Eight years ago, I never thought I’d say that about Juba, South Sudan. I was trashed – burned out and exhausted, feeling like I’d failed my team and myself. 5 days ago I arrived to ever-present chaos, heat and crowds but at the office to warm welcomes from national staff I worked with in The Old Days, some familiar expat faces, a comfortable “home” and good working conditions.
I’ll be here until Easter as Interim Medical Coordinator, and next week will visit the two projects: a primary health clinic (with maternity and “stabilization unit”) and a 160+ bed hospital. Both are in the Sudan / South Sudan border area, rife with tropical diseases, malnutrition, returning displaced populations, cattle raids and an uneasy tension.
Juba has grown up in my absence. In 2008, the tallest structure was the new 2 story Ministries building. Now there are apartment complexes (shoddy looking construction with a fresh coat of paint), 10 story “high rises,” paved roads (most are still rutted dirt roads), traffic lights and traffic jams, grocery stores and restaurants and hotels and air conditioning and satellite TV and internationals everywhere.
Our old office building still stands but the empty lot where I had my tent full of emergency medical supplies is now a hotel with rooftop bar. The Queen of Sheba, our go-to restaurant/bar is gone, but the ones on the Nile are still popular and dirt floors have been replaced with concrete. Baboons still stroll, tails held high. Children still splash and catch fish with mosquito nets while their mothers wash clothes nearby. The dogs are the same – thin, long legged, mangy yellow creatures.
The situation here has changed from a civil war between North and South to a civil war between South and South. There was such hope and optimism with independence. A chance for a brand sparkling new democracy, where people had a voice and the government was of the people. But it never materialized. Power struggles between the two leaders, oil revenues, lack of infrastructure and education and ability to govern. The South Sudanese Pound was 3 to the US Dollar 6 months ago; I exchanged for 27 yesterday. Black market rates are even higher.
Although Juba has grown up, the country has fallen even further behind. And I worry how much worse it can get for the people of South Sudan.