The Pear of Africa and the worlds youngest country (Uganda and South Sudan)
Discovering beauty and moving past serious concerns
Little do most of you know what I have been spending most of my time on lately. But for the past 3 months my mind has been preoccupied with South Sudan. It's a country you rarely hear about and yet it has one of the most unique ongoing conflicts I can think of? No other country would be as dangerous to enter as South Sudan. The nature of the crisis itself makes it safer to fly directly into its capital Juba. But this has of course never been an option within the Saga. South Sudan borders 5 countries and especially the border areas are dangerous areas to venture across in these times of crisis. So I have been pondering a lot:
- can I find a safe border crossing?
- will they issue a visa for me?
- how will I get a letter of invitation?
- should I wait in the region and hope for an unlikely early change in conflict?
- should I continue past the region and leave South Sudan behind, risking having to return from Asia?
Let's return to all of that later. Because having left Rwanda I first entered "The Pear of Africa" aka: Uganda!
Uganda is pretty much a tourist haven. It's not as crowded with tourist as e.g. Tanzania and Kenya, but boasts spectacular sights, culture, nature and wildlife. The tourism infrastructure is well developed and you can do a ton of stuff like see gorillas in the wild or go rafting on white waters. None of that of course was to be found in my near future. I had to visit the Red Cross, visit the United Nations, visit the South Sudan embassy and a long list of other possible openings for the South Sudan predicament.
Mr Dodo sawing some of my clothes.
A night bus brought me straight into the fantastic sounding capital: Kampala! What a name? For me it ranks up there with names like Zanzibar, Timbuktu and Luang Prabang...places which call any adventurers name at night. Kampala lives up to its name and is the setting for the kingdom of Buganda which is a current day existing kingdom inside Uganda? I knew nothing of that! But it's there and comprises the capital as well. The king has limited power, while Uganda is effectively and officially a presidential republic. My friend Bob, who I had met in Dar Es Salaam, was from Uganda, so I had a solid point of contact on arrival. He wrote up this article about how we met: http://theinvestigatornews.com/2016/10/upon-saga-meet-man-travelling-every-country-world-without-flight-uganda-119/
My days went on, while I tried to discover wonderful Uganda through its capital. But truly the main thing on my mind was South Sudan. When I brushed my teeth, when I updated social media, when I went to bed, when I woke up, when I was standing in line...South Sudan. Based on a tip I managed to visit the Baha'i House of Worship, which is the only one of its kind in Africa. The Baha'i are religious people who believe in a unification of all major religions. As such they believe that there is only 1 God and that no matter the other religions, everyone is already praying to the same God. Now that's really simplified of course, but take it or leave it. The temple sits in top of a hill slightly outside the city centre and its surrounding gardens are magnificent! It's a great place to go and read a book or get some fresh air. The Baha'i guides on location guide you for free if you wish. It's not a surprise to me that the only African Baha'i temple is to be found in Uganda as the country is very religious and rather diverse. However Uganda is perfectly peaceful all at once.
The Baha'i temple.
Socially I've been speaking with everyone! That's not really news as I actively shake hands and speak to tons of people everywhere I go. The boda boda drivers (motorcycle taxis) are always good for a chat while you race from one side of Kampala to the next. They tell me about life and ask me questions in return. It's a great way to get some fast bearings on your surroundings.
I had had some good conversations with Julius :)
I had a chance to meet with Rocio from the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and a bunch of her colleagues. Great people and we all went out for Indian food where they treated me! I of course met up with Bob who set me up for various interviews with national media. I met with Jacob, a Danish guy, and his Ugandan wife Julian. They invited me for dinner, and as an appetizer I was served grasshoppers which are a delicacy. When fried with salt and garlic they become a tasty crunchy snack. Maersk Line in Kampala also invited me to drop by to tell a story or two from the past 3 years and 119 countries. But even with all of the above, I believe that most of my time has been spent online trying to crack my South Sudan predicament. I'll soon enlighten you more on why that cookie is so tough.
Jacob and Julian.
The Maersk Team in Kampala (including Safmarine and Damco).
