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Watching Sudan divide: two countries or one?


Flying to Juba

The Khartoum sky was hinting of rain as I was dropped off at the Hajj and Umra section of the airport. I was not doing the pilgrimage but on my way to Juba, a city which is in some ways the antithesis of things Islamic. In the airport entrance the x-ray machine was out of order, and a mass of passengers gathered around it with an array of cases, bags and cardboard boxes; the Sudanese do not travel light.

In the airport lounge things were not much better: the electricity was on but the air-conditioning was off and the temperature must have been 40 degrees. But someone I had met once or twice, Dinka-tall and dressed in jacket and tie, handed me a bottle of cool water. Majok had just left his university post in Malakal, and was all set to move to Juba.

‘So you’ll be teaching in Juba University?’

‘My brother has a money exchange place. I’ll be working there.’ I doubted, however, if his departure from Malakal was just a matter of university politics, for these days people were tending to rejoin their own ethnic group.

I had once worked in Malakal, teaching civil servants in a tin-roofed, mud-walled room by the radio station. It had been the usual scenario: appalling facilities, delightful trainees. The town stank from the sewage brought to the surface in the rains and a tent proved much better than a shared house in town.

Hygiene in Malakal left something to be desired. Even at the bakery flies congregated on the cow hides hung out to dry and in the cafés flies would land on my glass of tea before it reached my lips. At the side of the road, men were sitting idly outside the grocer’s with the pot of fuul simmering away, and a yard in front of them was the fetid ditch. Couldn’t they get a shovel and clear it?

Malakal tribal markings

Malakal at the time seemed a laid-back place to me, and in some rokuba I’d idle hours away over coffee, chatting with the soldiers. In the late afternoon, the men would congregate by the river, where the phrase ‘Joint Units’ appeared in a different light. A couple of months after I had left, elements of the Joint Units, units from both SAF and SPLA brought together to enforce the peace agreement, fought it out, turning on each other. In the resulting conflict, hundreds were killed and the University was looted. I had been in Syria, but Majok had been in Malakal when it had all happened.

‘I was there at the time. They nearly killed me!’ Majok, being Dinka Bor, would have been in the minority in the Shilluk- and Nuer-dominated town. ‘They took everything. My clothes, my equipment… They took everything but my books.’

‘They’d have no interest in those, I’m sure!’

‘My supervisor was out from Norway. She was hospitalized for a week afterwards.’

‘Was she injured?’

‘Shock!’

Up in Khartoum, ordinary people use the blanket term ‘Southerners’ to refer to very diverse ethnic groups. Apart from those who had fought there in the war, the South was this uniformly unknown place, like one of those maps in Renaissance times where unexplored parts were marked with ‘Here be Dragons!’ Even one of the streetwise rickshaw drivers, on hearing where I lived in Khartoum, said with amazement: ‘But there are Nuer there!’ Another driver mocked him.

‘Watch out, Richard! There are LIONS in the street where you live!’ The lions were squatting in the empty plots that would become the next high-rise apartment blocks, pastoralists whose children had probably never seen a cow.

Among Southern Sudanese there were huge ethnic divisions. The war was repeatedly referred to as being between the ‘Arab-Islamic North’ and the ‘African-Christian South’, a massive oversimplification, especially as some Southern ethnic groups had sided with Khartoum against the Dinka-dominated SPLA that was fighting to free the South from ‘Arab’-Muslim rule.

If such divisions lay within the Southern Sudanese themselves, what about the ‘Arab’ Sudanese who ran the grocery shops in Malakal? What would be their place in the new South? They had been charming to me when I bought my groceries and I feared what might happen to them in the coming days.

At last our flight was called. The pilot did his religious bit as we cruised for take-off. He couldn’t just say his verses privately; it had to be broadcast to the entire plane, although we were, after all, flying to Juba not Mecca.

Majok had showed me the website on his laptop with the referendum countdown timed in seconds. I doubted if people would wait, feeling that it was people with guns who decide the course of history, not citizens voting in referendums. In this I was proved wrong and the referendum went ahead in a very credible way.

