So where is South Sudan?

April 18th, 2013

Sunday 17th March to Saturday 23rd March

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO


Having returned to the UK, I have been looking back and wondering where exactly is South Sudan. If, like me, you’re someone who is obsessed with maps, this must seem like a ridiculous question. After all, you just look at an atlas or a globe and find the country – slightly less than halfway down Africa and a bit to the right.

But of course that is not what I mean. The question is all about how South Sudan relates to the rest of the continent.

To the north lies Sudan and North Africa and given the history of the relationships between Arab Africa and black Africa it is unlikely that South Sudan will see its main future lying in that direction. Nevertheless relationships will no doubt improve in the future and there would be considerable benefit to the northern states of South Sudan if the border were to reopen.

To the west and south-west are the Central African Republic and the Congo. It would seem that in relation to geography, climate and agriculture there is much that is similar to the neighbouring parts of South Sudan. However, these countries are parts of the French-speaking central African area and this is probably enough to limit the contact and interchange in that direction.

East of South Sudan is Ethiopia then Eritrea, and beyond that, Somalia i.e. the Horn of Africa. There are a great many people from these countries in South Sudan, running businesses and establishing themselves. There seems to be quite a lot of common ground between the different peoples and in time, as the infrastructure improves, they will no doubt be more and more trade from Ethiopia. However there is still a big language difference and South Sudan does not really feel like part of the Horn.

So what is left? The other neighbouring borders are with Uganda and with Kenya and in turn they border Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi – the states which make up the East African community. It would seem that this is the natural place for South Sudan and indeed there have been discussions between the country and the community about eventually joining. However these discussions have apparently now stalled and it is not clear how they will be taken forward. But, with the Republic of Somalia also applying to join the Community the future of relationships should be very interesting.

Another interesting grouping is the Commonwealth – South Sudan has applied to be a member. With other African countries joining (or applying to join) who did not have previous connections with Britain, like Mozambique and Rwanda, this is a fascinating development.

So nothing is simple. Perhaps this is just the inevitable complication of a landlocked country which borders many other nations. Living on an island which has not generally had to face the issues of land borders for a very long time, this is an area about which we in Britain do not know very much.

The Cars and Animals of South Sudan

April 18th, 2013

Sunday 10th March  to Saturday 16th March

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO


As I prepared to come back to the UK for a while, I thought I would reflect on some of the sights and sounds of the city, particularly on the vehicles and animals one sees.

In terms of vehicles, there are many varieties of cars and lorries but overwhelmingly in Juba the traffic is made up of three types of vehicle. Firstly of course there is the Land Cruiser, coming in many different styles – but all big, and very often white. These are the stock-in-trade of the United Nations and all the NGOs but many private citizens drive them too, and in many cases because they are the ideal vehicle for the very, very poor roads in Juba and elsewhere.

And then there are the motorbikes. There are various makes but invariably they are 125 cc machines and they may be used by one person (usually male), but equally they may be carrying two people, three people or even more. As in many countries, if the passenger is a woman she may well be riding side-saddle.

And there are the buses. There are larger buses which travel long distances across the country and also to Uganda and to Kenya. But within Juba the buses are mainly Toyota Hiace minibuses, locally known as mutatus although I understand that this is really a Swahili word. These ply set routes; often the route is written on the side but that is no guarantee that that is actually where it has come from or where it is going. You hail them wherever you see them and indeed, if they have an empty seat they will be looking out for new passengers anyway. They can carry 14 passengers plus a driver and young man to collect the money. Unless you are going very long-distances out of the main city the fare is always the same – one S. Sudanese Pound. They are crowded and hot but everybody is extremely good-natured as they make way for each other, clambering in and out each time the bus stops.

This is in Juba; elsewhere there are variations. The dominant form of public transport in Wau is the motorised rickshaw, or tuk-tuk. There are now a few of these in Juba as well but really not very many. In Malakal there are a number of small car taxis which I did not see anywhere else. They provide cheap transport but one has to wonder how they would cope in the rainy season when apparently the best vehicle is a tractor.

