Wednesday, 14 October 2015

'Early Morning Run in… Juba, South Sudan'


“South Sudan is one of the most hard-put places in the world.” Difficult to disagree with Henry Rollins. I’m in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. The world’s newest country…

Returning to more of an old style post this time. 0630 hrs, the morning air is fresh. Guest runner. Let me introduce ‘Al Keeni’. 

Al Keeni is from Khartoum. He’s dressed in massive black ¾ length baggy shorts, like 2 windsocks. He beats me down to the lobby. He's busy warming up 1950s style. Rapid toe touching, windmills, that sort of thing. We shake hands. Salam Al Keeni.

Juba is lawless, security is necessary. The overnight gate guard from ‘Warrior’ opens up. There will be no tomfoolery today. Run.





























To our left the President's residence. A vintage Russian tank parked outside. Let’s turn right. We head south along Airport Road. The pace is modest, plenty of time to take everything in. Some tarmac roads. Fewer pavements. We run on uneven waste ground strewn with rubbish. Juba town is filthy. 

The rhythmic hum of generators. No power grid. Oh, and no running water or sewage system. Whatever happens, don’t get sick. Freetown, my more usual abode, is like a modern-day metropolis in comparison. 

A few glum people walking around. I greet some. Little response. Not exactly the happiest place in the world. Mind you, after 21 months of civil war along ethnic grounds and a shattered economy and no hard currency and spiralling inflation and few jobs and institutions collapsing and violent crime and investors gone; I don’t think I’d be spinning cartwheels and cracking jokes first thing.

We make slow progress. The sun rises slowly behind us. Along with miserable people, there's the odd goat and some mangy looking dogs for company. Not exactly uplifting...

However, every cloud and all that… seemingly two types of business are holding up. I’ve mentioned the ubiquitous security. The other? A personal favourite… beer. Possibly a little harsh with my initial assessment? Could well be my type of town. 

























White Bull. I’m supporting the local economy most evenings, particularly given the Rugby World Cup is on. The tagline though is slightly ironic, ‘The Taste of Progress’.

Separated and independent from Sudan since 2011. The 2 main tribes are now fighting each other since end 2013. Nearly one in five displaced by the current conflict, from a population of 12 million. Tens of thousands killed. South Sudan has been at war 42 of the past 60 years. Staggering when you think about it in those terms. Any hope? Well, a peace agreement was signed 6 weeks ago. However, 7 failed ceasefires came and went previously. Back to the run…  

3 mins 23 secs, Al Keeni, has folded quicker than a dodgy deckchair. Going backwards faster than a French tank commander. Come on Al Keeni, let’s get back for breakfast. He pants a breathless, 'Tamam'.

Everything lacks energy. Not just Al Keeni. The least animated place I've ever visited. No spark. No zip. Even the boda-bodas seem passive (motorbike taxis). Plenty of battered minibuses on the move too, known as haflahs. The side doors slide open and legs everywhere. These fellows are nearly all rangy and tall. I'm 6 foot but feel under elevated here. As for you Napoleon types? Consider somewhere else for your holidays. You might develop a real complex here. 

Eventually, we get off Airport Road and turn left on Independence Road. As we head slightly uphill, I'm thinking about the madness of this place. Is this what the late John Garang (left) had in mind…




We turn left again. A classic box run. Ministries Road. Moving east. Running into the rising sun feels instantly better. Spirits lifted. Al Keeni has found a second wind. He starts running with his arms out to the sides like an aeroplane. Strange…

Another tank on our right... in the words of the UN there's been a proliferation of weapons. Or, as they might say in 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'.... everyone’s got a shooter. AK47s are in abundance.

Government ministries, as the road name depicts, are dotted both sides mixed in with various UN agencies. I take Al Keeni’s mind off things by renaming several ministries, the Ministry of No Labour, the Ministry of Lack of Environment, the Ministry of No Finance, and so on… it’s worked, we’re 'flying' now… 

After Ministries, turn left and head north. Towards the airport. Damn. We're walking again. Can't cajole anymore from Al Keeni. He’s done. On our right the Sahara Hotel. Looks a complete dump. Essentially sheds from Homebase with air conditioners bolted on. On our left 'The Hungry Lion'. Must book a table…


















Al Keeni surprisingly has a third wind. We're jogging again, alongside the airport perimeter. A burnt-out old Russian Mig on our left. I’d love a quick snap. However, photography is positively discouraged. We make a final left and push back to the hotel. This part of town looks better. A Chinese casino, now we're talking. Perhaps a few hands of blackjack later, ahead of curfew?






