One night I decided to go to the cinemas and clear my mind. The Disney movie "Queen of Katwe" centers around Phiona Mutesi, who grows up in Kampala's slum area Katwe. She discovers her exceptional talent for chess, which becomes life changing for her and her family. It's based on a true story and it had me cry a few times. Probably because I could somehow relate to a lot of the struggles and the fight to succeed. But also simply because I've spent much time with many less privileged people in this project, and I recognized much which had been beautifully represented in the movie.
Watching The Queen of Katwe in the cinema.
A few nights later I met Jarid from the Peace Corps and we ended up watching a DVD called "Eddie the Eagle" about Michael "Eddie" Edwards from the U.K. who desperately wanted to become an Olympian and against odds succeeds within Ski Jumping in the 1988 Winter Olympics. This one is also based on a true story. Eddie is not interested in being the best. He just wants to be the best he can be and compete. And Eddie couldn't care less about how many people tell him to give up his dream. There was something in that movie which touched me too.
South Sudan Embassy waiting room.
Suddenly I had a breakthrough! I had long been working on plans and several contingency plans for South Sudan and finally something worked out. A friend of mine (Dennis in Rwanda) had a contact (Dereck Rusagara) who connected me with the chamber of commerce in South Sudan, who were happy to issue me a letter of invitation (LOI). The day before I had been in a meeting with the South Sudan Embassies immigration police who told me I needed one. When I showed up the following day with a LOI from the chamber of commerce the officer could hardly believe it?!? And neither could anyone else at the Embassy. Somewhat baffled he received my application and told me to come back the next day at 11am. I was halfway expecting to be arrested for fraud or something else when I returned the next day. But I was simply given an account number to which I needed to deposit USD 100 which I did. At 3pm I collected my visa and at 7:30pm I was ready to board the bus.
I was far from calm on the inside. I knew that I was running a risk. There is a thin line between bravery and stupidity, and I felt like I was leaning too much on the wrong side. Throughout my research I had been handed news articles and reports in relation to the ongoings in South Sudan. Every report more horrifying than the next. If you enter South Sudan and it ends up going wrong, then it will go horribly wrong. Torture, rape, humiliation are all on the menu. Something has gone terribly wrong in that young nation in spite of the lack of media attention. The government is fighting at least 7 different armed groups and the overall situation is very complicated. No one has told me anything than to stay away. The Red Cross, on several levels, had advised me that I was unwanted, which one can easily understand. The alliance between the Red Cross and its interests within the country is fragile due to the unstable nature of the situation. The Red Cross must furthermore remain completely neutral in order to gain access to everyone and everywhere safely.
Uganda national museum in Kampala.
The paradox of course would be that I have been made a Goodwill Ambassador precisely for visiting every country without flying. And here I was being suggested both to skip a country or/and to fly. Oh well...it has only been 3 years of doing what I do. I guess they'll get it sooner or later? But suffice to say I had zero cooperation, when I felt I needed it. In agreement with the Danish Red Cross delegate in South Sudan I agreed to enter the country 100% Red Cross neutral. However I would be carrying my passport and a quick google search of my full name would link me to the Red Cross 100 times over. Oh well...
From Uganda Broadcasting Cooperations new building created in cooperation with Sony.
I cannot disclose neither my source or many of the reports I have on South Sudanese activities. But to give you some idea of some of the hardship I will include these snippets of newspaper articles:
Gun men in S.Sudan ambush 3 Ugandan buses, kill, and abduct occupants
Daily Monitor Amuru, 10/10/2016 Scores of Ugandan nationals are feared to have been killed, while others abducted following an ambush on three Ugandan buses along Nimule-Juba Highway in South Sudan by unknown gunmen on Monday morning. According to information we have obtained, the buses attacked are Echo Bus, Gateway bus and Friendship Bus Company that were travelling from Juba city to Kampala in Uganda.
Armed men attack and torch passenger bus on Juba-Nimule highway.
