Juba, February 2009 – Scarlatti is filling this ‘room’ with his genius. I’ve managed to attach my iPod to the huge television set and the combination of the two makes for a reasonable sound quality. Although at the moment, I must say, they’re not making it very easy for poor Domenico. I’m sitting in the middle of a construction site. Above my head more ‘rooms’ are being built, outside between the barracks a pavement is being laid. All this is accompanied by a lot of hammering, the high pitched screams of metal grinders, deafening sounds of heavy drills and the loud chatter of the cleaning girls doing the windows and doors of these ‘rooms’. But since I know his music so well, Domenico only needs to get a couple of notes through in between the noises to let me know what he’s trying to tell me. He speaks my language, I know his story, we’re friends.
Last year december we left our airplane in Djibouti. We had finished the job there, no other job was lined up yet so we flew home by airliner to do the christmas and new year thing. Two days ago we returned to Djibouti to pick it up again.
Now I need to make clear that I have never liked Africa. I’ve had some bad experiences here, and they have forever biased my opinion regarding this continent. Call it traumatized. Call it unfair and prejudice. I hate Africa. And I don’t take any crap from people who have done a holiday to Kenya or Gambia. It’s not the Africa that I’ve come to know. But somehow I had to admit, returning to Djibouti was a bit like coming home again. The smiling people shaking hands all day long with everybody they meet. The terminal building at the airport that is coming apart at the seams. The inefficiency of the official proceedings. Right when we left the plane together with 200 other passengers, the fun began. In order to speed up the passport checks, there were all of 6 officers in little booths doing the checks. Wonderful idea, you shouldn’t keep passengers waiting too long. Where this great display of efficiency failed however was the visa application. I guess 80 percent of the passengers was foreign and needed a visa. So after the passport check you were pointed to one little office where you could pay the money and get a stamp in your passport. And the 2 guys in that little office, with stacks of passports on the desk, didn’t work very fast. And that’s an understatement. So of course in no time the group of people waiting near the door to this little office grew bigger and bigger, and pretty soon chaos ensued. Hours of waiting time before everyone was through. It’s Africa, what can you say.
But somehow I couldn’t stop smiling. When we got into the pile of junk labeled ‘taxi’ that rattled us to the hotel I was looking out the window, saw the goats, the children, the garbage, the little shacks, and yes, it felt a bit like coming home, almost paradise. In hindsight, compared to the place we are now, it was indeed exactly that. Paradise. With the decent rooms, the swimming pool (albeit greenish), the cute centre ville where you can go for dinner….
But now we’re in South Sudan. Juba. It almost looks like the United Nations has its main hub here. They *own* this place. You can’t look anywhere without seeing those two letters, side by side on some truck, four wheel drive SUV, Jeep, Land Rover, airplane, helicopter, helmet or badge. If you’re asking yourself where all your tax money is going, this is the place. And if you want to know where all your charitable gifts are going, it’s right here. There is not an NGO in this world that does not have an office here. Everybody seems to want to help, everybody wants a piece of the action, be part of the African Dream. But I am not yet convinced it is working and for that matter, neither is our local guy Hakim. But let me start at the beginning.
When we were still in Holland, we postponed our arrival here for a week because we couldn’t get the approval for a visa needed to get into this country. We had invitation letters from the Sudanese government as proof that we needed to be here, but that didn’t help any. When we were running out of time we decided to just go, and see if any amount of money could speed up the process once here. We needn’t have worried. When we arrived here on a sunday, we discovered that Juba International airport is not very secure. Every man, woman, child or goat can freely walk on and off the airplane platform. And when we told the airport manager that we didn’t have a visa, he told us to get one the next day with the immigration office. And what a laugh that was. Literally. After some searching in the airport departure terminal we found a guy with a badge labeled ‘Immigration Officer’. We were greeted with a big smile (displaying bad teeth, but we didn’t mention it, no need to be rude now) and shook hands like we were long lost friends. He gave our passports to one of his employees and 2 minutes later we were handed them back, again accompanied by a huge smile and the needed stamp inside. This, also, is Africa.
On the day we flew from Djibouti to Juba we needed to do a fuel stop at Addis Abbeba. During flight we had noticed some straws coming out from the right aileron (wingflap near the tip used to roll the plane left or right). After landing at Addis I ventured to investigate. I suspected it was a birds nest. And when I used a screwdriver to get all of the straws out, 4 little eggs fell out with it. Apparently when the plane had been standing idle at the Djibouti airport for a month, two birds had seen the space between the aileron and the wing as the perfect place to raise their offspring. Sadly we returned a few weeks early. As I looked at the broken eggs, with one of the embryos laying helplessly on the tarmac, I counted 4 victims and one broken heart. I’m a sissy. I comforted myself with the knowledge that they silently froze to death during our flight here. My screwdriver was just needed to provide for safe continuation of the flight.