These are the common vehicles but of course people will always want to show their individuality and there were some very unusual forms of transport, including

  • a single American-style yellow chequered Taxi
  • a stretched Hummer limousine
  • an immaculate 1960s Ford Anglia, right down to its white wall tyres
  • and perhaps most bizarre of all, a hovercraft parked in one of the side streets


So what of the animals? Outside of the city of course there are wild animals, with plenty of monkeys but also larger animals in the national park. There are also plenty of cows which feature very strongly in the rural economy.

But in the towns one mainly sees the goats, which are just everywhere and which eat just about anything. There were also ‘sheep’ which looked like a cross between a goat and sheep. And then there are the chickens and ducks, often followed by their young and all scratching a living out of nothing. In some of the towns outside Juba there were plenty of donkeys, often pulling water carts but sometimes to be seen being ridden by men.

I haven’t mentioned the dogs which are also very common and can be seen scavenging for food. They are good natured and generally keep out of your way; they are, in the main, pretty good at avoiding the traffic as they cross the road but there are also quite a few who get around on 3 good legs – evidence that they don’t always get it right.

Shortly before leaving I had a conversation with someone and we remarked that we had never seen a pig in South Sudan. Then one day when I was being driven along one of the main roads past the president’s residence I saw a large sow, followed by two good-sized piglets. Goodness knows where they were going.

Culture and Custom

April 18th, 2013

Sunday 27th February to Saturday 9th March

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO


Living in South Sudan means living in a predominately African culture although in our case it’s heavily tempered not only by our European roots but also by the people from many other countries who live there and who we often meet, especially from Ethiopian and Eritrea. So it was interesting in the last few weeks to have had some much more direct exposure to the older customs of South Sudan.

Two of the people I shared a house with went to a talk on women’s issues and brought back with them a copy of a booklet based on research into customary law in South Sudan, with particular reference to women. The book featured a number of case studies in which women had committed crimes of violence to get away from abusive relationships. The women in turn had been tried in customary courts and the book researched how these operate and how they are now often in conflict with the conventional courts set up under statutory arrangements.

A couple of weeks later I went to two talks at the University as part of the consultation exercise for the new constitution. In one of these there was considerable discussion about the whole issue of customary courts and where they fit for the future. One of the interesting points made was that the present system of customary courts, which is highly complex and involves overlapping administrations within a single community is in fact not all that old or “traditional”, having been put in place in the 20th-century by the colonial government.

In between these two generalised discussions I came across a real example of how local law-making works. While in a northern town I met a young man who told me his story. As a 15-year-old he had had a girlfriend, before leaving the country to get his schooling elsewhere. After he left, he discovered that his girlfriend was pregnant; she was taken in by his family and in due course they were established as a couple living with their child in his parents’ house. However, some years later the girl left the family home and took the child with her. The young man had come to the town where I met him because he was looking to get his daughter back.

He told me that he had had discussions with his own family and the girl’s family and both had agreed that it was she who was in the wrong. He did not say (but I imagine) that he had also consulted the local customary court and been given a similar judgement. Whatever we might think about the rights and wrong in the case, especially with our notions of maternal rights over children, it was clear that in South Sudan all the rights were on the young man’s side and he could take back his daughter. Indeed the girl was with him and I met her – a tall, 11 year-old who was about to leave the country in her turn, to continue her own education in Uganda.

Another field trip and a kitten update

February 24th, 2013

Sunday 10th February to Saturday 23rd February

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO

I have mentioned here before that many of the businesses here are run by Eritrean people (and others by Kenyans and Ugandans). Some of them are political refugees and others are economic migrants. This week we learnt that one of the refugees who we know quite well has been accepted as a refugee by the Canadian government and will be travelling soon to Canada where he will start a new life. It is a tremendous opportunity for him and will change his life, although of course it also takes him even further from his family.