Busier now. Sirens. People on the move. We've made it back. 6 km in 45 mins. Hardly startled gazelles this morning. Al Kenni, cold shower and meet for breakfast?

Eggs. Coffee. Life’s good. Oh, and a quick shout out to the owners and staff at the ‘Tulip Inn’. You guys have done a fantastic job, well done. Thanks for taking such good care of us. The hotel is an oasis amongst all the mayhem. As some fellow said to me at checkout, TIJ. This is Juba. Yep, it is.





























Breakfast. Hang on. The same song playing again. The one that'll define this trip. 'I'm Getting Closer to my Home' by Grand Funk Railroad. Makes you want to cut your own brake cables. Fleetwood Mac & Stevie all day long. OK, some of their early stuff was written in Latin... on parchment… proper music...

I engage a stout German fellow on the next table. Sandals, socks, red in the face, you know the deal. Turns out he's a tourist. A what? A tourist? Really? Here to visit the worlds newest country. His impressions of Juba? Not so beautiful, came ze reply…

Reminds me, here's my favourite German joke?

German parents had a beautiful son. Fritz. They were anxious about him. He never spoke or made a sound. By his 2nd birthday; no words, no sounds. They sought advice from the worlds, top doctors, without success. 

Time passed. His mutter gazed lovingly at Fritz on the occasion of his 5th birthday party. Fritz, do you like ze party? Gute, ja? How es your birthen caken? To her amazement, Fritz spoke for ze first time. Ze icing es very bitter mutter, nein? His mutter hugged him, she was overjoyed. Fritz, you can talk. Oh, my darling, why haven't you spoken before. Fritz replied, everything so far has been zatisfactory... 

Forgive my accent. Good to know my 4 years in Germany with the British Army was not wasted...

All bad in Juba? No, of course not. Sure, it’s a terrible place, but there were some laughs along the way.

Mercenaries and missionaries? Plenty. The 3rd M? Misfits - yep, quite a few of them too. Some terrific characters. There's two Juba's. The day version, and the night. One is reasonably safe, the other can be highly dangerous. Most people don't move at night. Those who do follow a curfew of around 2100 hrs. Sensible, especially for newcomers.

So how come then, 'Al Keeni', 'Our Man in Port Loko', SJ, and myself end up on a roof overlooking the airport at 2300 hrs, on a school night, bouncing on a trampoline? We'd enjoyed a stunning bar-b-que, a few cold beers, and the host had a 14 ft giant screen; an outside cinema if you will. Projecting on the screen was Elvis's comeback tour circa 1970. Surreal? Sort of, not your average night in Basingstoke.

Gazing thoughtfully across the Juba skyline from this rooftop watching MT (our most generous host) and the others bouncing up and down (good for his lymph nodes apparently) to the strains of 'Wise men say, only fools rush in (bet you sang it)... Quick, let's get back to our hotel... pronto.

As always it's about the people. There's some good folk here. It's like the parable of multi-millionaire father who has twins. He loves them equally. One is downbeat, the other happy go lucky. He does an experiment. On their eleventh birthday, he fills the first room with the most expensive presents. He watches his downbeat son open them with little joy. 

He fills the other room with horse poo and a shovel. He watches surprised through the window as his son shovels and whistles away. He asks his son why he's so happy. The son replies that with all this horse poo, there must be a pony in here somewhere...

Perhaps the wise tale is relevant here. Trouble is here the horse poo is a vast mountain. But maybe...

Before we left the building or was it, Elvis, I asked everyone to sum up Juba in 3 words. Explained I had a blog to write.

Our Man in Port Loko (remember her from Sierra Leone); complex, fractured, chaotic.

SJ (from Juba); lousy security, a weak economy, no human rights.

Lebanese guest on the rooftop; no competition, opportunity, lack of life security.

Me; complicated, unpredictable, wacky.

There you have it. If these words don't entice you to visit, I'm not sure what will? In closing, I guess Juba is somewhere you come for a reason, not exactly a bucket list destination. It's rough and tough. Likeable? Not really. Great experience? Yes, unforgettable...

What about Al Keeni’s 3 words? I had asked him earlier on the run; hot, expensive, unsafe. Thanks, Al Keeni.

The last word? For you Beverley in Calgary; Happy Birthday, good luck and best wishes in your continued fight, hang in there… from the Thorn Tree at The Stanley in Nairobi…