Happy Birthday South Sudan

I have seen RPGs before. They’re funny because they look like toys. A gun is a gun, but an RPG is a stick with a rugby ball on the end and it looks comic unless it’s pointed at you. What I had never seen, however, was the sheer array of weaponry that South Sudan insisted on lining its roads with in the run-up to independence. Not that you can blame them, though. As the bus enters Juba it passes a long stretch of road on which the rectangular shadows of huts are visible, but these shadows are marked in soot and smashed brick.

Dawn in Juba. At the bottom left you can see faint traces of homes which were razed.

I was fortunate enough to be travelling with a good friend, Ryan, whose experience of the cultures and conflicts of Northern Uganda and South Sudan make him a fascinating travel companion. We had decided to travel up, but were forced to wait until painfully late because he was presenting a paper at a conference. We took the early bus out of Kampala on Thursday, reaching Gulu in the late afternoon and waiting beside the road until three AM, when the convoy of buses to Juba arrives. We were joined in our waiting by Junior, a South Sudanese who has spent most of his life in Uganda but was returning home in great excitement for the celebrations, having secured three days leave from his school to attend.

Three flags and no shirt is the get-up of choice for this young South Sudanese.

When we finally boarded the bus, I was lucky enough to get a seat near the back while Ryan was forced to sit in the front, directly behind the driver. At the best of times this is a terrifying experience- the roads are heaped murram which rises to a central point, but in order to avoid potholes the drivers often swerve to the side of the road, leaning the bus at crazy angles. However the trip had added undertones this time, because very recently two buses crashed on this same route (their mangled remains are still beside the road), killing 29 people. I slept fitfully but Ryan was forced to stay awake by the sight in front of him.

A view from the bus window passing over the hills near the Ugandan border.

The road is poorest on the Ugandan side, but improves on the Sudanese side partly because the UN built a highway to facilitate their convoys in their passage through to Juba. The road winds through lush hills covered in thick grass and low trees, and more and more huts are springing up as refugees return home. The huts are extremely neat and trim, but everywhere there is the same sight as in northern Uganda, the shattered brick walls of the buildings from before.

South Sudanese hills.

South Sudan has suffered more than its fair share of war, and then some. Along the roads you can still see the skull-and-crossbones signs which mark minefields, and on the eve of independence they were taking no chances. Tacticals (pickup trucks with a .50 cal machine gun welded on the back) were parked all over the place in central Juba, and men with assorted weapons stood, sat or lay at regular intervals along all major roads. Some picked their teeth, others looked thoughtfully at their little heaps of RPG rugby balls, but all were ready to keep the peace.

A poster encouraging South Sudanese to vote for secession, on the door of a shed in Juba. The vote passed, 98.8% in favour.

We reached the border at 5.20am, and stood in the early dawn chill, waiting for the immigration offices to open. The sun began to rise, and with it a gentle mist from which the pointy tops of small hills emerges. Money changers frantically tried to get us to buy Sudanese Pounds, but in the end (and after a heck of a dance) we were visa’d up and the bus moved on to Juba. As we got close we were stuck in first one roadblock (bags emptied, armpits felt), then another, and another. At the second roadblock a great sounding of horns cleared the road, and President Museveni’s convoy shot past us. I’ve seen that convoy a good many times, but this was the first time I had seen it stripped of its customary heavy weaponry. But finally we entered town, arriving at Jebel bus park to an atmosphere of welcoming and absolute happiness.

A pickup truck flying the flag in Jebel Bus Park, Juba.

And that’s what was so strange about the whole experience of the secession. It was so totally, utterly good-natured and peaceful. I was aware that Juba was at peace before I visited, and I was also aware that the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) quite like to wear light weapons as bling. But for the two days I was there we were met with nothing but cheery greetings from civilians and army alike, with the exception of one bus driver (but bus drivers are bus drivers). I know the SPLA are no angels, and there are many dark secrets hidden beneath, but for those two days they were on their best behaviour.

Female attendees dressed in their finest party frocks and sun-proof hats as they approach the party.