Although my plan is to return to the UK soon I do have a number of things to do first and one is to make another field visit, this time to one of the States further north where again VSO have volunteers at both State and County level. This time the traveling was by air, using United Nations Humanitarian Assistance Service planes. Several people from the previous trip in December came on this one too so that we could make some comparisons.

The town was interesting, big wide streets and a much calmer pace than Juba. An interesting large cathedral and impressive mosque. Less developed with lots of donkey water carts and other horses and carts. During the day it was nearly as hot as Juba but the evenings, nights and early mornings were much cooler, very pleasant. However it was very dusty and during each night my mouth and throat were so dry, and in the morning I found I had lost my voice.

We stayed from Monday to Friday and in that time we met senior people at the State Ministry and two of the County Health Departments. We also met the two main NGOs working in the area, visited a number of health facilities and attended the State monthly cluster meeting. The staff there have all the right ideas of trying to strengthen the County Health Departments, to get the NGOs to collaborate more and coordinate their work with the counties but it all reminded me of how fragile many of the county departments are and how much they need to develop if they are eventually going to take the lead in managing effective services locally.

This is after all the whole point of my placement here!


Yesterday I had lunch with some of the South Sudanese colleagues of one of the other volunteers here. I have met them before and have enjoyed hours of interesting conversation with them about South Sudanese and East African politics. One of them was due that afternoon to travel to Torit a journey I have done by car. Most of it is on dirt roads and it took us 3½ hours. He was planning to do it by motorbike and said it should be a bit quicker.

We heard later that evening that he had had a puncture 5 miles from Torit and he had had to push the motorbike the last 5 miles to the town. Such is life here.


I have realized that I have not talked recently about the kittens. Sadly at roughly weekly intervals one after another died so that we were then left with just one. Of all of them she was the most likely to survive as she was always the most pushy – and has therefore been christened “Rambo”. This past week my housemates managed to find a visiting vet and get some worming tablets. Next time the vet comes he will bring the cat inoculations – so maybe she will stand a chance. Hopefully when she is bigger she will catch the odd rat that makes an appearance but she will have to grow some.

A new plan for my placement

February 24th, 2013

Sunday 27th January to Saturday 9th February

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO

During these 2 weeks I have been ill, a new group of volunteers have arrived and I have come up with a plan about my placement.

Being ill! I have been very lucky really and had been pretty healthy since arriving. I have lost a lot of weight which I put down to the heat and lots of exercise (walking and cycling) and I feel better for it. However one evening after dinner I suddenly felt strange and I started 2 days of a stomach upset, quite a virulent food poisoning bug. After that I felt a bit better and went to work but realised how much energy I was missing. I wasn’t properly better until the following Monday.

During these few days the latest group of volunteers arrived – another 19 making about 52 in the country. 5 of the new ones are to work in health making 19 in total. I met them all at the welcome meal and then I got to know the health group quite well when I led one of the sessions for them during their in-country training. Then they went off to their placements, 1 at a State Ministry of Health and the others to County Health Departments.

Over the last few weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to my placement. It is due to end on 30th June and while I have considered that I might come back for short visits later if appropriate really I could do with being here in July and August to help with the consultation stage on the work that I will have been producing.

In fact the next stage of the work is to set down and write the guidance material I have been preparing, and actually I could do that from anywhere really and communicate by email.

On the other hand, from a personal point of view I think it would be good to be at home for a bit to support Barbara and the rest of the family. And I realise how tiring I find it here (and that’s not just because of being unwell recently)


So I have devised a plan by which I would return to the UK, perhaps in mid-March and carry on with the work there. Then I would return to Juba possibly in mid-June and stay for maybe 2 months. I have discussed this idea with both VSO and my boss at the Ministry of Health and both have agreed!

So I need to firm up my work plan for the rest of the time here now, for when I am in the UK and for when I come back later in the year.

Now that a decision has been made about this I have to say I am really looking forward to coming home for a while.

