Juba 1: Red Dust on the White Nile

Hot like the first few seconds when you get into a car that’s been sitting in the warm sun, secure and enveloping. It’s drier than DC, so even at over 100°F it doesn’t go to my head and make me woozy like 90°F does at home. Still, I move too fast for this climate. People walk slowly, move deliberately, like they’re wading through the heat, not running from it.

The dust is everywhere, rusty and chalky like someone sanded down a brick and collected the shavings. It’s the pavement and the sidewalk and the terrace and would make things seem dirty, but it’s so present that nothing is untouched to pose a contrast or alternative. So much trash adorns the streets it looks more like sprinkles on a chocolate chip cookie cake than litter. Babies in varying state of nakedness play in piles of it or climb mounds of dirt on the side of the road the way we played in leaves on grassy hills at that age.

Although it’s a conflict zone, driving through the city doesn’t feel unsafe or scary. There are pickup trucks of soldiers, not all of whom carry guns, and few enough that they’re not remarkable. People go about their business. The greatest difference seems to be what seems to constitute normal business. The same tableaux that might give cause for crossing to the other side of the street if they were seen in DC appear sadly routine here: gatherings of motorcycles on street corners, men huddled around corner shops or gas stations.

Tires are stacked in the roads to serve as barriers that keep traffic flowing and some are painted with directions or pastel “murals.” The buildings are mostly low metal containers or cement blocks—some are metal containers shoved inside cement blocks like a walnut in a dried fig— and while there are some new buildings and construction sites, none look near completion.

Pedestrians share the road with the cars. Mopeds are used as taxis and bikes are used like mules, carrying as many as 10 dirty yellow plastic gallon tanks of gas and other wares. I’ve seen one pink helmet and one yellow, a purple mohawk, and zero female moped drivers. The women—amazingly!—carry large bundles and silver trays of food and plastic jugs on their heads, balancing their loads on coils of fabric that create a flatter service.

Gaggles of students in green and blue uniforms like a puzzle of the world spill out of ramshackle shanty towns to traipse to school, behaving beautifully like children anywhere: a little girl wears her UNICEF backpack strapped ridiculously across her forehead, another crosses the street to sulk defiantly away from a sibling or a friend, and trios of boys practice swaggering like men down the side of the street. Viewed from the hotel, others splash and wrestle in the water, while their mothers and sisters scrub clothes against rocks or brothers and fathers water cattle and clean their mopeds.

Access to the hotel is down a long red pot-holed road walled off from two shanty towns, bumping along past an enclosure full of John Deer equipment, winding through a quick zig zag of black and yellow metal barrels, and passing through two guarded gates, ending in front of an upside down, army green half-pipe of a tent that is reception. The compound itself creeps right up to the White Nile, dotted by yellow duplex bungalows surrounded by giant mango trees and trellises of pink and orange flowers. Pacing in front of a large, screened restaurant tent, guards patrol the river bank with billy clubs, supported by the occasional cat or dog and families of quick, blue-tailed lizards.

 

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