Majok pointed out of the window; I had not been very observant. Two massive planes were preparing for take-off, with troops marching around one of them. SAF forces were entering the great belly of the plane.

‘They’re off to Darfur!’ I turned to Majok.

Ugandan dobeymen, Juba

‘I heard on Al Jazeera that over 300 were killed in Darfur last week.’

‘Yes, it’s true.’

‘Darfur! Is it the South: Part Two?’ In the intimacy of the plane, I now had the opportunity to check out one or two things.

‘As a foreigner, as an outsider, it seems to me that the South was about… Well, first of all it was about “Arabization”. And secondly it was Islamization. And of course – and maybe this is number one – it was about oil.’

Majok raised no objection to this view of the conflict.

‘And Darfur? Well, it’s Arabization again. And of course there’s the oil. But they can’t claim Islamization this time round, can they? The Fur are Muslims.’ In a sense there has however been a kind of ‘Islamization’ in that ideologies that reflect a much more legalistic interpretation of Islam have played their part in Darfur with its more Sufi-orientated Islam. Majok was still focused on the South:‘But you forgot the minerals. When you think of all that we have in the South, they had the right to attack us!’

‘How can you say that!’

‘Well, not a right, but it made sense.’

‘And after separation in South Sudan you will have two sources of revenue: oil and aid. How are you going to export your oil, if not through the North?’

There was talk of a pipeline to Mombasa, but this would make the South dependent on Kenya rather than Khartoum. The reality was that the South currently had very limited sources of revenue. I turned to my fellow passenger.

‘Let’s consider the dream scenario. Borders are agreed. The referendum is fair. And the North agrees to separation. And then the two separate states agree to continue trading together. Now what are the chances of that happening? And what about South Kordofan?’

Juba: view from the hotel

‘The people there will decide.’

South Kordofan, with its oil fields and ethnic diversity, was likely to be an area of further conflict. Even the issue of who would have the right to vote in border areas like Abyei had not been resolved; as in that Genesis myth of Cain and Abel, the settled were in conflict with the nomadic.

A breakfast of cheese omelette and sausages was served by Egyptian stewards as Majok told me about his time doing his Master’s in Scandinavia.

‘I told them I would die there from the winter!’

‘And the people? Were they interested in Sudan?’

‘Very!’

‘I’ve never understood that Norwegian interest in South Sudan. I mean, the British with their history, of course. And the Americans. But the Norwegians, how do you explain their interest?’

‘I can’t.’

‘Does it begin with O and end with an L by any chance?’

We were now nearing Juba. I could see the Nile and swampy lakes and the occasional cluster of huts. Our approach seemed a leisurely one. It had not been like this in the past! Planes had flown high until Juba and then descended almost vertically in a corkscrew to avoid being fired on.

‘And in the war, how long did the SPLA hold Juba for?’

‘They had the surrounding areas. But the town? Just in the last days.’

Juba, pothole problems

We taxied to a halt, just outside the tiny airport building. It was a sunny day, with touches of white cloud, and temperatures just in the mid-20s. A banner hung across the wire where we entered the airport building. ‘Vote for secession! Stand up for secession!’ I turned to Majok.

‘That looks like a message from the grassroots!’ He seemed to approve.

‘It’s the young people here! They are not free to do this in Khartoum!’

‘It looks as if their views are a bit different from those at the top!’

Luggage took an eternity and my driver didn’t turn up, but there were taxis at the main entrance. I wasn’t sure what language to use with a taxi driver in Juba.

‘Would you prefer English or Arabic?’

‘I have both, but I prefer English.’

‘And what’s your name?’

‘Matata-safi!’ I had picked up a few words of Swahili years before when I had travelled in Kenya, fleeing Sudan during the Gulf War.

Matata is Swahili for problem, isn’t it? And safi? Is that Swahili as well as Arabic? So were you born in Kenya?’

‘No here, in Yea.’ My driver’s English hinted of education abroad.

‘But you went to school in Uganda?’

‘In our tradition, the parents name the child after the situation in which it was born.’ We laughed at that. And so, with an employee of the Ministry of Information, now moonlighting, I rode into Juba town with Pure Problem as my driver. So that had been the situation at the time of his birth: nothing but problems.