We were met by Roza, a friend from Gulu who now works for the UN in Juba. She helped us find a room for the night, and then we went with her to visit her friends, who were having a celebratory dinner to which we were welcomed despite being uninvited. It was a delicious goat stew with posho and soft, spongy bread. The stew was incredible, but the bread was such a treat. In Uganda most bread is either ‘Tip-Top’ brand, or a similar style. It is, in short, not bread.

A heavily-pregnant woman clutches a flag at the celebration. Many people fainted from the heat of the sun, and I ended up giving away all of my water, but the party went on regardless.

Along all of the roads were huge posters of the South Sudanese flag, of Salva Kiir, and of John Garang. My first introduction to the story of John Garang was last year, when I crossed the (then) Sudanese border to have lunch under the careful watch of a very stern SPLA intelligence officer who made sure I went, ate and returned and didn’t take any pictures. This was at Kaya (the West Nile border point) and there was a giant poster of Dr John Garang, emblazoned with the words “Dr John Garang- Forever a Burning Spear in Our Hearts”.

The flag-draped statue of Dr John Garang awaits its unveiling.

The actual independence ceremony took place at the Dr John Garang Mausoleum, the final resting place of the father of the nation. He died in a helicopter crash in 2005, the cause of which was never satisfactorily proved, and throughout the morning’s festivities a flag-draped statue of him dominated the crowd close to the dais.

Crowds begin to arrive at the Dr John Garang Mausoleum, 7am. In the background is the flag-lined avenue down which the world's dignitaries drove to arrive.

The mausoleum is sited within a large walled field, and by 8am there was a giant crowd of people from throughout Sudan, most forming small circles to celebrate around drums. We arrived just after 7am, and were soon festooned in South Sudan flags, greeting everybody with “South Sudan Oyeeee!”

A man wearing the South Sudanese flag as a hat poses for a portrait.

The flag-draped statue of Dr John Garang is seen beside a poster calling for the capture of President Bashir of Sudan, "Dead or Alive". Bashir is wanted on ICC warrants in connection to war crimes committed throughout the country, but attended the ceremony regardless.

Even the dogs got dressed up for the occasion. Or perhaps I should say; somebody even dressed up a dog, which looked to be suffering in the sweltering heat.

There are over 200 ethnic groups in South Sudan, and there must have been representatives of most at the mausoleum. We walked around, talking to people and marvelling at the worrying amount of bullets, both spent and live, which still litter the ground. At one point we found a live .50 round, a very large bullet indeed. I fetched a security officer, who without ceremony but with a wry grin picked it up and headed for the gate. The atmosphere was one of a music festival, but more men in leopard skin (print and real) than you would usually see. Sadly I know very little of the different tribes there, and while I could spot different Northern Uganda traditional dresses and dances no problem I can’t claim the same of South Sudan, so you’ll have to put up with the slightly insulting catch-all of “South Sudanese tribesmen”.

A group of tribesmen wearing fake leopard-skin run across the Mausoleum grounds, waving South Sudanese and American flags.

When Garang’s statue had been unveiled Ryan and I took a walk to witness the parade, and were invited up onto an SPLA car to get a better view. Then we returned to the mausoleum just in time to witness the raising of the flag. As the flag began to rise, thousands began to cheer and wave their own flags. Finally as it reached the top a rare gust of wind blew through, spreading it out. The crowd went beyond everything they had managed all day, and the emotion was clear throughout. So many people suffered and died for that moment.

The South Sudanese flag is raised over the Dr John Garang Mausoleum for the first time.

Young men jumping in celebration.

As the festivities began to move out into the streets, Ryan and I went in search of buses to Uganda. It was too expensive to stay (a cheap room is around $100, and literally everything had been booked by the government) and there are no ATMs, so we decided to move. We reached the bus park, however, and found it empty. No buses until the morning, and nowhere to stay. We decided we needed food, so went to an Ethiopian restaurant. There we met William, a Ugandan photographer, who without hesitation offered us a room for the night. He was a saviour, for sure. We walked half way across the city, through scenes of great celebration, to his house.

An SPLA truck drives down the road, honking its horn, as fireworks explode overhead.

A young man plays with a firework as he celebrates on the streets of Juba.

Late-night celebrations in Juba as a truckload of young South Sudanese celebrate independence.

