camera. I decide to walk to Jebel Kujul, and will explore the city more the following day. After my initial hesitation about visiting the city, and despite the incident, most of the people I meet are great, and I feel upbeat at the end of the day.
After reading about a monument to the Nile Explorers of the 19th century in Juba, I have managed to locate it, and I am on my way the next morning. When I arrive at the roundabout, I already see from a distance that the monument is in a dire condition. A broken fence around it, banners blocking part of the view: it looks messy. At this early hour, there is little traffic, and reaching the small obelisk-shaped monument is easy, but taking a picture is another thing: I am in full view on all four sides of the roundabout. I take one picture with my phone, and then with my camera, and quickly disappear. One thing I have learned the day before: not to linger without purpose, so I have my phone in my hand, pretending to text and talk, whenever I am waiting for the street to be empty. To my surprise, I find yet another monument to 19th century Nile explorers a few hundred metres to the south of the first. On my way to the south of the city, I pass the lively Konyo Konyo market, and it is here that I have to constrain myself: it would be lovely to take pictures, but I just cannot take the risk. Instead, I take in the sights and sounds of the colourful market. I walk over to the Nile Bridge, strictly prohibited to take pictures of, and walk to the other side, and back. The mighty Nile, already wide here, still so far from the Mediterranean: it still has a desert to cross. When I ask for the possibility of cruising the river, I am very lucky to find a group about to leave: the speedboat arrives within minutes and takes us to Full Moon Island, ten minutes downstream. Constructions still going on, the island promises to be a little paradise in the river, with welcome breezes to cool of. I walk to the other side of the island, picking up a mango under one of the many mango trees, and sit at the tip of the island to watch the river run past the island, the straw huts on the mainland, a young guy steering his canoe against the stream with a long wooden pole. After the stress of walking in Juba on high alert, it is a welcome moment of peace. A chat with the friendly, visionary owner of the island, I board the speedboat back to the city. Walking to the northern edge of town, I hope to visit the nursery, but this, too, is closed for Easter weekend. Instead, I walk the streets, find the largest mosque of the city, and have a relaxing hour on a plastic chair on the street, with a cup of hibiscus tea, just watching South Sudanese life go by. I search the Hindu Swami Narayan temple, to find out it is actually a house behind a supermarket. The owners of the latter have founded the temple in 2008, the first Hindu place of worship in the largest country of Africa. I am invited to sit on one of the sofas, and end up watching the entire ceremony, while someone explains me what I am seeing. It is a lucky day: Hindu god Hanuman is being revered, and it happens to be his birthday as well. After prayer, there is even a tasty Indian meal. When I step out of the compound, it is like stepping into a different world: here it is dark, and finding a bodaboda to take me back home not easy. The next day is already my last, and after a first walk by the statue of John Garang and his grave, of which I take quick snapshots, I walk to the All Saints Cathedral, where I attend a two-hour Easter service in Arabic. While walking back to my hotel, on my way home, it strikes me how busy the streets are even on this Easter Sunday. When looking back at my visit to Juba, I can be glad that things went pretty well, considering the circumstances. I can only wish that in the future, the South Sudanese people will see better circumstances, leave the wars, and famine, behind, and build their young nation to one of prosperity for their children.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Juba Snapshots (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Juba Snapshots.
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