Waitress, Juba

The View from Juba Bridge

The rains had come, the afternoons building up with a cloudy heat until teaching was silenced as rain thundered on roofs. That to me is the sound of Africa: rain on tin roofs.

The Nile at Juba Bridge was not a disappointment. The waters at this time of year were a rich brown and water hyacinths were clogging together against the pillars of the bridge. On the riverbank, generators pumped up water for the lads washing down Landcruisers. Under a tree, someone openly smoked a joint.

Further along the banks men congregated to do the same, while others bathed devoid of the garments required in Khartoum.

I was with Adam, a colleague originally from Darfur, down from Khartoum for the first time. We greeted the soldiers on the bailey bridge and, given the picturesque view, Adam reminded me of the camera in my backpack. I had been too long in Sudan for that.

‘If I take a shot of the Nile, they’ll say I’m photographing the bridge.’

‘But haven’t they heard of Google Earth?’

Villagers, one with a goat, were walking across in single file. For a city, Juba was a very rural place. On first arriving in Juba Town I was amazed at the ‘city’ I found. Juba proper was just like those small towns found in East Africa with their tin-roofed buildings and verandas functioning as hardware stores or groceries.

Why would anyone fight for two decades over such a place? But in Juba it’s not what’s on the surface but what lies beneath the ground that matters.

Some of the displaced were still camped out in the street near the mosque, gathering around fires to cook some porridge or gruel with the tarpaulins under which they slept hanging from the shop balconies. Not without a sense of guilt, I’d walk past them to the nearby bar in the evenings, a bar managed by two Greek-Sudanese brothers.

Notos Bar, Juba

One night, as I made my way to the bar through Juba’s darkening streets, Puccini was sounding out luxuriantly from the sound system. When I was a young volunteer in Malawi I could never have imagined myself in this situation: avoiding the utterly destitute in the street, the mothers settling down on some squalid mat with their children, as I made for a wood-fired pizza and a couple of beers in a stylish bar.

Juba is the first and third worlds brought together – or rather kept distinctly apart – all in a couple of streets.

As an aid worker in Juba you can have a good time. The west portrays itself as altruistic in what it does in Africa, and aid workers are cast in some kind of angelic role. When I revisited the Belfast school I had left for my first stint in Africa, an elderly colleague asked if I had ‘heard the call’! The reality, in terms of repayments of international loans for example, is anything but altruism, and the aid industry has its fair share of pleasure-seekers, an altogether healthier situation, perhaps, than suffering angels.

It’s life without the normal responsibilities. Almost no one is there with their family and, in the upper ranks of the industry, especially if you are with the Gravy Train, there are generous per diems to spend or save as you like. And it is not only the expats who enjoy the per diems. The aid industry was producing a strange mentality in Juba. Some trainees resented getting free language training during working hours in their own Ministry. Why weren’t they being trained in Dar as Salaam or Nairobi, with the generous per diems that this would bring?

Juba is not a place for the bland. Seated at the bar would be a former British officer now running a private security firm. It was his off-hand comment that gave me the best insight into what Khartoum’s policies of Arabization and Islamization had meant for the South. Recruiting men of the right age was a problem for his firm in Juba.

‘After the war, we can’t get young men in their twenties or early-thirties. There are hardly any left alive to recruit.’ And then turning to the Kenyan barman: ‘Any sign of that pizza we ordered?’

Then there was his Irish companion, knocking back yet another beer, organising literacy programmes for adults in the villages, nipping in the bud any aiddependence mentality.‘I told them that if they wanted a school in their village, they had better get started and build it!’

With us was a Kenyan woman who was much more on the ball than some expat just flown in from Europe or the USA. As they had done in Khartoum in the 1990s, so in Juba they, too, were throwing out the baby with the bath water, but this time it was the utter rejection of Arabic for English.

‘How can they reduce the number of teachers! They are dismissing the ones trained in the Arabic pattern. They need to be retrained, not sacked!’ This was the world I would enjoy for a couple of months.