Then early in the morning we headed out to the Kampala stage, getting a bus easily and heading swiftly through to Uganda. I am lucky beyond belief to be able to do what I do, but this was a privilege throughout. South Sudan was charming and welcoming (though a little pricey) and people like Roza and William made it something unforgettable. I wish the world’s youngest nation nothing but good things, and I hope it will soon become fully peaceful. The transition from rebellion to statehood is a hard one and there is still a long way to go, but I hope it will get there.

A man jumps in celebration as his friends look on.

Update: Apparently I’m on Freshly Pressed again! Thank you WordPress, now I regret not putting all of the photos up… If you like what you see, please check out the rest of my blog (http://themzungudiaries.wordpress.com) and also my website (www.willboase.com) where you can see lots more of my work. I’m also on Twitter at @willboasephoto, although I mostly just retweet stuff and talk about food.

About Muzungu

I’m a Uganda-based freelance photographer (and occasional writer) working for a broad range of clients including NGOs, newspapers and magazines and development agencies. My work has taken me across East Africa, South America and Europe, and previous clients include USAID, the World Bank and the East African. I also work on personal documentary projects in my spare time. If you’d like to hire me or to know more, please feel free to get in touch.
This entry was posted in Photography, Snaps, travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

93 Responses to Happy Birthday South Sudan

  1. Wonderful, wonderful photos. Thank you for sharing.

  2. There is such a beautiful, touching, poignant story reflected through these photos. Love the FACES and the joy…

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed — well deserved!
    :)

  3. Ah, happy birthday South Sudan, indeed! Thanks for sharing your fabulous photos.

    (My partner and I lived in Haiti for a year, where we often feared swerving off the road to certain death–all in an effort to avoid potholes the size of small swimming pools!)

    And congrats on Fresly Pressed–that will be a heck of a drive, for sure!

    Kathy

  4. Happy life in South Sudan or is it “image”? http://calogeromiratraveland.wordpress.com

  5. myprojection says:

    Wow, this is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing the photos.

  6. thehungryhungarian says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing this story… I love hearing stories like this, especially like when the South Sudanese flag was raised for the first time and everyone cheered; it makes me proud to witness the birth of a new nation from within the United States. And with Independence Day not even a week before South Sudan’s independence, it really underscores what we Americans know very well: a nation’s independence is rarely won without bullets.

  7. Absolutely stunning! I have to admit, I’m a little jealous. I would absolutely love to be there right now. Thanks so much for sharing!!!

  8. Lakia Gordon says:

    Hapy Birthday!!! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  9. Thanks for sharing. Is very good and very interesting.

  10. Really touching story, but its good to see the birth of the neweast country in africa.

  11. Pingback: Happy Birthday South Sudan (via The Mzungu Diaries) « Flower Blossoms' Blog

  12. HB says:

    Wishing the South Sudanese all the best! and less suffering from now on……

    Thx 4 the photos!

  13. mesosoma says:

    Congratulations South Sudan

  14. ournote2self says:

    I love all the bright colors in your pictuers! Beautiful!

  15. Thank you; you made me homesick. My Luo people of kenya left the Sudan seven-to-ten centuries ago, but seeing my tall brothers andmy beautiful sisters celebrate their independence made me tearful. I feel like boarding the next bus out of Nairobi to head back to the greens of Juba and the Nile waters. Thank you for recording this historical event live.

  16. I read every bit of it! & the pictures are amazing!!!

  17. I thoroughly enjoyed your post! The pictures are incredible. Thank you!

  18. Brilliant – thank you. I interviewed a senior civil servant from the new South Sudan days ago and am writing up my article now. Great to have this images as a background to my thoughts…

  19. Very nice report and pictures! Well done!
    Dani

    http://daniplanaslabad.wordpress.com/

  20. Eva McCane says:

    nice photos! the cultural differences are incredible. i’d love to visit someday!

  21. This is what you call long walk to freedom. I wish them the best in the future. May they have a president that put them first and the interest of the new Country. We don’t want false promises by their new president. It’s time these Leaders love and respect their people. Thanks for the post.

