Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, is one of the smallest capitals in Africa – its small airport belies its proud boast of two terminals. The population of Juba is 800,000.

The streets are dusty but smiles pervade. Flashes of white teeth, hands slapped in greeting or amusement. The people are tall – unsurprisingly South Sudan is the basketball champion of Africa. My guide Daniel, who is Ugandan, says, “I am tall at home but not here.”

The world’s youngest county, having gained independence in 2011, South Sudan has had a troubled start: it descended into a civil war which it only resolved three years ago. As a result the likes of the UK FCDO advise against all travel to the region.

Such negative judgement from afar seems at odds with the Sunday service at St Theresa’s cathedral, the main church in Juba. With four hundred people dressed in their finest, little girls resplendent in their smart dresses, the service was a sellout.

A young boy seated on the back pew practises his letters under the scrutiny of his mother, whose shoes are especially shiny. The service is conducted in English, the congregation attentive, listening to the cardinal with interest. But it is the quiet beauty of the singing that strikes me, even moves me.

In D’Nile restaurant under the shade of mango trees, we sit in front of the fast flowing Nile listening to 80s music and the friendly banter of the waiters. I am tempted by the crocodile skewer on the menu but the $80 price dissuades me. Privilege comes at a cost in South Sudan.

Nearby women wash an array of bright clothes. They sing quietly to each other as clothes are slapped against the water. Children splash and bathe in the river. Their laughter fills the air. Sunday afternoon on the river in Juba.

The smartest place in town is the US$200 per night Pyramid Hotel with its bright coloured lights. It spoke volumes that the hotel General Manager has been in South Sudan for three years but never been outside the capital. Thus having no appreciation of the fact that the US$32 cost of the buffet dinner in the hotel is equivalent to a teacher’s monthly salary. The gap between rich and poor is tearing the world apart and Juba is no different: the hotel overlooks an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp.

A love of shiny things is not just the preserve of the wealthy. Proud motorbike owners keep the seats, petrol tank and handles wrapped in the original plastic. Schools of black tuk tuks  are customised, some even cut in half. The convertible tuk tuk is the vehicle to be seen on the streets of Juba.

The next morning, we head to Juba airport to take a flight to Kapoeta in the east of South Sudan. Registration for the flight is completed in a muddy parking lot of battered containers and ramshackle tin roof buildings. Formalities dispensed with, a short drive takes us past the throng of people surrounding the international terminal and out onto the apron. 

A long line of planes from a WFP Iluyshin to a UN Antanov, from 16 seater caravans chartering rich Sudanese around (the road network is shot to pieces) to a private jet being welcomed by a TV crew and tall men in suits. 

A pick-up truck bristles with soldiers in shades taking selfies of each other. They all carry semi-automatic rifles and a large GPMG commands the back of the truck. One of them proudly tells me that they are here to take a shipment of cash into town.

Two ladies look immaculate in smart shiny dresses, dark blue and pink respectively. The young daughter of one of them sports a leather pilot jacket and clutches a large fluffy white teddy.

We board the plane and I sit next to Titus, a young twenty-five year old man born in Omdurman in North Sudan who is flying to Kapoeta to then travel five hours to Kakuma, a refugee camp of some 50,000 in Kenya. I commiserate with him as to what is happening in his country, he replied it is not good and the Arabs are “bad” people.

The cost of the flight is US$200. Titus was given his ticket by a friend from Omdurman who used to be in the camp with him. His friend’s family were in Juba and helped his friend to leave the camp and set up a business in Juba. Titus is now flying back to the east of South Sudan, crossing the border into Kenya and entering Kakuma camp to benefit from food and lodging from the WFP.

I am not taking malaria pills. It is a bizarre and fucked up mix. ‘Wild Geese’ meets ‘The Constant Gardener’ meets I am not sure what.

I am enthralled by South Sudan but remain confused. Wrong country let alone continent, but I expect to see Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore (the Robert Duvall character in ‘Apocalypse Now’) walk around the corner in his US Cavalry hat. Maybe the smell of aviation fuel is getting to me.

The 280 kilometre flight to Kapoeta is a short 45 minutes, compared to a drive of at least eight hours. At this small market town, I bristle at a voyeuristic walk around the market.

‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’ is an outdated campaign that sends out the wrong message. There can be nothing worse for a community than a bunch of tourists descending, wielding their cameras voyeuristically and departing. How is that of any benefit for the local peoples? It is the cruise ship mentality of travel.

It is not just travel that does not have it right, that has to rethink.

I watched a very animated presenter from The Circle Project launching their latest scheme. The intention was worthwhile but his words rang hollow with the nonplussed audience. Where was the substance?