A few minutes had been enough to cross Juba Bridge. Now, at its end, a truck driver was discussing something with the men at the checkpoint; negotiating a bribe perhaps? Beyond was a sea of roofs, which Adam christened Zinc Town. It was the roadside mêlée of the equivalent of a service station, with one shack even promising banking services. The White Nile flowed darkly beneath us and Adam contemplated our distance from Khartoum.

‘If we were in a boat, how long would it take us to reach Khartoum?’

‘Floating down? What do you think?’

‘A month?’

I would have thought less. But for those Victorian explorers of the Nile, going upriver from Khartoum, progress often came to an end in the fetid swamps of the Sudd. One British hunter, having arrived in Omdurman in 1901, wrote of his later travels in the Sudd. There was the silence that came with the absence of life, feasting mosquitoes excepted, as the boat passed through ‘an endless avenue of papyrus, tall and slender and of a most perfect green’, their journey marked by the sickly-sweet smell of rotting vegetation.2 The Sudd, the South’s natural barrier, had allowed traditional ways of life to continue beyond the reach of advancing commerce.

Ironically, the conflict which had killed two million Southern Sudanese had also made the South, for the aid worker Emma McClune, a place apart. Emma opted to live in a hut in a guerrilla camp with the guerrilla leader she had married as his second wife. For her it was an Eden, sealed off from the rest of the world by war. Now, with apparent peace, all that was set to change; with all those oil reserves Juba apparently had the potential to become one of the richest pieces of real estate in the world. As international companies competed to get their hands on that oil, Englishlanguage programmes and school projects, packaged as aid, would help to serve their needs. Teachers such as I were part of the advancing frontier of westernization that would transform the lands of the pastoralists into real estate.

The Nile at Juba

The Nile in Sudan is like an old familiar friend you meet in unfamiliar places, but here even the Nile seemed different. Strictly speaking, we were viewing not so much the White Nile as one of its tributaries. The waters seemed to move purposely forward, directly, unlike the great leisurely sweeps of the Blue Nile before the White Nile joins it at Khartoum. The Northern capital already seemed another country, but one thing, however, was just the same: a thick-set man in a track suit challenged us in badly pronounced English.

‘What are you doing on the bridge?’ His manner was less than charming and the explanation ‘Enjoying the view’ was not going to work.

Tourism has not yet taken off in Juba, although it has a thriving equivalent: the aid industry workers staying in a variety of hotels with rates that might rival New York’s. And Juba has its own distinctive architecture. Most of the hotels are a series of containers, such as you see stacked at a port. A night in such a container, the rings to which the former cargo was once tied still authentically remaining on the walls, could easily set you back US$100, breakfast of bacon and sausages included.

Customer-care for two stakeholders in the South Sudan tourist industry seemed to be a little lacking as our man in the tracksuit harangued us.

‘Get off the bridge! Don’t stand here!’

As Juba has its own debased form of Arabic so it has its own variety of English in which the polite forms such as ‘would you’ and ‘could you’ are noticeably lacking. As it is in the military, so it is in civilian life: imperatives abound! I would also have to revise that view Churchill had of the North as the Military Sudan; the South was mirroring it perfectly. Perhaps the man who had confronted me in Omdurman Suq was right after all: ‘All Sudan is a military area’. We walked back, feigning nonchalance.

‘What are you going to have back in the hotel? A nice, cold Tusker beer?’

Back on the Bridge Hotel terrace we sat beneath massive mango trees. The terrace was tastefully paved, the restaurant carefully thatched, the waitresses stylishly-dressed Ethiopians. I turned to Adam. ‘You guys are asleep in Khartoum! Couldn’t you do something like this, even if it was just for coffee?’

‘There was a time when Ugandans flew from Kampala to Khartoum for a weekend in its bars!’

From the hotel terrace, we watched the light soften over Nile waters. A lone boatman was casting his circular net, a net that I have seen used from the seas off Suakin to the islands of Yemen. He pulled a Nile perch into his dugout canoe with ease and bystanders on the terrace offered to purchase the catch. A genial bargaining ensued. The waters and the sky merged so that the distant hills misted over.