At Juba airport we were met by Anders. The guy responsible for laying down and measuring the control points on the ground. These are used later to be able to accurately position our photography. The idea was to lay some points in the area itself as well, but after reports of land mines in those areas Anders opted to only put points in the city. There are no real heroes anymore, are there ? But at least he helped us with our stuff, and delivered us to the five star “Sahara Resort Hotel” that I’m in now. And boy, what a wonderful place this is !! Everything I had ever hoped for, and more.
It does have a few minor things that could be improved upon though. First of all, it is not really a hotel. It’s a terrain in the middle of nowhere on which they’ve placed prefab barracks, the type you find on construction sites to house tools or a workers canteen. The barracks are stacked two high. They all have one small window and one door. The kitchen is housed in two sea cargo containers. For better access these have an extra door in the side.
(Ha ! Typical ! I’m suddenly in the dark. Another power cut, and I hadn’t even mentioned those…well while we wait for the power to come back on I might as well continue the story until the laptop battery runs out.)
Every shack has an airco unit. Sometimes at night I wake up covered in sweat. And when I can’t recollect having had any hot dreams, it is usually the AC that cleverly switched itself off again. The first evening I found that the shower only offered cold water. Well, not to worry, I had gotten used to that in Djibouti already. But this one offered only one teacup per minute (optimistic estimate). That was a bigger problem. It took quite some effort to do the job, but in the end what does it really matter. You don’t really need a shower in this country since you’re constantly soaking in sweat anyway. The next morning I went into the shower and a part of the floor collapsed as I stepped on it. There’s been a nasty sewer smell in the bathroom ever since.
(I’m still in the dark…)
No problem, shit happens, and that’s a cute link to what happened next. I went about my normal morning ritual, which usually starts with some quality time sitting on the toilet. Production was quite voluminous and aromatic this morning, which is always a source of great pride. Except when you flush the toilet and it doesn’t. It didn’t flush and it wasn’t refilling. I won’t describe what was staring back at me from down in the toilet. I sort of covered it with some toilet paper and closed the lid, leaving a happy welcome for the cleaning girl. Since I had repaired the clogged shower head myself the previous day, and also switched the hot water boiler on using a magic switch on the wall I was anticipating a nice refreshing shower next. But that was not to be. Opening the tap on the shower didn’t get me anything but a deep gurgling sound and one single drop falling to the floor since I failed to catch it. I had found the reason for the malfunctioning toilet. No water. No shower. No wash. No shave. No happiness.
I brushed my teeth with bottled water, got dressed and opened the curtains, resulting in the whole curtain contraption falling to the floor. Of course. I was not really surprised since the towel hanger had come off the bathroom wall a few minutes earlier. I picked up the phone to call reception and ask about the water. The phone was suspiciously silent. I pressed some buttons, but that didn’t help. Wondering if it was plugged in at all I followed the wire that disappeared behind the bed. Not only was it not connected, there wasn’t even a plug on the wire, and no socket in the wall. A bit similar to the bedside lamp which looks really pretty, and would be very useful, if only there were a socket somewhere in the neighborhood.
(the laptop battery is about to die… I’ll have to continue when the power comes back on…)
Everything is somehow crooked in this place. The shower tub is slanted towards the corner exactly opposite the drain. Since the tub is quite shallow it tends to overflow onto the shower floor unless you constantly peddle the water to the drain with your feet. It makes for some healthy exercise in the mornings. The african version of Aerobics, without the upbeat music.
So all in all there is some improvement possible. The small room safe, always a good idea in countries like this, is usually made of a sturdy metal and is bolted to a wall or large piece of furniture. The one in my room seems to be of the portable variety. Light to carry and not annoyingly attached to anything.
Also some emergency lighting would be nice. The power cuts out about three times a day. Sometimes this happens right when you’re walking back to your barracks. When that happened to me and I found myself halfway home in pitch black darkness I proceeded to gently shuffle ahead, but couldn’t avoid hitting something. The ‘something’ fell over with quite a loud bang and the sound of breaking glass. In the morning I found I’d hit one of the small lamp posts that were supposed to light my way. Bolting them to the floor was too much trouble I guess.
Money changing. Normally a hotel allows its guests to change some Euros or Dollars into local currency, albeit at a ripoff rate. I asked the receptionist and he told me the hotel does no such thing. However, when I was sitting in reception with my laptop one day later, the door boy came whispering in my ear. Euro’s, dollars, you name it, he could change it. And at a reasonable rate too ! So I gave him 50 euro’s, we calculated the amount in local pounds and out came the bundle of cash. And he’s been giving me understanding nods ever since. We’re buddies now.
The only thing that I found to be actually working in this room is the little thingy where you put your keycard in to switch on the power. Normally these things are easily fooled by inserting a business card or anything that looks like it. So that when you leave the room you can leave your laptop or telephone to charge, and the AC running to keep the room at an agreeable temperature. The one installed here is much smarter. It accepts the room key and the room key ONLY. Nothing else works. So when you come back to your room, the laptop and telephone are not charged, and the room itself has reached the temperature of a Finnish sauna, minus the steam and minus the cute naked Finnish girls.
So. How do I feel…. In all honesty, I feel great. Yes, the place is a dump. Yes, the country is hopeless. But being here is a privilege. Everywhere you look you see people who have close to nothing. And judging by all the charity organizations in the area, probably just outside of the city many are starving or dying for lack of food, clean water and proper medicine. But when you drive through this place and watch the shit, the garbage, the primitive shacks, you can not fail to see the smiles on children’s faces. These shine like diamonds in a desert of despair. They are the future of this war torn country. And if we could just help these people in a proper way, their future could be bright. Could be. It is not at all sure. Yesterday we had dinner with Hakim, and he explained a bit about the situation. The conflict between North and South Sudan is ongoing. It is (of course) a religious conflict, since the north is mostly Islamic and the south is mostly Christian. But it is also about resources. Ever since they found oil in the south, the north wants a piece of it. And also Kenya is pushing its borders to the north to get as much of the resources within their borders as possible. This makes South Sudan under threat from two sides. And where it will end is wholly unclear. The presence of the United Nations doesn’t help very much, Hakim says. On the contrary. Because of all these rich UN employees being in the area, prices of everything have soared. He mentioned a patch of land worth 100 USD 4 years ago is now selling for 15,000 USD. Rental of housing has more than doubled. Cost of transport has soared. All this is making it very difficult for the local middle class people, the people that are supposed to rebuild this country. And the UN is wasting vast amounts of money here. Many of their employees earn huge salaries and deliver close to nothing in return. Instead, Hakim says, they should stimulate small businesses. Invest in local initiatives. Work together with the government to curb foreign investors with less than honest intentions. Fight corruption in the government and civil services, the police and the military. And educate the people. After the war this area has become totally dependent on foreign aid and charity. Everywhere you look there’s healthy men just sitting around, doing nothing. 90% are paid by the government, a situation that can not continue if this country is ever going to maintain itself.
Yesterday we flew 30% of the project. It was a good feeling. And flying around here is beautiful too. The landscape is beautiful, mostly flat with here and there a rugged group of mountains sticking out. Here and there you see traditional villages, with clay huts and a perimeter fence. You’d like to think they’re still running around with spears but I guess it’s Nike’s and Jeans for many of them. Spoiled by the ‘first’ world as is the case everywhere else. But it’s strange to see vast areas of land totally empty of human presence. No roads, no houses, nothing. Strange also to realize a good selection of zoo animals are running around down there. In Holland there is no such thing as wilderness. Every square meter is cultivated. The ‘forests’ are parks. Well maintained, and made to look like it is nature. Yet we are privileged to always have food on the table. Never worry about getting clean water, it runs from the tap ready to drink. Never worry about power cuts or proper healthcare when we’re sick. Never worry about another military coup with a subsequent civil war. We can live in peace and spend our time complaining to each other about how bad we have it. Sometimes I get really sick of it. I’d like to tell people there’s a totally different world out there. Drag them over here to have a look. But then again, I have no right to lecture anyone. I’m the biggest hypocrite of them all. I’ve been to places like this, I’ve seen it all, I *know* what it’s like to be born in a place like this. I ease my mind with sending some money to my two foster kids in Sri Lanka. And I spend the rest of my money on iPods, laptops and my boat. I live in the first world. A throw of the dice has decided I should be embarrassingly rich. Fuck all the rest of them, right ?
Besides, we don’t really want to help this continent called Africa on its feet. We could do it, but then they would also start to use up the resources we ourselves are feasting on. And that is something nobody wants.
Except the Africans, of course…