Radio Miraya, Juba 10/10/2016
A bus carrying an unknown number of passengers has reportedly been attacked along the Juba – Nimule road. Radio Miraya has received conflicting reports regarding the date of the incident; however initial reports indicate that the bus was burned down with severe casualties. Police spokesperson, Brig. Gen Daniel Justin Buolo, confirmed the attack, but gave no much detail as he was heading for a meeting.
21 travellers killed on Yei-Juba road: Official.
This Day Newspaper 10/10/2016
At least 21 people including women and children were killed and 20 others injured in an ambush on the Juba-Yei road on Saturday, a spokesperson for the SPLA army Brig, Lul Ruai Koang in Juba told Radio Tamazuj today that several commercial vehicles carrying passengers along the Yei-Juba road came under attacks, by Riek Machar’s forces at Ganyi area on Saturday “There were vehicles carrying citizens who were going to Juba, so they were ambushed by the opposition at an area called Ganyi, they killed 21 people, and about 20 others were wounded” said Lul.
Take notice of the name of my buscompany. Does it ring any bells?
It was a long ride towards the border. And while I had some idea of what was going on across the border I still had no idea, if immigration would ever let me in? Having a visa is no guarantee that you will cross a border. Of that I speak from bitter experience.
I had picked the border crossing at Nimule. It lies within Nimule National Park and is the gateway to the above referenced news snippets. However according to several sources Nimule is "safe" as long as I didn't venture further inland. Besides the Ugandan military had reportedly secured Ugandan interests in the region by posting a strong force of military presence. On a side note millions have lost their lives in recent years and more than 270,000 refugees have recently crossed the border into Uganda.
I was met by a lot of concerned faces as I said I was going to South Sudan. But the bus I was in was packed to the roof with people and cargo. We reached the border at around 04:00am. The border opened at 06:00am. I was gunning for 24-36 hours across the border to comply with the Sagas minimum rule of 24 hours in each nation. There was a lot of military at the border. And I was obviously the one passenger who caught everyone's eye. But I wasn't harassed in any way. I handed out a lot of handshakes to and from Ugandan immigration. Then I walked across the bridge as the sun was rising to my right...
South Sudanese immigration was swift and professional. At 07:29am on November 3rd 2016 I had entered South Sudan. About 3 kilometers up the road I had located a guesthouse called Motherland. The bus would continue towards Juba. A bus just 3 days before was shot at while taking the road to Juba, but didn't stop. For a second I speculated if that was a risk I was willing to take? Nope! The bus left without me. Nimule is a border town as border towns are most. A lot of trade goes on and it's generally never the kind of place you want to spend a night. The second I got off the bus I was approached by Arkanjelo (Archangel) who is a security officer appointed by the government. He was suspicious of me, but quickly calmed down and we had a laugh before he gave me his number and left. He however noted that I shouldn't take any photos as I could end up in serious trouble.
I observed a school and all the uniformed children playing out in front of it. A group of them were playing with the water pump until the teacher arrived with a stick to chase them off. Two young boys were fighting each other on the ground. But they were both grinning so it was just for fun. The sun was shinning and the surroundings were green.
I checked into a guesthouse, had some breakfast and proceeded to explore a bit. I was told by the locals that I was fine to walk about during the daytime. But I shouldn't walk at night. I briefly met with the South Sudanese Red Cross who were kind and accommodation. They are hard at work, but had time to meet me. I told them that I wasn't officially in South Sudan as Red Cross and that we better keep that among us. However I was officially in South Sudan on a very technical visit to count it as country number 120 without flying. The show must go on. I said my farewell and proceeded to the center of Nimule which stretches along the paved highway.
A skinny strung out man, drooling with a few yellow and crooked teeth approached me. I still wonder which horror his eyes may have seen. He was wearing an army shirt and grabbed my arm. He was desperate and probably crazy too. His strong grip would not let go of my pale European wrist as he obviously asked me for help in a language I did not understand. In Arabic I told him to seek out the Red Cross (Red Crescent) and pointed him in the right direction. If I had pulled my arm free of his desperate grip, then it would have been an unpredictable escalation of violence. After a while of cool, calm patience he let me go and I swiftly walked off to the side without looking back. Could a dollar of mine have changed his life?
