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I recently met someone, now living in Juba, Southern Sudan. I spent 3 ½ years working and doing business there. She asks me to return to Southern Sudan
To refresh my memory I went to my diary while living there.
I don’t think I want to go back!
Thursday 28 August 2008
I sleep well in Rumbek but, again, tossed and turned due to my smokers’ cough.
This morning I dress proper for the bush, a light tan pants full of pockets on the sides, old work boots nicely polished and a white T-shirt as a touch of elegance.
I have a light breakfast then do my usual round as Palmtree Managing Director. Palmtree Hotel is a “hotel” consisting of about 80 air-conditioned prefabricated building, a large dining gall, 2 bars and various size conference facilities. It is truly pure luxury in the bush.
I meet Beatrice, our logistic girl, preparing a small food cargo for airlifting to Mapel. We have a contract to provide, weekly, food to some twelve expat building a military facility there. Mapel, situated in the Bar el-Ghazal state is about five hours drive or 30 minutes helicopter flight from Rumbek.
Inside the kitchen’s dining hall the Kenyan staffs is having breakfast. Kenyans staffs eat inside and Sudanese staffs outside. It’s an unspoken rule, de-facto segregation.
I meet my assistant Felix and hurriedly ask him about Hawa.
Hawa is a Sudanese cook who learned her trade in Kenya and we have to let her go for not coming to work, without notice, for well over 2 weeks.
“Did she come for her final payment?” I ask.
“She looked at the amount we are paying and said that she will come back tomorrow. I am sure that she went to seek some advice before taking the money.”
“I think so too”
“If the matter is not promptly settled she may cause problems. Let’s see!”
In Southern Sudan a foreigner, being right or wrong has about no chance of having a fair judgment. We have to sway according to the will of the locals.
Foreigners are harassed for driving with sun glasses, jailed or killed for being involved in accident and often belittled, insulted or threatened at gun point.
It is a country with high risk but high monetary returns when one succeed. Unfortunately there are more sad stories than good one. Corruption is rampant and at priory difficult to eradicate since a large numbers of people in the Sudanese Government are related and traditionally always protect their members. Family or same tribe members are never wrong.
I remember tax collectors distributing, among themselves, cash money received by Palmtree Hotel. No qualm, no hurry and all done openly in front of our eyes. They even use the collected tax to settle their personal bill at the restaurant.
At 2pm, I have to attend the Meeting of the Kenyan Association at the office of the Lakes State Governor. Southern Sudan is divided in ten states, each with a governor and all have some form of autonomy in running their affairs.
I am not Kenyan but I have no problem listening to their concerns addressed to the Governor.
I reach the Lake States Governors office at 1:15pm and no one is there. I am early and decide to take a ride inside Rumbek town.
At each visit I notice that Rumbek is getting more populated. I pass the main round-about where a set of policemen dress in white are watching.
They look out for the smallest traffic infraction which can be solved with a bit of money stuff in their hand.
A few tuk-tuks, a three wheels covered motorcycle, are doing taxi service.
The small kiosk and shops are full with a variety of sodas in crates, multicolored material, cookies, and pasta, cooking oil, bar soap, flour, large aluminum cooking pots, motorbikes and much more. The restaurants and bars are quite busy.
Emaciated dogs are resting in the middle of the dusty road, too sick to care about the traffic. The goats are eating what they find on their path even the black plastic bags.
Passing City Hall I think about the former Mayor, a jolly burly man, with a missing pinky on his right hand, who uses to tell me that “war is fun”.
I make a turn then pass in front of the Nile Commercial Bank then go ahead to Freedom square. I pass a group of young men wearing a single dark blue, V neck, djellabah stopping above their knees. They have striking tribal marks on their foreheadS. Their hair is bright dark blond and shaped like a bowl on top of their head.
I am back at the Governor’s office. The Governor’s house is a long and large structure with a porch running along the façade like an arcade. It was probably built during the British colonial era.
I park the car facing the building; it is an offence to park any other way.