  22. Great photos of an historic occasion. All the best South Sudan!

  23. Vasare says:

    very inspiring post, great photographs as well :)

    http://vasare.wordpress.com/

  24. Evan says:

    amazing photos… :)
    thanks for sharing

  25. Loving the pictures and the piece–just read about this in the newspapers today! Thank you for sharing : )

  26. Pingback: Happy Birthday South Sudan « Tom Grey – Freedom with Responsibility

  27. A powerful and historic experience, well detailed in descriptions and pictures. Thanks for sharing!

  28. Gladys says:

    I heard about South Sudan being a free country on the radio. It’s nice to see the after pictures of a new country. Good luck to South Sudan, may liberty be yours forever. And I envy all your traveling.

  29. Tough path to freedom. The more you pay for freedom, you will get better future better govt. Allthe best. Leaders pl do not make false promises.

  30. mkeeffer says:

    A new nation is born – thank you. These photos better convey the excitement and joy of the people than any others I’ve seen. I wish them well. Another Pressing….yea!

  31. Best wishes to the beautiful new nation South Sudan, if it is really born. thanks for travelling me to Sudan. I’ve never been there… and I think I’ll never be.

  32. Shivya says:

    Lovely photos and a touching description of how a country went from a war zone to independence. Thanks for sharing this, and thanks WordPress for fresh-pressing this. Reading it felt as though I witnessed the celebration & the freedom in person. Good luck to South Sudan, like you said, hope it gets nothing but good things & transitions fully to peace. Its people deserve it :)

  33. frizztext says:

    congratulations!

  34. I hope the world is peaceful forever

  35. quintendo64 says:

    Dude…I just want to BE you

    • I know, right? The humour of the writing and the composition of the photographs is spot-on.
      On a different note, I just finished reading What is the What by Dave Eggers/Valentino Achak Deng and I hope it is accurate. Since it was published in 2005, a lot has happened, but at least now I know to come here for recent news from East Africa and elsewhere. And I also plan to read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.
      Anyway, it is good this article is getting a second burst of attention!

  36. You did a good job.You brought the experience to life through your narrative and pictorial documentation. Keep up the good job

  37. Magnificient pictures, great post!

  38. MOSES WASAMU says:

    wish the Sudanese a wonderful time rebuilding their country

  39. I wish the best for South Sudan. I like your photos.

  40. Glad to find your blog. Look forward to becoming more familiar with your work.

  41. arifinfo says:

    the picture was amazing for me :)

  42. watusafaris says:

    Its great story and they deserve to celebrate their Independence. Its just a start to a great nation to come. Well presented, i love the photos

  43. cpmondello says:

    Id say “Happy Birthday” is everyone in South Sudan was truly free:

    “Homosexuality will not be accepted in southern Sudan should the south become independent after a referendum due to take place next year the regions President Salva Kiir Mayardit told Dutch radio on Friday.” (July 31, 2010 http://www.sudantribune.com/Homosexuality-will-not-be,35815)

    South Sudan: Referendum for New Democracy, But Not For Gays? (January 10, 2011 http://thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/south-sudan-referendum-for-new-democracy-but-not-for-gays/politics/2011/01/10/16617)

    “Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Sudan. The judicial system is based on the Shari’a and according to Article 148, capital punishment applies should the offense be committed either by a man or a woman. For homosexual men, lashes are given for the first offence, with the death penalty following the third offence. 100 lashes are given to unmarried women who engage in homosexual acts.[1] For lesbian women, stoning and thousands of lashes are the penalty for the first offence.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_Sudan)

    • Muzungu says:

      Oh, it’s you again. Can’t you just let them enjoy one day of happiness? They’ve been at war for SIXTY YEARS. Gay rights hasn’t exactly been top of the agenda. It’ll come, and it will probably come before you manage to get your website working.

  44. how they live. actually the problem started now. separation is not a genuine remady

  45. racedds says:

    I wish I could think of a better adjective but all I can say is awesome photos. The man wearing a South Sudanese flag as a hat is really striking.

  46. CONIEFOX says:

    congrats!!!

  47. abhidworx says:

    Great Pictures. These pics speak for themselves.My best wishes to Sudan.

  48. ilieforfun says:

    JUBA,JUBA :D

  49. amy says:

    Thanks for your share,though it is poor,but they live with smile.

