After being a refugee for five years, Johnny returns to Juba, South Sudan on the day of its independence. But his homecoming is marred by the new bittersweet realities plaguing the world’s youngest country.
July 7, 2011. 10.10am
Johnny did not expect a welcome party on arrival. He did not envision little girls dancing to drums, shaking their waists and heads in unison, dressed in cowhide and beads and ostrich feathers. Or the long line of men and women smartly dressed waiting to shake his hands one after another. He only saw this on television when African presidents visited other African countries. It was for celebrities. Not for him.
He was returning home to the land he fled several years ago. He couldn’t care less about a reception party at the airport. In fact, he hadn’t even mentioned it to many friends that he was coming home for the independence celebration two days away. Only one person knew.
The weather was humid and hot. It had rained a few hours earlier, he could tell. This being July, the dark rain clouds were still hanging from the sky like runaway kites. The sun peeked from behind them, like a mischievous child playing hide and seek with an unwilling father. A slight wind was blowing as he walked away from the plane.
Like other parts of the airport, things had not changed much. The pale grey structure had not seen a facelift in the past two decades, let alone a layer of fresh paint. This airport had been destined to be a new hub in Sudan back then, connecting the Southern part with East Africa. The French construction company known by the acronym CCI had left the structure half-finished because of the civil war. The only thing they completed was a runway that ran parallel to the old one and the control tower.
A building was going up alongside the old terminal, it was a new terminal he had heard about. At least they should have worked hard to ensure it is ready for the great day, Johnny thought.
There were flags everywhere. A sign said: Welcome to the 193rd Country in the world. The cut out letters that spelled Juba still stood where it had been all these years, next to the Juba International Airport sign, on top of the terminal building with the pyramid-shaped roof.
There were no luxuries of conveyor belts, metal detector gates, etc., things that are ubiquitous in airports worldwide. Maybe change had not yet come here. The airport had the feel of a remote outpost deep in some hinterland.
Being a light traveller, Johnny had no luggage. He walked to the immigration desk, presented his passport. He felt a slight awkwardness, coming home as a foreigner, carrying a foreign passport. He was not alone though. He could see that several other South Sudanese who were with him on the plane had foreign passports too. The conflict had displaced thousands of people like him and forced them to seek resettlement in faraway places. South Sudanese were scattered like the Jews to the far corners of the world. There were South Sudanese Canadians, South Sudanese Americans, South Sudanese Australians, and South Sudanese British. If there were South Sudanese Chinese or even Japanese, he had not met them yet. Nonetheless, many were now returning home for the Independence day celebrations.
A young man approached him and offered a taxi. He politely declined, telling him that he had a car coming to pick him up. Then he saw him. A man holding a small white placard with his name written on it. Johnny walked over to him and introduced himself.
“Karibu ya Nyumbani, Bwana,” he said. Welcome home, sir.
The guy speaking in Kiswahili must be a Ugandan. His accent and complexion said he was from somewhere in central Uganda. He knew this because he had lived in Uganda for many years before he managed to get resettled. Uganda was his second home. This actually brought back memories of many years back when some of his friends had to flee Juba on foot to find refuge across the border.
“Asante sana kabisa,” he replied.
Johnny had lived in Uganda for a good part of five years. He left the camp in Adjumani in Northern Uganda and went to stay with his uncle in Kampala. His uncle worked in the liberated areas of South Sudan and kept his family in Kampala like many others. He attended secondary school and went on to a teachers training institute in Moyo. But after completing, he found that teaching was not for him and started the process that led to him being resettled far away.
“Jada asked me to pick you up. Do you have other luggage, sir?” he asked.
“No, this is all I have,” he answered.
“By the way, my name is Jogo. The car is this way. Can I have your bag?”
“Its ok. I can handle it. Thanks, Jogo.”
He followed the man across the small driveway and into the parking area. He was driving a battered grey Toyota Crown. By the look of it, it had seen better days. The color had disappeared in places where panel beatings were done. It definitely needed a makeover, and some paint.
