At least once a day here I have a moment of something akin to déjà vu, but with the opposite idea: that imminent, this-is-capital-r-Reality, grounding sensation but paired with the wide-eyed wonder of everything being shiny and new. The spinning of my center of gravity, the world going topsy-turvy adds to the feeling of wonderment and, if I’m honest, a twinge of fear. I realize, in these states of confusion juxtaposed with utter comprehension of my Being, that this is Real Life.
Sometimes these moments occur while I am boiling water for a basin bath, prompted perhaps by the idea that this is a kind of occurrence that never happened to me whilst abiding in the USA. Other times the sensation has hit when a woman is on her knees in our office, asking for money to feed her children. That most definitely never happened to me in America. But it’s Real, it is happening, this is my life now for these ten weeks.
Being in Juba for the birth of South Sudan was a string of these moments- complete disbelief at my environment yet total comprehension and feeling of rightness and place and foreign-born-belonging.
Although, to be fair, in Juba part of it could have been delirium from the heat. You take your pick.
Our journey to Juba was long, arduous, and coated in orange dust. While the distance from Gulu to Juba is itself about seven hours, the stopping and waiting and crossing the border made the transit time approximate to twelve or thirteen.
When we at last arrived and stopped for a late dinner there was a point where I genuinely believed I was on another planet. I was exhausted, potentially dehydrated, bright orange from the dust accumulating in my hair and ears and rimmed around my glasses, and incredibly sore from the rough roads. As a wandering spirit I like to think I never let the dust settle on my feet, but by the time our waitress presented me with the best veggie burger I have ever eaten I was ready to scrub off every speck of dirt stick stuck to my feet and swear off travelling ever again.
After a good night’s sleep, this notion was reversed most entirely.
Our first two days in Juba were spent exploring the winding city, purchasing an abundance of South Sudan pariphanalia (my favorite of which is a t-shirt that reads: I GOT 99 PROBLEMS BUT BASHIR AIN’T ONE), and eating some of the best food this side of the Sahara I’ve yet consumed. A favorite meal was one of ful, a traditional South Sudanese dish of deliciousness comprised of onion, tomato, olive oil, salt, spices, bread, and fava beans (minus the Kianti and liver).
On Independence Eve, which was spent with the MCC Sudan team, you could hear the celebrations in a crescendo approaching midnight. Having read in the press release itinerary that at midnight freedom bells were to be rung, we decided to make our own freedom bells. We learned from our dear friends the Sisters of the Sacred Heart (whom, assuredly, you will be hearing all about in the coming week) that bells were not allowed to be rung under Bashir, as signs of Christianity were forbidden under Sharia Law. Therefore, this event was laden with significance for freedom of worship and was intended to be the conclusion of a prayer vigil for peace across the nation. Needless to say, upon learning this we all were a little weepy- and determined to have bells to ring for ourselves as well.
It was Elizabeth who had the idea to use cut-apart cans as makeshift bells, so we went to work chopping and stringing and forming our own freedom bells…from emptied Heinikins. It was, after all, a celebration.
When midnight arrived we popped the champagne and rang our bells, watching the sky as prayer candles floated up toward the heavens with dreams and desires for peace as their wind. While we remained in our compound rather than running in the streets (the itinerary had also included celebratory gunfire in the agenda, which we wanted to avoid. We heard none of it, in the end) the quietness of watching the moon and candles loaned itself to a reverence and contemplative beckoning in of Independence.
The morning brought with it sounds of jubilation all across the city. We dressed in our new South Sudan t-shirts (not the Bashir ones, just in case) and headed out toward the Memorial in the center of town. As we walked, we passed a man dressed in his best suit who, upon our greeting, exuberantly yelled “We have received our identity at last! Happy Independence Day!” This greeting, an exclamation of such happiness shared with strangers clearly not from this new nation, was one of those out-of-body-Reality moments. I was deliriously happy, walking past the streets strewn with paper flags with crowds of people dressed in everything from their best Gomezes to capes made out of the South Sudan flag. We arrived at a large fountain outside the Memorial where the crowds were thickened, waving flags and chatting about the heat, the excitement, the oncoming parade. After some further strolling and the discovery of some most excellent street food (falafel on bread, in case you were wondering) we waited for the parade under the sparse shade of a tree. Driving past were boda-bodas, their drivers riding side-saddle, flags wrapped around heads as hats; trucks overflowing with people blaring the horn and dancing; children gaping at our whiteness (a practice not unique to Independence Day, however) all waiting and celebrating in each their own way.
As we headed back to the roundabout once the parade commenced, we passed a stately Mama in a bright yellow dress. We stopped, shaking her hand and wishing each other a Happy Independence Day. Her earnestness and warmth seemed to embody the morning- it was one of those brief moments that are the first to come to mind when thinking of South Sudan. After our greetings we were once more enveloped into the crowd, watching the various branches of the military and representatives pass by all to the sound of the National Anthem and ululations from the women.
When the parade had concluded we retreated back to one of the Team Sudan homes to rest and listen to the speeches on the radio. In the evening we decided to venture out once more, heading over to the Cultural Center for traditional dancing, fireworks, and performances by local artists.
All in all, the Independence Day celebration was an incredible, and incredibly exhausting adventure. I was so blessed and humbled and thrilled and overwhelmed to be in the new capital of the new nation. Words fail to embody what I wish to express about the emotions of the day, yet I can easily say it was a day never to be forgot.
And, to conclude our stay in South Sudan, we spent the day after Independence boating and picnicking out on the Nile!
All in all, I had a marvelous time and am exceedingly glad to have shared in the excitement!
current jam: ‘girl in the war’ josh ritter
best thing in my life right now: st. monica’s!
fantas consumed: 14
last film: down with love (another favorite)
p.s. my new friends joel and heather have an awesome blog about their experience here!