As promised in my previous post, I’d like to introduce you to my colleague, Hugh, who reports back about his recent trip to South Sudan. Hope you like it, Mark.
On the 9th of July 2011, after a referendum to determine if South Sudan should declare its independence from Sudan was passed with 98% of the vote, the Republic of South Sudan became the 193rd member country of the United Nations. The youngest country in the world, South Sudan has an estimated population of around 10 million and is roughly the size of France. Southern Sudan had suffered badly from civil wars and was seen to have been marginalised and deprived of political powers by Sudan’s government in Khartoum. South Sudan’s secession was seen as a turning point and there was optimism about the future for the country. With 80% of the oil in what had been Sudan actually lying in what is now South Sudan, this, if managed correctly, could greatly help a part of the world which has long been struggling with extreme poverty. However, in reality the country has had a problematic beginning. In South Sudan’s short history there have already been numerous tales of corruption and human right abuses. Furthermore, in January this year South Sudan halted oil production (which accounts for around 98% of the country’s wealth) due to disputes with Sudan over oil transit fees. Despite a deal having apparently now been struck with Sudan, oil production hasn’t restarted and the country’s economy is feeling the effects.
When planning my data collection trip to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, the first hurdle was to obtain a visa. Until recently this would have involved travelling to Addis Ababa, Nairobi or Kampala since there was no embassy located within the UK. Luckily for me, one had supposedly just opened up in London. Wanderingmark has previously mentioned the difficulties often encountered when obtaining a visa, well, my problems started with trying to find the embassy! After failed attempts to reach embassy staff by phone or email, and after being told by the receptionist of the building listed as their address on the embassy’s website that she hadn’t heard of them, I had almost given up hope. With nothing of use online, my only option was to go to their supposed address in the hope that I would at least find out more information. Much to my surprise, they were in fact located within the building, hidden away in one of the smaller offices. I left, happily, with my application form and a list of all the visa requirements.
On my return to the building the following day I was told by the receptionist that: “they have left the address, we don’t know where to, but they still have some stuff here so hopefully they will be back to pick it up.” Very reassuring! However, I still had time on my side and returned to work, unlike a couple of others who waited looking dismayed in the hope the embassy staff valued their possessions enough to return. Fortunately, the next day the receptionist was able to give me the new address – for information this was 28-32 Wellington Road, London NW8 9SP at the time of writing although certainly susceptible to changing at any moment! On entering the embassy (just a modest room) three men, still wearing their winter coats, were arguing about chairs. At first I thought I had interrupted a rather competitive game of musical chairs, but in fact they were discussing who was responsible for them being one chair short. However, the process from then on went reasonably smoothly and I was able to pick up my visa at the second attempt just a week after submitting the application.
I was slightly apprehensive about travelling to South Sudan. The country is still seen as politically unstable and has been in the news a lot recently, more often than not for the wrong reasons. For example, the week before my visit a UN Human Rights Officer was kicked out the country for making ‘false’ reports about the army raping and torturing civilians.
After an eight hour transfer in Addis Ababa airport I finally boarded the plane for Juba, reassured somewhat by the large numbers of English and Americans that were also on the plane. Upon arrival, the first task was to get through immigration in the arrivals area, which is nothing more than an oversized shed. Three flights had apparently landed within quick succession and there were chaotic scenes as people tried to push their way to the front of the queue. Being English, I ‘enjoyed’ the queue so much that I stayed in it for over an hour before finally getting through the immigration checks. For this trip I had organised a driver who was there to pick me up. We headed to my hotel, Logali House, which is considered to be one of the better places to stay in Juba and just a five minute drive from the airport. I always find the first few hours in the more extreme locations I visit a bit surreal. The dusty roads and low-rise buildings of Juba are a stark contrast to central London and I did feel a long way from home.
Due to the rescheduling of one of my flights I had no more than 24 hours in Juba, which meant I had to go out collecting prices immediately. I left with my driver to the largest and most popular expat shop in Juba – JIT. JIT sells a good range of groceries, stocking many international brands, as well as selling electrical items, cosmetics etc. I was quite surprised at the level of availability of international brands. Equally surprising was the price. Many items have to be imported in from Uganda and Kenya which consequently drives up the price and, coupled with very high inflation, Juba is becoming one of the most expensive cities in Africa for an expat to live (it has shot up to #14 in the world on ECA’s latest list of most expensive locations for expatriates: http://www.businessinsider.com/cost-of-living-for-expats-in-poor-cities-2012-12).
Although Juba is quite a small place, there are few tarmac roads so driving even small distances can often take a while. This gave me a chance to get to know my driver, Victor, from Kenya. We had some very interesting conversions. He was very shocked to hear that we don’t have UN peacekeepers in London.
Before I knew it my time in Juba was almost up. I had time for lunch in the restaurant in Logali House, which was crowded with expats taking advantage of the (relatively) fast wireless internet. I was struggling to imagine what life in Juba would be like for an expat. During my short time in the city I felt like I didn’t really get to know the place especially since, for security reasons, I was driven from shop to shop and had limited interaction with the locals. This, however, might not be that different from the reality of day to day life as an expat here: staying within secure compounds, being driven to where they need to be, seeing the same old faces from day to day…
After my lunch I asked the hotel’s receptionist what time he thought I needed to leave for the airport, bearing in mind my flight left at 4pm. He told me that: “to be safe I should leave at 3.50pm, it’s a 5 minute drive”. I think he wanted me to stay in Juba.
Hugh is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.