I walk toward the back of the structure and, under the shade of a large tree, I see a desk covered with a white table-cloth and seven comfortable arm chairs lined up behind it.
The chairs for the members of the Kenyan Association are facing the desk. I sit in the first row next to Mohammed, a large affable Kenyan of Somali origin trading in all type of goods.
One goat is entertains me by rubbing its chin and belly on the steps leading to the building, some large horned cows are in the background and even a mature pig.
Now all seats are occupied by at least forty Kenyans and about ten more are standing up.
The meeting is an opportunity for Kenyan to vent their problems. It was a promise made by the Governor during the visit of the Kenyan ambassador to Rumbek and he kept it.
Mohamed gets up and talk to a group of four to five persons behind the large tree trunk. He regains his seat then ,to my ear, says that all grievances shall be done by groups and that I have been elected to represent the Hoteliers group.
The Governor, busy in Juba, is replaced by its Deputy which I recognized immediately upon his joining the meeting.
He looks half cast Somali and is a well spoken and educated person who holds Canadian citizenship, his name is Awal or Awan and he holds several other positions within the Lake States Government. Also, I recognize the Acting Secretary of Police, an old man who was quite eager to personally keep as evidence, money once stolen by a one of Palmtree’s staff.
The Deputy Governor is with the Advisor on Gender, the Minister of information, the Brigadier of Police and the Advisor on Political affairs.
I am the first one to do my speech; I stand up and greet the Deputy Governors who acknowledges me in French.
Nice touch, he recognizes me!
I don’t have much to say, since I am not Kenyan but think of three concerns which do bother me; the multiple collecting of visa fee at each point of entry into Southern Sudan, when will the government issue labor laws (I use Kenya’s labor laws at Palmtree) and most important what was the Governor’s office doing to attract more business and investors in the Lakes State.
The Deputy Governor takes notes and without answering gives the floor to the next speaker.
Within a few minutes of listening to other speakers, I am opened to the massive problems faced by the Kenyan Community in Southern Sudan.
From speaker to speaker the fears and stresses are alarming. Each group enumerates with details the harassment, beating and whipping by the civil or military police, the over taxing of goods at every road blocks, the non respect of contracts signed by members of the Southern Sudanese local community and the non-payment of goods delivered.
Kenyans on any issues are threatened with expulsions if they refuse to go with any program shoved down their throat. Their testimonials shake me from my comfort zone. I know and experienced some of these issues. But I was not aware that it was so widespread.
Each group portrayed Southern Sudan as a xenophobic no man’s land.
I could agree, but I see it more as a people becoming nationalistic for a newly acquired identity.
The Deputy Governor took note of all the concerns, and in a political fashion does not offer remedy to the Kenyan’s concerns. He mentions that many exiled Southern Sudanese, while in Kenya, received help from the Kenyan communities and he wants Kenyan to consider Southern Sudan as their country.
He stresses the point that Southern Sudan is in a transition period and that he is aware of the outlined concerns which will soon be rectified.
He gives the floor to the Police Commissioner who makes no apology about the brutality of his force. He arrogantly harangues that all persons in Southern Sudan should respect the law and that people, like himself, should stay home in the evening to avoid conflict.
The other members from the Governor’s office have not much to say and totally sideline the grievances. They talk as if it is a different meeting.
A few people were dozing off toward the end of the meeting. I wake up Mohammed who gives me a “what’s wrong” look, then give my respects by shaking hand with all the members of the Lake States Government.
Driving back to Palmtree I give a lift to one of our resident. On the way we meet a Chinese group, shovels in hand, laboring on the road.
“They are Chinese prisoners” says my passenger.
“What do you mean prisoners?”
” I hear the Chinese Government has brought them here to work instead of spending time in Jail. They don’t paid them, just give them food and shelter.”
“Who told you so?”
“But, we all know that here.”
All is possible in this world; the Chinese workers with shovels in their hands do wear strange-looking uniform.
However, if it is true it would be the first time of me hearing of a country exporting forced labor.