The parking area was bustling with many other brand new cars though. These were cars belonging to non-governmental organizations with the names of the organization branded on them.
Then there were the many boda boda motorcycles milling around.
He had hated these things in Uganda. They were nuisances, accident prone, leading to many casualties. He had hoped the country did not adopt this kind of transport but looked like it was already too late. They had arrived with a big bang.
The man went around the side and opened the boot. Johnny stashed his small bag and got in beside the driver. He was on the wrong side of the car.
“Have we changed the way the vehicles are driven in Juba?” he asked. “I had not read that in the news.”
‘Why?” Jogo asked.
“The driver is on the wrong side, like East Africa, like in Uganda.”
“Bwana, many of these cars are brought from Uganda, thats why.”
Very funny, he thought.
If the outside of the car was awful, the inside was even worse. The scarlet seat cushions had faded to a color somewhere between rusted iron and a fried banana. They were torn, as if an angry cat had been let loose inside the car, ripping the padding apart. The greyish dashboard was dull and unimpressive.
As he started the car, music filled the inside. He could tell the song was in Luganda too. It seemed like the only thing working properly in the car was the stereo system. The car rolled out of the airport parking into the main road. Johnny reminisced about his days in Juba and felt a heaviness in his heart as the buildings flew by.
He put his head back and absorbed it all.
July 7, 2011. 04:25 pm
Johnny sat under the cool shade of the mango trees at his hotel. The prefab buildings were tiny and the grounds were a bit damp for his liking. However, he had slept for five straight hours. The flight was long and he needed some rest.
Jogo dropped him off and told him Jada will come to him later. After his rest, he had a shower and came out to the restaurant to have something to eat. He chose a table close to the river, with a good view of the water. Out on the river, he could see a lone fisherman in a dugout canoe floating down with the water.
Johnny used to come to this very place many years ago. He used to come here to eat mangoes and swim in the river. Sometimes he came here fishing. Now the whole riverside had been turned into hotels made of tiny shipping containers.
Jada came in with two other men as Johnny was wrapping up his meal of fried chicken with chips and soup that tasted like soapy water. He had gone for the familiar, not wanting to disturb his stomach yet with unknown foods. It seemed he missed on the soup, though.
He stood up and they embraced.
“Good to see you, man,” he said. His voice had not changed much from the time they spoke on the phone. “How was your flight?”
“Thanks. Good to see you too. It was long. Very long,” Johnny said.
“Ah, I know. I travelled that route too. Thats why I said you had to rest before we could meet. Welcome to Juba.”
Jada sat down and his two friends moved a chair from the adjacent table and sat around.
Johnny could see that Jada had become a large man. He had been very thin and lanky many years ago when they were together in Juba during the early war years. They used to tease him and call him a mosquito. He was told to walk around with stones in his pockets to give him some weight or otherwise, the gust of wind would sweep him away. He seemed to read Johnny’s mind.
“I am no mosquito no more,” he said, laughing. His voice was hoarse with a background gruffness to it. “I am a bulldozer now, mate.”
He gave a long hearty laugh that shook his whole body like an earthquake, his big flabby belly moving up and down like waves in the high seas.
When they sat down, he produced three mobile phones from his pocket and put them on the table in front of him. It must be the latest trend in town, walking around with several mobile phones for the different networks in the country. When he left the country many years ago, the only telephones were the landline, and these barely worked in many places.
Only government offices and some selected officials had the luxury of phones.
One of the phones rang. He picked one of the sleek new phones on the table. He excused himself and walked some distance from the group to speak. A long telephone conversation followed.
Johnny chatted with the other two guys. He found out that they worked together in a logistics company ferrying goods from East Africa to South Sudan. There was an insatiable need in the new country for everything from cement and building materials to food such as grains, sugar and flour. Their company brought these items in bulk and sold them on to local retailers from their big warehouse in Jebel Kujur. Occasionally, they also supplied to NGOs.
“Its big business, my friend,” Jada said, when he had finished the conversation. He pulled his chair back and sat down heavily. “I just got confirmation of a contract worth more than 20 million dollars to supply the army with sugar for all their garrisons in the country.”
“That is big,” Johnny said. “You must have connections all the way to the top brass.”
He lit another cigarette from a pack he had left on the table and blew the smoke in small balls in the air. Johnny did not remember when Jada started smoking.
“We now run the show in this country,” he said.
“How come?” Jada asked.
“Things have changed. Yes, things have changed. When we kicked the Arabs out, we got hold of the business. You know, these guys used to cheat us out of our own money. Now we are in control. All you have to do is make sure you know the right people, the right connections and you are good.”
The place was getting livelier as the night wore on. The live band on the stage started an old slow Congolese number that brought back memories of the old times in Equatoria Inn when Johnny and friends used to rush out to dance to Lomerika Jazz Band every Saturday and Sunday evening.
A group of white expats joined a large table not far from them. They looked like aid workers. A couple got up and started dancing to the music, holding each other tightly. They moved slowly with the music, encouraged by the soft tunes and the cool breeze coming from the Nile, wheezing through the mango trees.
July 7, 2011. 11:39pm
Johnny retired to his room after the long day. There was no hot water when he wanted to take a shower. The front desk informed him that the heater was broken and they will have to bring him hot water in a bucket.
When it came, he showered. After many years outside the country, he had not used a bucket for bath in a while. Ferrying water with his two open palms and pouring it on his head just did not work for him anymore. He got a small cup from the dressing table and used it. He immediately went to bed and fell into a deep sleep.
July 8, 2011. 09:01 am
Jada had sent a car to pick him up from the hotel. It was different from the rundown one that brought him from the airport. He had saved the best for later. This car was a brand new white Toyota SUV, the one he later learned was popularly known as a V8. It was the best vehicle for the bad roads and had luxury written all over it.
The driver took him on a tour to see the changes that had happened to his city after many years.
They drove from the hotel towards Konyo Konyo market, which was busting with activity. He saw several groups of people sweeping the roads profusely. It was an army of people with brooms and shovels and wheel burrows working in the early morning heat.
They crossed Malaki market and went towards Mahata Yei that had now been completely tranformed. New buildings has started to erupt in the once empty space that used to serve as a bus stop to Yei town.
At the University roundabout, Johnny asked the driver to take him to John Garang Mausoleum, where the former Vice President of Sudan and President of the Government of South Sudan were buried. Johnny had previously seen the place on TV several times. They drove towards customs. The Customs Roundabout was full of people. It used to be a residential area but military barracks in front of the Mausoleum has been converted into the Independence Square where the ceremony would take place. Military police in red berets sealed off the place to pedestrians and vehicles. They were directing people away from entering the grounds. Flags from different nations could be seen lined up along the road.
“There is no access today. They are preparing for tomorrow.” the driver said.
Several soldiers in different uniforms sat under trees in the big shade, resting. They were participating in the parade rehearsal in preparation for tomorrow. Several onlookers were also waiting.
They drove around some more. Johnny sat there absorbing the changes to the town since he had last been here.
July 8, 2011. 01:15pm
They met for lunch at the restaurant in downtown Juba near the Ivory Bank building. It was crowded.
“Food has become big business,” Jada said. He was responding to a question from Johnny about restaurants, that Juba did not have so many before and people used to eat at home.
“You see, with the peace, official government work goes from 8:30am to 5:30 pm. There is a one-hour gap for lunch. That is why the food business has flourished.”
“There don't seem to be many empty squares anymore in Juba,” Jada said as he tucked into his plate of rice and minced meat. “Even the pace where we used to play football is gone.”
“They call it development.” Jada added.
“Thats a story for next time. If you are done, I want to take you to meet some friends.”
“Where are we going in this new country if we don't have playgrounds anymore?” Johnny persisted.
“Ah-ha, you started to see now, eh? It is a different country.”
July 8, 2011. 11:59pm
The independence celebrations started late that evening. Crowd had gathered in the streets and partying.
At the hotel, Johnny sat with a group of friends who had came along with Jada to usher in the new nation. The tables were full. There were as many white people in the sitting area as there were South Sudanese partying. A secluded place adjacent to the stage has been booked by a politician for a private party. A large dinner table has been set there for him and his guests of pretty ladies in skimpy dresses.
As the clock struck midnight, the crowds cheered, the band played a song and fireworks were lit. Then gunshots started.
As far back as he could remember, Juba had always had problems with guns during celebrations. Growing up in the city, Johnny knew that celebratory gun shooting at night had become part of the game. You heard gunshots on Christmas eve and New Year’s eve. He remembered people firing their guns during an eclipse of the moon too, a tradition that used to involve banging on pots and plates and barrels. It had been replaced by guns.
The government had warned the citizens not to shoot their guns in the air. It seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. The shooting went on for several minutes and died down as suddenly as it started.
After Jada and his friends left, Johnny stayed up for a little longer listening to the jazz band playing old Congolese songs that transported him back in time.
July 9, 2011. 11:04am
Johnny woke up with a headache and felt that his hands were pinned to the bed. He could hear faint voices in his room that he barely recognized.
He opened his eyes slowly. The headache became worse. He tried to raise his head but could not. His whole body felt like he had been run over by a fire engine truck. He went back to sleep.
July 9, 2011. 03:45pm
The voices were very loud when he woke up again. He felt slightly better and opened his eyes.
He could tell immediately that he was not in his hotel room. The mattress was softer; the curtains were light blue. And the room was very cold. A TV mounted on the wall opposite his bed was showing the independence day celebrations at the John Garang Mausoleum. South Sudan TV panned between the jubilant crowds and the podium where a speaker stood. It then dawned on him that he did not go to the square.
“So you are awake,” Jada said as he entered the room. He had a worried look on his face.
“Where am I? What happened?” Johnny asked.
“You are in a hospital.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I came to pick you up to go to the Mausoleum for the celebrations. When you did not pick my call, I came to your room. We could hear the phone ringing but you were not picking up. The hotel broke the door and we found you unconscious and unresponsive. We had to rush you to the hospital. Who were you with after we left last night?”
Johnny vaguely remembered that he stayed behind for some time. A woman had offered him a free drink – she said it was compliments of the hotel – for the independence day. As he was making his way back to his room, he felt dizzy and the same woman had offered to take him to his room.
“You have been robbed,” Jada said. “They took everything from your room. Everything, except for the old mobile phone you carry. It must have been their parting gift.”
His headache returned as he tried to take stock of the situation. On the TV screen, the crowds were ululating and shouting as speaker after speaker took to the podium. The speaker of the National Assembly read the declaration of independence. The Sudanese flag was lowered and the South Sudan flag was raised. The crowd roared. Hundreds of tiny little flags waved in unison.
The nurse walked into the room and said she wanted to give him another injection. He turned his head and looked at the wall. He became drowsy again when the band started to sing the national anthem for the first time.
“Oh God bless South Sudan” were the last words he heard as sleep took over again.
Edward Luka is a South Sudanese physician whose interest in writing started at a young age. In 1993, he attended a creative writers’ workshop at the British Council in Khartoum facilitated by renowned South Sudanese writer and poet Taban Lo Liyong. Later in Khartoum, he volunteered as a literary editor for the Sudan Council of Churches Women’s Newspaper called Arise. He has contributed poems and short stories to local English newspapers in Khartoum like the New Horizon and Khartoum Monitor. After a hiatus due to pressures of medical practice, he has once again started writing. His short stories have since appeared on Warscapes, in the McSweeney’s 43 Issue “There is a Country: New Fiction From the New Nation of South Sudan and on Author-me.com. Edward is currently completing a fellowship in public health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta. Twitter @eremugo