Cats and committees

February 24th, 2013

Friday 11th to Saturday 26th  January

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO

Back to Juba, starting with the usual melee of people at the airport. However I am much refreshed for having had 2 lovely weeks with Barbara.

I went back to the house and met my housemates who told me that they were about to rescue some kittens that seemed to have been abandoned to die in the streets. They duly arrived – 4 very tiny kittens looking pretty sorry for themselves. We didn’t know how old they were – obviously very young but their eyes were open and they were perhaps 4-6 weeks old. Not sure how they would get on but at least they had some chance with us – none at all if left where they had been.

The real story of these 2 weeks has been preparing for and then taking part in the workshop for all volunteers in the country. A couple of people couldn’t get to Juba for it but basically all 43 volunteers across the 3 programmes were there. It was quite a logistical nightmare to get them all to the capital from the various locations and to find somewhere for them all to stay but it all worked. It was really good to see everybody and meet those I had not met before but more important it was really helpful to share experiences and, particularly in my case to develop the network of volunteers at State and County level who will be very useful in taking forward my work here and (hopefully) ensuring that it is sustained after I have left.

There has been discussion over recent weeks about establishing a volunteers committee for South Sudan, to represent the volunteers in discussions with the Country office. I had done some work on possible Terms of Reference for it and then found myself as the convenor of a planning group to pull it all together.

That culminated in a session at the workshop when the Committee was formally set up, and representatives from each area were elected. I became the representative for Juba and was then elected by the new committee as its Chairman. I was happy to do the work to get it up and running but I did make it clear that as my placement was relatively short I could only do the Chairman role for the 5 months that I would remain in the country.

I do seem to find myself involved with running committees – wherever I go! There must be a learning point in there somewhere.

New Year in Kenya

February 24th, 2013

Friday 28th December to Friday 11th January

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO

These two weeks have seen me on holiday in Kenya. I hadn’t been expecting to go but when at short notice Barbara said she was coming to Africa, we set to and organised ourselves. With a combination of our own searches on the internet and the services of a very helpful travel agent we made all the bookings and on Friday 28th December Barbara flew from London and I flew from Juba, and we met at Nairobi airport on the Saturday morning.

After a tour of Nairobi itself by taxi (in the pouring rain) which included the Railway Museum and the National Museum and Snake Park we went to the Elephant Orphanage – where the baby elephants really enjoyed the rain and the red mud. Later we went through a very English sort of area to where we were staying for the first 3 nights, in a very relaxed country style hotel. It was cold! We had log fires in the bedroom and the restaurant.

The following day we went to Lake Nakuro National Park – a long journey by road but spectacular as we descended the side of the Rift Valley. The park is famous for the birds which were indeed amazing but there were also a great many animals to see, including white rhino.

The hotel was in a tea growing area and the following day we went by mutatu to a tea factory where we had a guided tour of the whole process, and bought some of the local tea.

New Year’s Eve was spent at the hotel and on the next day we flew to Mombasa- so very different – hot and humid, a real mix of cultures and history, African, Indian, Arab, Portuguese and British. We stayed in a city centre hotel and over the next few days visited the old town and markets, the old harbour with its history of slave trading and Fort Jesus. We also went out of the city to some workshops for disabled people, very impressive. As we walked in to the compound a man who was to be our guide came up and said, do we know about Oxfam – yes. Do we know about Traidcraft – yes! And do we know about VSO (they sometimes have volunteers there) – yes!! They not only make craft work they also build and sell wheelchairs.

When it was time to leave the city we got a shuttle (non-stopping) mutatu up the coast road. We got off at Gede and took a tuk-tuk to where we were staying, a field study centre right by the coast. It was lovely, quiet with basic accommodation, simple but very nice food and good fellowship. While there we went to Mida Creek, walked on a rope walkway across the mangrove forest with all the different types and went in a canoe across the creek. Magical! We also visited the Gede Ruins, once home of a thriving and successful Swahili Community.