I sat down near a vibrant market which looked closed, but still had many selling cigarettes, soft drinks, food, toothpaste, clothes and other everyday commodities. It was a warm and lazy atmosphere I came to enjoy. While the winds of change blow some take cover and others build windmills. Ugandans, Eritreans, South Sudanese, Congolese, Kenyans and many other nationalities were to be found in the border town of Nimule. You can pronounce that any way you want...it has already been pronounced any way you can imagine. Many prosper on the hard times that this young nation is experiencing. However some crack under the immense pressure and will not cope. While towards 300,000 have fled across the border others are drawn to the South Sudanese side in hope to prosper from making food or renting out a bed. Life must go on and children continue to play catch or hide and seek. Men smoke their cigarettes and laugh about the everyday amusements. Many who have fled return to their land in hope of better times than when they left. But the future is uncertain and unpredictable.
A pregnant goat walked across the barren soil and found a box with waste which it could devour. Do the goats know what is going on? Does anyone? In Mauritania I once visited a man who was calmly ripping a cardboard box into pieces to feed his goats. These creatures are extraordinary in terms of what they can eat. Here at the market a man picked up a stone and threw it with outmost laziness towards the goat which calmly moved aside and returned a second later.
I stick out as a sore thumb and have no illusions of hiding among these people. Everyone knows that I am here and the news of my arrival probably spread as wildfire, if nothing else then for the amusement of conversation. I'm sure that they also knew that I took residence at the "Motherland" which is a nice, however low cost, guesthouse by the main road. The Motherland is operated by a Ugandan family who treated me to their VIP room which had all I needed.
I'm drawn to the sentence of "the sands of time" as I also very much enjoyed the name given to a musical group a few of my Austrian friends named: "The Face Of Time". Which families have lived in the very southern part of South Sudan during the course of the past 1,000 years? How did they love and care for each other? What did they speak of? Did they know that the River Nile which passes through begins in what is today Uganda and becomes the White Nile in what is now Sudan? It continues its flow as it passes north through Egypt and mixes with the Mediterranean Sea. Egyptian faroes have long ago prospered from the riches which the Nile provided. Slaves and fishermen have navigated these waters a thousand times over. Do people here know? Do the goats?
Thunder approached upon the heavens and the sky turned dark. Laughter and conversation continued to fill the air as Thor, the Norse god of thunder and lightning, rode his chariot into the sky, aggressively swinging his hammer, causing the rain to fall. Good for the growth, but unfortunate for the spread of cholera which has reached Nimule only a few years ago. The Sudanese Red Cross deals with the sensitization of the population on how to deal with the decease. I wonder if my dusty hat which my father bought me might be worth more than what many will ever be able to accumulate? My thin, torn pants and my 10 year old t-shirt makes no difference. I stick out and don't belong here. If you've ever been fishing then you will know how a foreign object thrown in the water makes all the fish cautious for a while. As such it is with my presence, but like as it is with fish they quickly become accustomed and return to their normal state. It's only in the beginning that people look at me and obviously talk about me. But as I sit calmly in a corner and smoke my Eritrean served shisha they "forget" me. I'm free to observe and think. I think too much...
Asulle and Sam are 2 young men who approached me. I think I remember them from my breakfast, but couldn't be sure. We had a long talk about people, tribes, rebels, football, Arsenal, weather, Nimule now and then, safety, security, trade, nationalities, the Nile and so much more. Everyone I've spoken to, told me that I would be safe as long as I stayed in Nimule. But people don't know everything. Back at the Motherland I checked for escape routes and security features. Just as I had already done when I checked in. It wasn't the safest place to stay. Should I have chosen another? My room only had one entrance and the bathroom window was bared. No where to escape. Escape from what? Am I paranoid? Should I be? I took a few extra safety measures and went to bed.
You can can always count on the smile of a child.
I woke up the next morning after a quiet night. Had I been in danger during the night or was it all just paranoia? Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst? As this point it's all speculation.