Some Juba elders were sitting at a nearby table. Dress is a strange thing in Juba. In town, some spoke of former days when tribesmen had walked the streets naked; today, men on the make, more British than the British, opt for heavy western suits, totally unsuitable for the climate. For late afternoon refreshments on the hotel terrace, however, these elders in their thick glasses were wearing pyjamas with a paisley motif, a return to the original function of pyjamas: daywear in a hot climate.

Ugandan in Juba

At the next table, a few guys ‘here on business’ had been sipping orange juice. One was from the Nuba Mountains, another from Darfur. As they paid their bill, one explained: ‘I’m just going to have a shower and then get dressed.’ He smiled knowingly and I understood. ‘Well, make sure you take something to wear for protection as well!’

On the far bank, the trees were speckled with roosting egrets, fidgeting from branch to branch as the dusk thickened. Frogs began their chorus as mosquitoes gathered in swarms. With darkness, our driver took us back.

‘After dark, you don’t want to be on Juba roads! Robbers beat up pedestrians and strip them of their possessions. And the police shift ends before midnight!’ I wondered what effect the exit of the police would have on the ambience of the city streets.

‘And then there are the checkpoints! They stopped me and asked, “Have you any guns?” They accused me of immoral behaviour because I had a woman in the car. I was taking my wife to hospital!’

He dropped us at De Havana Bar, where the men drinking were politeness itself, giving us their table for us to eat our pizza. They looked as if they were dressed for the office, not for a night out, but one sat in beach-shorts with his arm hanging carelessly over his mate’s shoulders. In Juba, where the Guinness is a fruity 6 per cent alcohol, they drink! But there isn’t usually the aggression that is released on weekend streets in Ireland. If anything, I found some of the Sudanese in Juba rather abrasive during the day but often pleasantly mellow after a few drinks.

The World Cup was playing on the big screen and Abba, as ever, sounded out over the sound system. Women in wigs and the briefest of skirts sat together; Auntie Betty with her hair up for church but with the clinging mini of the rapper’s chick. Often women would arrive after 11.00pm, starting the evening after the men had already tanked up and their judgement was somewhat impaired. One woman in a scarlet dress sat down between us and the men from Juba.

I found it a bit hard to take, prudish after all those years in Khartoum; the woman directly opposite was not exactly hiding her wares. It was a far cry from the North, but Adam seemed not so much dumbfounded as amused.

A free newspaper was being distributed and I wondered, given all the evangelical forces at work in the region, if it was not the South Sudan equivalent of the Salvation Army’s War Cry. The paper was political, however, the headline warning against warmongering. Tucked away in a little space on the last page I noticed something about a military leader who had broken away and was fighting South Sudan troops. Adam explained.

‘He was high up in the military. His name’s George Athor Deng.’

‘Deng! So he’s Dinka and he’s fighting SPLA troops! I don’t believe it!’ This was a new one for me: a Dinka ‘renegade general’ fighting against those who had liberated the South. As a man at the bar once explained, here everyone wants to be beng, the Big Boss.

‘He stood for election and didn’t get the result he expected.’ Apparently George Athor had run for Governor of Jonglei State as an independent candidate and lost. Had the election been unfair? For me there was a broader issue.

‘If he’s in the military, what was he doing standing for election anyway?’

An ‘international’ group had now gathered at the bar. De Havana is where expatriates would come for salsa, but it was not just the expats. There were Sudanese present who had travelled in the west but had never been to Khartoum. At the bar, ‘lost boys’ – a misnomer if there ever was one, for the ‘lost boy’ would be six foot six and built like an athlete – would tell me their stories. With the destruction of their villages and the killing of their families, they had found refuge in Ethiopia where they received ‘schooling’.

That’s the official version. According to the author of Emma’s War, ‘lost boys’ was a misnomer for a quite different reason: they weren’t ‘lost’ war orphans at all but child conscripts, pawns in a complicated war game. I heard from a ‘lost boy’ who had lived in a training camp in Ethiopia, how, if any kind of inspection from an international team was due, the training camp was set up to look like the boys were attending classes. The camps of ‘lost boys’ were a source of Gravy Train aid, the aid often going to feed the boys’ ‘caretakers’, not the boys. Now, decades later, after schooling in Kenya followed by refuge in Cuba or Canada or Australia, the ‘lost boys’ were back home, knocking back shots at the bar, flamboyantly dressed, larger than life and investing in South Sudan with their lives.

The bar was now filling up. Unlike in Khartoum, people in Juba know how to have a good time. If you have money you spend it; if you don’t you spend someone else’s. The waitress, modestly dressed, brought another Kenyan Tusker beer.

‘Do you think she’s Sudanese?’

‘No, I’d say she’s Kenyan.’ Almost all the staff were industrious Kenyans or Ugandans. In Juba I was more likely to pick up Swahili than, say, the language of the indigenous Bari ethnic group. As in some oil-rich Gulf states it was foreigners in Juba who did the work. Not one of the tankers I saw filling up with water to be delivered to homes was driven by a Sudanese; I was told such work was stigmatized. Meanwhile, as work that did not seem particularly specialized was done by workers from other African countries, a lot of young men seemed to be spending their days with their feet up, reclining in a chair, watching the world go by. Did they really see such work as beneath them? Or, in that wonderful Gravy Train catch-all term, did they need some ‘capacity-building’ in order to fill up a tanker with water?

As footballers posed on the massive screen before the next match, nearer the bar we were getting the full run of Abba hits as the singer called out that she was the first in line and still free. Take a chance on me! I was back in the Grand in Khartoum again, musically at least, for McCulture was embracing us all. I wondered just how free it all was. As the dream of a separate Southern state seemed about to become a reality, I felt that people were likely to confuse independence and freedom. Just as the North was dominated by the awlad al baher, would the South, too, be dominated by one or two ethnic groups?

And if you were a woman in South Sudan, what did ‘freedom’ mean? Among my trainees there were talented women who would forge a professional career in the new South; I was lucky to have taught such women at such a time. But in the bars, freedom for women – and they were nearly all women from Kenya or Uganda – seemed to mean hooking a man for a commercial transaction.

When you say ‘Juba’ in Khartoum, the Sudanese respond as if you were talking about a place of unrestricted pleasure. If you were an unattractive, middle-aged, white male in search of a female for the night, perhaps it was. I saw half a dozen military men from Europe arrive together, appear to drink soft drinks, get up to dance and pull within a few minutes.

It was time to turn in, although sleep would not come easy with the vuvuzela horns of the World Cup sounding out into the early hours. Juba certainly was a world apart from the Sudan I knew; culturally it was much closer to Kenya and Uganda than to Khartoum.

Was there anything, apart from conflict, that united Khartoum and Juba? The two cities were poles apart, but were similar in that they were both extreme. In one city it was not unusual for a woman to wear socks and gloves, despite the intense heat, rather than expose the flesh. In the other, it didn’t seem as if many at the bar – one evening over 1,000 had come to De Havana for drink and music – were setting out to ‘keep the promise’. I turned to my colleague.

‘Adam, I think there might, after all, be something to be said for the North and the tobe!’

At the Queen’s birthday party

It was the Sudanese speaker who called on everyone gathered to stand for the national anthems. We waited with our glasses in hand, the cucumber and carrot dips on a tray on the table, but someone had forgotten, by accident I’m sure, to set up the music. They’re always an embarrassment anyway, national anthems.

The British ambassador gave the perfect speech, seemingly off the cuff, ironic, brief. The Sudanese speaker, however, set out to tick a lot of boxes. There was the quotation from the first Queen Elizabeth about a tiny nation defending itself from invasion. Then he gently chided those NGOs who, fearing the worst, had left the country before the elections.

‘South Sudan is not like the Congo or Nigeria or Kenya; here, there is an exemplary tolerance of other ethnic groups.’ Obviously we had been reading different newspapers.

‘South Sudan is a new thing in Africa!’

Indeed. The emerging state had allegedly reached levels of corruption that other African states had taken 50 years to cultivate. I heard that so much aid money was being siphoned off it was contributing to the escalation of house prices in Nairobi.