Everywhere we see the smart new white Land Cruisers of Norwegian Church Aid, Cordaid (Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development), WFP, FAO, Plan international and Red Cross patrol the dusty bumpy streets of Kapoeta aimlessly.

South Sudan does not need this charity that appeases the conscience of those who have been lucky enough to be born into a wealthier world. It does not need handouts (which in turn creates dependence). It needs a shift away from the focus on short-term subsistence. It needs infrastructure.

The roads are shot. It is starting to change. Whilst difficult for my battered and bruised back to believe, I am told that the roads are improving.

“Is petrol expensive?”

“Yes.”

This is in spite of there being oil in the country. The fact that there is no refinery and that South Sudan is landlocked and has to pay extortionate sums to get the oil to port for export are part of the reason why the average South Sudanese has, as yet, seen little benefit from independence. 

The civil war was borne out of a frustration of the South’s sense of exploitation by the North with the attempt to impose sharia law being the final straw. Independence was hard fought, both in terms of lives and finance. Financially South Sudan is still paying for it – this young country, before it can get itself onto its feet, is having to make payments to the North for being ‘granted’ independence, a skewed alimony.

Making payments is part of everyday life in South Sudan.

We pass through a number of checkpoints, a minor frustration for us, a major frustration for the villagers, many of whom are illiterate. Any inconsistency in the villager’s paperwork is seized upon by extortionate police. It is not about security but revenue collection.

At one checkpoint, Patrick goes to the assistance of a young boy whose paperwork says that his motorbike is red as opposed to black. Patrick gets the policeman to check the engine numbers. They match. The boy is reluctantly allowed to go with Patrick urging him to get his paperwork corrected.

An hour and a half later a South Sudanese rigorous massage brings us to the Toposa village of Kotein. The Toposa are semi nomadic pastoralists who live in clusters of families which form villages. The Toposa are similar to the Turkana in Kenya and the Karamojong in Uganda.

Like the Mundari, the Toposa’s main activity is cattle rearing – not the magnificently horned Ankole but short-horned zebu. Unlike the Mundari, the Toposa do eat their cows as well as a diet of milk, yoghurt and sorghum.

Unlike the Mundari, the Toposa are visibly armed (the Mundari being closer to Juba). The chief responsibility of the men, other than protecting the villages and clearing the bush for the growing of sorghum, is the herding of cattle and pretty much every man I see is carrying a rifle, a wooden stick and a tiny wooden stool.

Toposa woman, South Sudan

The women are more disarming. Their faces, backs and arms are scarified. A piercing below the lip. Adorned with arresting necklaces, bracelets and anklets, they wear colourful miniskirts. Baby on back under half a calabash.

These colourful stereotypes conceal the hard reality of everyday life for the Toposa. We pass groups of Toposa women in dry river beds in the physically demanding work of panning for gold. Its rewards are few but any nuggets that it does yield are sold in town to buy sorghum, salt and sugar to supplement their diet.

The Lalim, some three hours away, are essentially the same peoples as the Toposa with subtle differences in architecture, dress, decoration and scarification. The one point of difference being language.

We arrive at a picturesque village of conical domed thatched huts. The men erect the framework of the huts with bamboo that is collected from as far as 70 kilometres away. The women use dry savannah grasses to create the thatch which tapers to a narrow point that is decorated with shells. The thatch lasts two to three years, perhaps longer if not destroyed by termites. Either way it is a constant cycle of replenishing the thatch.

South Sudan village houses and people

A pretty exterior hides a darker interior. Inside the hut the earth floor is hard and the ‘ceiling’ is low, a couple of feet at best. It is smoky and dark. It is constrictive and restrictive.

The Lalim have little headspace for the future. Theirs is very much a subsistence existence. En route to the village we passed several families walking away from the village, hunger forcing them to walk to ‘Camp 15’ in the hope of food.

In 2015 tourism was non-existent in South Sudan – in comparison tourism in Tanzania is 22% of its GDP. Yet tourism is growing slowly through the hard work of the likes of the hugely talented Donald Ainomugisha, locally known as ‘Champion’, whose travel company’s strapline is ‘Explore. Experience. Empower.’ Donald is trying not just to give tourists a unique cultural experience but also to ensure that local communities benefit from such tourism.

Ironically if Donald is successful and through the positive impact of travel he is able to transform lives and the Toposa and Lalim move away from their ‘traditional’ way of life, he might have to move away from cultural tourism to that of wildlife tourism. A change of stereotype.

Whilst a cliché of Africa might still persist, albeit with a different focus, it will be worth it if the lives of the local communities are improved.

Thanks for reading

Justin Wateridge

Author: Justin Wateridge