For the last part of our stay we went by taxi back to Mombasa, across the ferry to the south coast where we stayed in very comfortable surroundings in a beach hotel. Lovely beach, swimming pool, beautiful accommodation and good food. While there we went in a glass bottomed boast across the coral reef and swam and snorkelled off a sandbank. It was very nice to have had that at the end but we were glad that it was not our only experience of the country.

The next day it was back to the airport, flying back to Nairobi and then flying off again in our very different directions. During our time we had stayed in 4 completely different areas of Kenya in 4 very different styles of accommodation and we felt we had had a wonderful time together.

Not bad for having organised it all in less than 10 days!

Christmas in Juba

December 28th, 2012

Saturday 15th  to Friday 28th December

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO

After the European film Festival, something different – the first ever South Sudanese Film festival. I went on the Saturday (it was also on on the Sunday) – there were a lot of speeches, some singing and two comedians but they also showed a few short films made locally. All credit to local people for making the effort to get this going.

It’s certainly been interesting being here in the build up to Christmas. It doesn’t have a long lead time (unlike at home where it seems to go on for months) but over the last few weeks there have been odd signs – a bit of Christmas music,  I’ve heard “Mary’s Boy Child” a few times and even “12 days of Christmas” coming from shops and out of car windows. And in recent days there have been a few Christmas trees and even the odd Father Christmas – for example as a full size blow up doll outside a shop. All rather incongruous – images from the northern hemisphere transplanted to a very different culture and hot climate.

In work terms the week before Christmas was dominated by a 3 day conference where all the Minister of Health and Directors General from the 10 states were in Juba and met with ministers and senior staff from the National Ministry. I was lucky enough to be able to go and found it very interesting, to see the differences between the states, to observe the relationships between the national and state ministries, and to make some very useful contacts for the future.

Christmas week has been quite quiet. The people I share a house with have gone to a town in the south west for Christmas to stay with some volunteers based there, along with some other volunteers from elsewhere in the country. I was going to go too but at short notice Barbara has said she will come to Africa so we are going to meet in Kenya on the weekend between Christmas and New Year. That is great but I couldn’t do it all and also I needed to do some work if I was then going to be on holiday.

Initially I thought I would be the only volunteer in Juba – the other 3 had also made plans to go away – but as it happened I was joined here by a group of volunteers from another town who had been evacuated because of some security problems.

So I spent time with them and got to know some new people. 3 of us went to church (the Episcopal Cathedral) on Christmas Day – it was OK but a bit dour really. As we came out (from the 8.00am service) there was a lot more going on outside with young people parading and chanting, with music (which we hadn’t had at all). And the church was filling up fats – the next service was going to be far more popular but maybe it wasn’t going to be in English.

The rest of Christmas Day – and Boxing Day were very quiet – but I did get a lot of work done!

Work is going well – and a safari trip

December 28th, 2012

Sunday 2nd  to Friday 14th December

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO.

I had a haircut this week – my hair has been growing much more slowly than at home but finally it needed doing. A completely different experience – there is only one way to cut hair here it seems – very short with clippers. I don’t think I have ever had hair this short!

Things have really started to pick up at work. I have made a few more really useful contacts and I have come up with a way of doing the placement that I think will work and – even more importantly – should mean that it can be sustained into the future after I have finished my time here. And also my boss – my South Sudanese working partner – has come back from extended sick leave so I have someone in the Ministry to check ideas with and make sure that what I am doing is going to be acceptable.

Having said that I was also aware that I could do with a break – I alternate between enjoying the general hurly burly of Juba life, and finding it gets me down. So it’s good to plan to spend some time away when one can – and in the way of things I had two trips very close together.