I met up with the South Sudanese Red Cross in the morning and joined them at a primary school were they were sensitizing the students towards hygiene. The children were like children are most: Curious, energetic and cheeky. After the planed exercise the kids would ask questions about hygiene. Some would clearly ask questions to where they already knew the answers. Others would ask more interesting questions! A student stood up and wanted to know: "If I'm out of soap then you (Red Cross) say I can wash my hands with ash. So can I also wash my body with ash?" Then she sat down and waited for her answer.
The Riverbank Primary School in Nimule.
Later on I found myself sitting outside a store together with 3 men from Eritrea. They had moved their business to a town higher north in South Sudan around 8 years ago. But they had to flee the war and had ended up in the same border town as I. They wanted to know what my business was in Nimule and I told them the entire "traveling without flying" story. One of the men then got up to get a world map. He returned with a 1977 collection of world maps. The Soviet Union was still at play, Eritrea was still a part of Ethiopia and Germany was divided in east and west. But it was all we had and it did the trick. Between the 3 of us we quickly devised a plan for me to visit the remaining 10 countries in Africa. Although everyone agreed that Eritrea would be difficult - but not impossible.
I left the 3 men and returned to the market where I was meeting Asulle and Sam again. They had suggested that I could take a boda boda to the nearby River Nile. Asulle and Sam were playing ludo (a board game) along with 4-5 others. I had something to eat and after a while, when I was ready, Asulle called for Richard who is the brother of William. But Richard was busy and William ended up taking me. The boda boda raced out of Nimule until we turned left down a dirt road. The landscape had in just a few minutes changed exceptionally beautiful! We reached a landing site with a few small boats, some military and some police. We were given permission to go and look at the Nile, but we couldn't take any pictures! That is a shame because the vision in front of me was heavenly! The Nile raced at high speeds cutting through a lush green scenario. In the back large green mountains rose up towards the blue sky which created our ceiling. The bright equatorial sun burned down upon us while creating the illusion of a billion stars bathing in the river. Pieces of grass, bush and plants floated swiftly past me heading north to Egypt. Then a man in uniform tried to tell me that I needed a permit to be there. But I saw through his game and it all became a joke. Thankfully I knew enough Arabic to impress them and the scam was immediately dropped. William and I thanked everyone and left again.
This is NOT the Nile. This is just on the way there. A crocodile ate someone here last year. Probably someone washing clothes or bathing...
Before we reached the main road we had to pass the wild life sanctuaries main office. Men who were sitting outside the building waved us over and we decided to do as commended. Here another scam began where I needed to pay for my entry to the national park? I've been through so many scenarios similar to this one so the uniformed bullies hardly stand a chance. It was obvious that they were looking for a bribe, but I played the game and after 20 minutes they ended up giving up on me. Their last attempt was to confiscate Williams motorcycle and arrest him as "he should have known better". Again they tried to see if I would pay my way out of that? But I remained in the game and "didn't understand" what they wanted. 2 men then drove off with William and his boda boda. I was now left alone with the uniformed men at the wildlife sanctuary. I should rush to say that I never felt scared or threatened. There was a solid amount of laughter involved in this episode and overall I just felt like it was a matter of time. But when they drove off with William I wasn't feeling all that confident...although I hid it well deep inside. The uniformed men then told me that I was free to go. In fact they would give me a ride back to town since they were going anyway. So we got into the car and left. 5 minutes later I was released and quickly made my way back to Asulle and Sam. I told them what had happened and they were not worried at all. Everyone was confident that it was just an attempt to frighten William and that he and his boda boda would soon be released unharmed. All in all the uniformed men had just appeared to be as schoolyard bullies bored and looking for amusement. However I was confident that the men from the wildlife sanctuary had taken Williams money. So I made a deal with Asulle that he would give William some extra money from me. And I trust Asulle (kind of). But Asulle was better than nothing in the absence of Richard (Williams brother).
Another boda boda driver took me towards the border after I said farewell to the boys. While on route a boda boda driver with a big smile overtook us waving with the strength of a thousand horses. It was a very relieved William who had been released and came to see me off.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - relieved, locked and loaded
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga