People & Places – South Sudan

Sunday, 2 June 2024

My visit to South Sudan featured a fascinating visit to ‘Lucy,’ the gigantic Jonglei Canal excavator, and unfortunately did not include a stop at the Imperial Airways Shambe flying boat base from the 1930s. I only saw that from the air, I would like to have had a look at the former base from ground level. Mainly, however, my travels were wildlife viewing – the amazing white-eared cob migration – in the Bandiligong and Boma National Parks.

◄ At the Boma Park Headquarters this young man sported a decidedly untraditional ritual scarring designs – a lineup of AK47 assault weapons.

▲ sunken ferry boat in the Nile River, Juba

I arrived and departed South Sudan through the capital, Juba, but it was a short visit at both ends. On Day 1 stayed at the Afex River Camp, a hotel right on the banks of the Nile, particularly popular with the very numerous expats working in the country. The hotel’s riverside bar looks across to this ferry which suffered an engine failure, drifted down river and went aground like a strategic backdrop. It’s been there since at least 2018, but I don’t know exactly when it got stuck.

◄ The road sign in Yirol indicated we’re 75 miles (note that it’s miles, not km) from Rumbek, so this must date from the 1899 to 1956 Anglo- Egyptian Condominium. It’s also 7 miles from Pankar, 45 miles from Shambe.

▲ This large UN Base is in Bor, 200km north of Juba. There’s a huge UN and World Food Programme Presence in South Sudan and although many western supporters are currently cutting back on their contributions the demand is only likely to grow as refugees from Sudan move in to South Sudan.

▲ A large Mi17 UN helicopter comes in to land at Bor, but it’s absolutely dwarfed by the gigantic Mi26 in the foreground.

▲ Holy Family Catholic Cathedral, Rumbek – more like a chapel than a cathedral Wikipedia confirms, it was built in 1955, but the town of Rumbek was pretty much destroyed during the civil war.

▲ Enormous numbers of cattle come back each night to the cattle camps near Rumbek, then the next morning are led out again to their grazing grounds. South Sudan has immense numbers of cattle, but they’re essentially raised for the prestige of ownership. Before the civil war further north in Sudan there were huge beef imports from Sudan to the United Arab Emirates, but the UAE influence in the region has been far from benign.

▲ From above the Sudd is exactly as described, a vast wetlands, a network of waterways and the odd settlement, clearly a long way from any road.

▲ After leaving the Bandingilo National Park Headquarters our first stop was at Lafon where these sorghum grinding holes in a rock outcrop clearly indicated that there had been generations grinding the sourgum grain here. A group of Girl and Boy Scouts welcomed us with a song dedicated to the British scout founder Lord Baden Powell! Well I didn’t expect that in South Sudan.

▲ Travelling between the Bandingilo and Boma Park Headquarters we passed this extraordinarily attractive Lopit village

▲ Kasangol village – later we visited this rather similar looking village from the settlement at Nyat, the Boma National Park Headquarters.

▲ The standard enclosure in the family compounds in the village featured a thatched house with a door and a higher-up window, perhaps another guest house and a smaller storage house on stilts for sorghum and maize. Plus there would be an enclosure for the animals with a curious curving entrance.

◄ Everything felt very remote in the Boma and Bandingilo National Parks, but I’ve long ago learnt never to believe that you’ve reached somewhere pretty much out on the edge, because you will instantly find somebody who has gone not just a few steps, but many many steps further. At Kasangol it was Manon Laboureur, a young French woman who had been staying in the village, as part of a 170km walk right across the Boma National Park.

▲ The villagers put on a dance performance and the spectators were just as colourful as the performers.

▲ A crowded classroom

Finally, at the end of my South Sudan travels, I returned to Juba and crossed the Nile – there are now two Nile bridges in Juba – and drove out to the Education Bridge/Greenbelt Academies school. I’d been asked to look at it by a friend who has been supporting it. There was some confusion about whether I was visiting the larger Bor school (650 students, founded 2017) or the smaller Juba school (250 students, founded 2022). In fact we did go through Bor, but only stopped very briefly so it was the Juba school I visited.

• It’s often noted how donors like to fund solid ‘things’ like school buildings rather than less tangible teachers. Well Greenbelt was the opposite, there seemed to be no shortage of teachers – I think I counted 18 – but a severe shortage of facilities, starting with classrooms, were there only four?
• The first one I looked in to had over 70 students, absolutely crammed in shoulder to shoulder. On a hot day? And Juba gets very hot days. There were four classes, Senior 1, 2, 3 and 4 and at first I couldn’t understand them at all before I realised it was a factor of the disruption of the long civil war and as a result students were grouped by level and ability rather than age. You could have a 14 year old and a 19 year old in the same class.
• To avoid the travel to the school students preferred to be boarders, but only about 100 (65 boys, 35 girls) of the 250 boarded. The 65 boys all in one rather crowded dorm. On site accommodation for teachers was also cited as a wish list item.
• Some of the students were clearly very sharp and the level of English (all classes are in English) seemed to be high. When I went to check the girl’s dorm a couple of the boys followed, ‘I’ve never been here,’ one of them commented. ‘And you never will again,’ one of the girls shot back.

The students, even more than the staff, ran through their wish lists:

• more classrooms to reduce the crowding. There’s no assembly hall or room large enough for exams. What could have been another classroom was used as the admin and teachers office. Facilities – there aren’t any! A library, science labs, computer lab. Toilets – there were just 2 for teachers and 2 (one male, one female) for 250 students, absurd. Kitchen – having visited Food4Education 2 weeks earlier I was very aware of this one. How on earth are they going to provide lunch to all those students from that pathetically small and badly equipped kitchen. Outdoor facilities – a sports ground, a football pitch, a vegetable garden was suggested. Well they had the space, why didn’t they do it?

Despite all the drawbacks these students were clearly very aware how important education was going to be and what a privilege it was to get one.