The relationship between Sudan and the UK was further explored, as the speaker delved back a centuryand-a-half to when a British explorer and his wifeto-be (Baker later married his mistress) had travelled here. Strangely enough, I had met a Ugandan called Samuel Baker that very afternoon, hawking a mirror and suitcases around the streets of Juba with his two sons, searching not for the source of the Nile but a customer.

The speaker moved on.

‘It is Britain’s duty to clean up the mess it has created!’ More than half a century after their departure, it was the colonialists, not the indigenous leadership, who were held responsible for the state of Sudan. Were the Sudanese leadership, Kipling-like, still calling on Britain to ‘take up the white man’s burden’? Our speaker had to compete with the ever-increasing chat that was coming from the crowd, who thankfully were more interested in the wine that was now on tap than responding to Kipling’s invitation. But there was one more thorny issue to refer to: the referendum.

‘Five years is not a long time, but Unity has been made attractive! Just look at the roads, and schools, and health facilities that have been built!’ Was the speaker a master of irony? The roads in Juba seemed to lead to the private mansions of the blessed, those who were ‘building the nation’, and although Juba had a casino, I couldn’t find a basic government health clinic.

Up in Khartoum they were still assuming Unity; why would the South want to break away? A Sudanese doctor I met returning briefly to Khartoum from his life abroad had more of a sense of things. He told me how a friend had put it: ‘If those slaves want to break away, we’ll let them go.’

The language says it all really. For that travelled doctor (it feels at times that there are more Sudanese doctors in Dublin and London than in Khartoum) the conflict was essentially about race and ethnicity.

Who could disagree with that? But there was a third factor, linked to the first two: Islamism. If Sudan were an Islamic state, by definition any Christian was a second-class, though theoretically protected, citizen and anyone animist was something beneath that again. The words displayed above the reception in the New Sudan Palace Hotel said it all: ‘Why should I want to be a second-class citizen in someone else’s state when I could be a first-class citizen in my own country?’

Those were the words, half-remembered here, of Garang, apparently giving his blessing on separation if that was the people’s choice. But the hotel itself showed the folly of those who spoke in simplistic terms of an Islamic North and a Christian-animist South. Here in ‘the Christian-animist South’ the owner was hosting Ramadan break-fasts in the hotel garden for Juba dignitaries.

The complexities of Sudan defy description; what history there is in just one man’s name, when the first is a Christian name like Peter, the second an indigenous name from his tribe and the third a Muslim name like Abdullah? What pigeon-hole does he fit into?

But as the referendum approached, North and South seemed to be on different planets. Up in Khartoum they were in their usual state of denial. A rather solid monument – a map of all Sudan – had suddenly appeared in Mak Nimer Street, with the words ‘Our strength is in our Unity’ emblazoned below the map in Arabic.

Meanwhile in Juba, one of my trainees had brought the words of the proposed new national anthem to class. We dished out the copies and he sat there, his cheeks cut up in what he claimed was a motorbike accident but which had all the marks of a punch-up. The anthem began with a reference to God, of course. It then went on to address the ‘great warriors’ of the nation, remembering the ‘two million martyrs’ whose blood cemented the foundation of the state. We were heading, apparently, for a land of milk and honey, inhabited by hardworking youth.

In the dreams of the proposed national anthem, I was living it seems, not in Juba with its shanty towns and straggling suburbs like Utla burra (Get out of here!) but in the land of Kush, ‘the first civilisation in the world’. Kush? I had travelled through those Kushite kingdoms by the Nile way north of Khartoum, but I had never heard of Kush extending south to Juba. Kush would be a more appropriate name for the North; perhaps the two states could swap names?

Plans were now afoot for the transformation not just of Juba but of all the cities and towns of South Sudan. Just as Dubai has its offshore man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree, so there were plans afoot to have the new city of Juba built in the form of a rhino. Other towns would be similarly themed: this one would be planned as a pineapple; that one would take the shape of a bird. In Juba, I did sometimes have a sense of living in Animal Farm, but this was taking the new state beyond credibility.

But at least I had the freedom to drink and not endure the rules of another’s religion. I joined the men near the bar.

‘And how’s Khartoum?’

‘I rather like the place!’ I suppose no one had said this before to the civil servants of the Ministry of International Relations.