  50. Agas Treva says:

    congratulations to the victorious hopefully sudan

  51. Thank you for sharing the photos.

  52. Parabéns pela belas fotografias.

  53. ns says:

    Lovely photos and text. Thanks for the update on South Sudan.

  54. Dilly says:

    Congratulations Will, I found this fascinating and moving. I have just been looking through the Sudan post with Sophie, who found it all very mystifying – I think you’ll have to occasionally turn the camera on yourself (if that doesn’t break some photographers’ code).

  55. gaycarboys says:

    I love the colours. tHANKS FOR THE GREAT PICS

  56. gaycarboys says:

    Sorry about the caps lock

  57. Pingback: South Sudan // A New Nation « Purple Pond

  58. Brilliant photos. And congrats to South Sudan :)

  59. star's world says:

    I love the pictures! welcome South Sudan!

  60. the pictures are amazing, won’t deny I feel jealous I gotta visit the south and the north one day … love everything about Africa!
    Congratulation S Sudan =)

  61. Lyon Kuralapnik says:

    Amazing photos!
    Greetings from Israel!

  62. Rizgar says:

    Great, lovely God bless South Sudan , God bless Kurdistan .

  63. Barney says:

    In Uganda most bread is either ‘Tip-Top’ brand, or a similar style. It is, in short, not bread.

    The proble could be where you buy it. Have you tried any Hot Loaf bakery in Kampala, or the big supermarkets?

    • Muzungu says:

      I know passable bread is available if you want to hunt it, but I’m talking about the stuff I get as part of most hotel breakfasts. It makes sense though, because Ugandans aren’t really big bread consumers outside of the towns. Are there any traditional bread ovens? I’ve never seen one.

  64. Barney says:

    We prefer our chapatti to bread. Are you sure about “Ugandans aren’t really big bread consumers outside of the towns?” The first item people returning to villages after visiting any town buy is bread. Anyway, we are not bread people. I prefer whole wheat buns myself, available in most supermarkets, and eschew the rest of the stuff. However, I can’t pass up a rolex whatever time of day it is.

  65. Muzungu says:

    Yep, the chapatti definitely reigns supreme. Have you ever tried the super rolex? A rolex with two sausages in the middle. It’s awesome. I would stand by my statement about bread not being widely consumed outside of the towns. You’re far more likely to find chapattis, mandazis, half-cakes and the like than one stale loaf of tip-top. Quality bread is hard to find outside Kampala and I miss it- katogo just isn’t my style.

  66. Barney says:

    With how many eggs, and how many chapattis? I’ve done 3 eggs, 2 chapattis and one sausage; that’s all I could take. Probably the bread thing is geographical; I usually travel to Busoga villages, and most women travel with loaves of bread. And as I leave, my fathers’ aunt and cousin (96 & 79 respectively, but the first thing they do in the morning is pick up their hoes and head for their garden) always tell me to return with a loaf of bread, and they mean ‘tip-top’ bread.

    I love katogo, if it’s matooke and offals. I’d kill for that. But cassava/beans or matooke/beans, nope.

  67. that is really great Mzungu, thanks. PaanLuel.

  68. emfilmgeek says:

    This post gives us a unique glimpse into a moment in your life… Well-done! The pictures, along with the narrative work together to illustrate your trip… Thanks for this post and congrats on being freshly pressed! I recently saw this documentary called Discover the Gift that talks about the gifts we have to offer to the world, to ourselves, and our loved ones. Gratitude, receptivity, and love were highlights in the film… Have you ever heard of it? I think it’s a wonderful film that could change the world for the better… Again, great photos and keep up with the good fight! http://on.fb.me/kVoAQo

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  73. sarahnabiddo says:

    I liked the way you did nto filter anything out…You gave what you see in an authentic way and that is what people need to kknow.

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  79. roshall says:

    Just am so shock at how some aare not able to get simple necessities of life?

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  84. coffee bean says:

    Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
    The text in your post seem to be running off the
    screen in Safari. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with internet browser compatibility but I thought I’d
    post to let you know. The design look great though!
    Hope you get the issue solved soon. Cheers

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