Firstly a few of us planned a short holiday in Uganda – initially we wanted to travel at least one way by road but we couldn’t get a plan which was achievable in the time available, so we took advantage of a public holiday that was coming up, tacked on 2 days annual leave and went off for 5 days, by plane to Entebbe (Kampala). We then went north from the capital to the Murchison National Park for a short safari trip which was incredibly good value. We saw the famous – and spectacular – Murchison falls, and also saw a lot of animals. Then it was back to Kampala for 2 nights in a very comfortable hotel before coming home. Overall I liked Uganda very much – the city and the countryside seem green and pleasant, it was not so hot as Juba – and in general everything was that much more developed.

In the week leading up to the Uganda trip another plan came together, for 4 of us (from different organisations – I was the only volunteer) to go on a field visit to one of the States to talk with Ministry and county people and see a range of health facilities. I was particularly keen to go to this state as it is one where VSO has volunteers at state and county level and this is going to be really important in my work, building a network of people who can work together on the policy development that my placement is all about.

It was a four hour journey each way on a moderate dirt road but well worth it. Like most places there are lots of problems, lack of staff poor buildings and equipment etc. but the State was impressive in what it is trying to do and all the staff we met were committed to what they were doing – often in extremely remote locations with poor facilities.

Keeping Cool

December 28th, 2012

Monday 19th to 30th November

I am a volunteer with VSO but all entries on this blog are my personal responsibility alone and do not represent the views of VSO.

The highlight of the early part of this week was getting a fridge freezer for our house. We haven’t got much in the way of furniture – just a few of the ubiquitous garden chairs, a table to match and a few cooking utensils.  But the means of keeping food (and drinks) fresh is a real treat. We had been out looking for a good deal and then we went by car to get it. However having bought it the problem was how to get it home. It had to be upright and would not go in the 4×4 from VSO. So we hailed one of the motorbike tricycle pick-ups and negotiated a price to take it. They lifted it in and with 2 people in the back holding it we set off. It was OK at first on a tarmac road but I was struggling to know the best way home. The most direct  route off the main road is not too bad but to get on it off the main road there is a huge dip. 2 blocks up you can get off the main road and it’s then OK for a bit. We did that until the corner by the local shop – there was no way they could drive down the last part,it’s one of the worst roads around. So they stopped, thought about it – and carried it! 2 men got it from underneath and carried it – at least 100 yards down the roughest road I know. I stood and watched, convinced they would drop it – but they didn’t and we have a fridge – we don’t have electricity all the time but we have enough at times to keep food and drinks cold at home – luxury.

At work it was anything but – the air-conditioning has been broken for weeks and this week there was no power for 4 days as well. Which meant it was very uncomfortable – by the afternoon it was so hot I just sat there soaked in sweat – and it was impossible to work. And with no power you could only work until the laptop battery ran out. So I would search out other offices, or go elsewhere to work.

One Saturday I went exploring as usual with my other volunteer friend– this time we went on 2 buses (a 2 pound and then a 3 pound journey – that means a very long way) and we were right on the far edge of Juba – it felt very rural. It also felt quite isolated, I don’t think they have many visitors but we started talking to a man who turned out to be a  teacher at the local primary school. He showed us the school, very basic but it had been donated by a benefactor and was now run by the local community. We spent a couple of hours talking with him.

The following Saturday we went even further – in the other direction. We got a bus across the River Nile for a few miles, then got another one (which cost 5 pounds – so it was a really long way!!) It stopped where one of the main – but dirt – roads branched off the tarmac roads. There were just a few houses – but a few people were sitting under a tree and they made us welcome, getting us a chair while someone produced a cup of tea. We weren’t quite sure what would happen but after an hour or so a bus came along and we got brought back to Juba.

In between these excursions we had a real treat. There isn’t much to do in Juba but this week there was a European Film Festival, 1 and sometimes 2 films from different countries each evening for 9 days, shown in the open air at the University.

Overall it was really good and a lovely change. But it seems that it was mainly geared to the European/US contingent with cars, with very little recognition that some people (like us volunteers) don’t have cars and have to either walk or use public transport. Similarly there was little regard to the South Sudanese who would not go out later at night. They – and we – would not stay out long enough to watch the second film. However it was still a pleasure to see some good films.