‘And Juba?’

‘I suppose I’m growing to like it.’ There were howls of disbelief. One of the civil servants had been to the UK, a dream destination for some Sudanese.

‘To do a Master’s?’

‘No, before that.’

‘As an undergraduate?’

‘No, before that! I went to school there as a refugee in ’86 when the war broke out.’

‘That’s about when I first came to Sudan.’

We were trading places. He had gone there to escape Sudan; I had come to Africa to escape Ireland. One of the women came up to us and, as if they were more than mere friends, he touched her.

‘Excuse me…’ They moved slightly aside and some kind of arrangement was made for later in the evening.

‘So how’s that then?’ I’m not sure what he expected; a round of applause perhaps? I must on this occasion have sounded particularly priggish.

‘How’s what?’ Women as a commodity to be bought at the bar?

Tactfully moving on, my fellow drinker told me of his time in Britain.

‘There was a university lecturer, an anthropologist who wrote the first study of us, who had known my grandfather. So when I was there, I went to find him.’

‘And how were you received?’

‘Warmly!’

I suppose any scholar now reading his anthropological work would see its discourse as colonial, but it would be interesting to compare that anthropologist’s generation with the ‘international community’ today, with their display of Land-cruisers outside the bar, engaging not so much with the Sudanese as with themselves.

But perhaps I am being unfair. I could also contrast the manner of an American at the bar – the epitome of democratic politeness as he spoke to the barman – with some of the Sudanese drinkers who commanded the Kenyan barman as if he were a servant from a lower caste. I started to preach.

‘I think that generation of colonialists maybe had an integrity that people in the aid industry don’t have today.’ I was, I knew, on dubious ground. Part of the South of Sudan had once been under Belgium’s King Leopold II’s control. A feature of what was once the Belgian Congo next door had been the numbers of Africans whose limbs had been amputated by their ‘civilizing’ European plantation managers.

‘I agree.’

‘I mean, they probably believed in what they were doing for a start.’

I was on very dubious ground. Wyndham portrays his British host in the 1930s as almost a parody of the colonial; ranting against ‘the natives’ and objecting to the building of Gordon College, built to educate a small Sudanese elite to serve British interests, as ‘a good river site wasted’.

I suspect many of those Khartoum expats would have known only a few imperatives in Arabic. But some of those ‘servants of the Crown’ had been fluent speakers of Sudanese languages and genuinely interested in the culture, even if mastering the language was part of mastering the people too.

You would expect people in Sudan to vilify their former colonial rulers, but it’s rare to hear it; in fact they talk about their honesty. What characterizes Thesiger’s time in Sudan, however, is his doubts about his own colonial role, along with his utter respect for those whose indigenous culture was still intact though threatened by what his presence signified. About his time in Darfur he writes: ‘I had no faith in the changes which we were bringing about. I craved for the past, resented the present and dreaded the future.’ In contrast, most of today’s aid workers could scarcely speak a word of either Arabic or any of the indigenous languages, knew next to nothing of the cultures and were doing aid on that essential fashion accessory, their Apple Mac. Livingstone had walked across the African Continent; they were driven around in Land-cruisers. Observing my fellow guests in the hotel, those advising Sudanese civil servants on national policies seemed to be the young and beautiful on their gap year. I was not alone in my scepticism.

‘And it’s true of “our side” today too. People like my grandfather had an integrity that our leaders don’t have today!’

I would soon retire to the white cocoon next door. It’s not that the hotel was indulgent – the bedroom had the almost Spartan aesthetics of a monastery. But not a lot had changed in terms of race relations: the staff, largely Kenyan, were housed in dire conditions across the way. Someone had run off with my wine glass. As wine on tap had now come to an end, my companion bought me a drink and disappeared in pursuit of other pleasures.

The buzz would continue into the wee hours. One morning I was woken up to the sound of gunfire, but that was just part of the charm of staying in a ‘boutique hotel’ in Juba: some of De Havana’s clientele were expressing their displeasure at being told to leave the bar at dawn.

Extract from ‘Becoming Plural’ by Richard Boggs. Buy it here.

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