Archive for April, 2013

So where is South Sudan?

Thursday, 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

Thursday, 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

Thursday, 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.