South Sudan is the youngest nation in the world, gaining after 50 years of armed conflict the secession of (northern) Sudan of the Arabs and finally its independence. In July 2011, the largest country in Africa, Sudan, split in two and South Sudan was born. Despite its young age, South Sudan’s history had all the hardships that typically afflict Africa. sparked by rival leaders, wreaked havoc in the country, with an estimated 500,000 victims followed by famine and one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, a modern genocide. Although the civil war formally ended with the victory of President Salva Kiir and a ceasefire agreement with his opponents in 2020, armed conflicts continue sporadically, with corruption, lack of democratic institutions, lack of infrastructure and harsh living conditions prevailing, that plague people in poverty and disease.
South Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world, the social contradictions are huge as there is no middle class, the conditions of chaos, misery and low standard of living, are the worst I’ve seen οn my trips in Africa. In this environment of dust, rubbish, damaged road network and harsh everyday conditions, you will encounter also unexpectedly provocative wealth in the capital Juba. The upper class of government personel, military staff and foreign businessmen who exploit the country’s rich mineral wealth, oil, gold etc, enjoy the luxury of expensive hotels and shiny cars, at the same time that people are struggling with hunger, where a basic salary of a teacher does not exceed $ 20 per month, maybe the lowest I have encountered anywhere. Of course, there are dozens of NGOs, some with dubious activity, high operating costs, and perhaps corruption, with their high level staff enjoying high salaries .
However, this lesser-known, raw gem in the heart of the African continent, retains beauty that haven’t been discovered yet, not just by tourists, but not even by explorers and documentary filmmakers. Navigating the country is hard, due to the lack of a road network but mostly because of government travel restrictions that require special permits and bribing the corrupt officials. In addition, armed conflicts continue between tribal groups, and minefields are scattered even on the sides of the road network.
However, the mystique that this place reserves for the few travelers is unique and includes, among other things, a pristine natural landscape that runs through the White Nile, forming the vast wetland of Sudd in the north, as well as at least two National Parks that host one of the largest migrations of wild animals. But South Sudan’s greatest asset is the human element, with at least 63 indigenous tribes that maintaining traditions that are unchanged over time, frequently odd and beyond anything even an experienced traveler has encountered. Unfortunately, many of them face a serious problem of survival due to disease and malnutrition.
Welcome to South Sudan, the youngest country in the world.
Travel Warnings: Government warnings of most countries prohibit all travel to South Sudan. Armed conflict continues and violent crime such as piracy, shootings, ambushes, assaults, robberies and kidnappings are common throughout South Sudan, including Juba. The staff of the embassies and the NGOs are subject to a strict curfew and travel in armored vehicles. In 2020, the leaders of the rival groups reached a peace agreement. However, all travelers visiting South Sudan should still be extremely careful, as attacks and kidnappings can occur at any time. In addition, the peace agreement can be revoked at any time by the warring parties involved.
The greatest wealth of this poorest country is mostly its anthropological treasure. With 63 recognized tribal groups and over 200 others, most of whom retain a traditional way of life since ages, it is an isolated shelter for preservation of this cultural diversity. A part of Africa that has almost disappeared with the advent of modernization, colonialism and Chinese trade expansion.
The most populous tribe is that of the Dinka, numbering over 1,000,000, from which the president SalvaKiir Mayardit also comes from. On this trip we will visit the Mundari, Toposa and Larim tribes.
The total population of the country is about 11 million and the main religion is Christianity with 60%, followed by Islam with 16%, but the local animistic religions prevail and mix with them. Polygamy is a practice followed by the male population, attributing a number of cattle to the bride’s relatives. Sad fact are the child marriage rates, as well as the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality, and worst female illiteracy in the world. The AIDS epidemiology is not well documented, but it is estimated at about 3.1%. It is believed to have the highest rate of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa and is one of the few countries where dracunculiasis still occurs. The annual per capita income (GDP per capita) is $ 825.
In 2017, South Sudan and the United Nations declared a famine and the UN stated that 40% of the population of South Sudan, 4.9 million people, are in urgent need of food. Officials say President Salva Kiir Mayardit has blocked food deliveries in some areas. In addition, UNICEF warned that more than 1 million children in South Sudan were malnourished.
War crimes have been committed in South Sudan for which no responsibilities were assigned. Child army recruitment has also been reported as a serious problem in the country. The United Nations has described the situation in the country as “one of the most horrific human rights situations in the world”. It accused the army and allied militias, of allowing fighters to rape women as a means of payment for battles.
South Sudan is located just north of the equator and is covered in rainforests, swamps and meadows. The White Nile crosses the country, passing through Juba.
The protected areas of Bandingilo and Boma National Parks are home to the second largest wildlife migration in the world. These parks, as well as the vast Sudd Wetland and South National Park near the Congo border, are home to large populations of antelopes, buffaloes, elephants, giraffes and lions.
The youngest nation in the world
It’s been just over a year since my last trip to Africa and for some masochistic reason, I have missed it. I’m not talking about the Africa of safaris, resorts or idyllic beaches of Zanzibar. All this is beautiful places are fine, but what I’m missing is the real Africa, with its myriad problems, difficulties, lack of infrastructure and organization, poverty and dangers. Because for some reason, this continent exerts an irresistible charm on passionate travelers.
Of course, in order to feel the magic of the black continent, one does not need to reach its most remote lands, neither a country that sits at the bottom list of the poorests globally. South Sudan is almost in the last (187th) position with an annual GDP per capita of 825 dollars! You don’t need to live almost every day of your trip in a tent, without toilet or shower and with a military diet, to enjoy the experience. And maybe you don’t have to come into contact with known or unknown exotic diseases by hugging children full of snots and dirt. But isn’t this, after all, the true essence of travel and the way to feel all this magic?
As for South Sudan, the sad reality is that the civil war in the country is practically not over despite the ceasefire agreement, and this trip comes just 5 months after my visit to war-torn Afghanistan, kind of pushing my luck. I remember a few years ago, a Greek guy I had met in Uganda that had businesses in Juba, told me that if you leave the capital city, the chances are that you will not return alive. The pandemic of Covid-19, which is on the rise worldwide, is also a matter of great concern, and I know from experience that in developing countries like this, no protection measures take place. I definitely don’t wish to be quarantined in such a country, and not even thinking about a scenario of needing medical help.
The Toposa tribe
We are close to the Kenyan border and by sunset we reach the villages of the Toposa tribe that are far from the main road. A colorful, happy human community welcomes us. Locals retire early to sleep in their huts. Another, more intense night of spectacular lightning strikes will take place, followed again with whiskey and music tunes, in a surreal setting against the backdrop of the open valley and the conical roofs of the huts that are lit after each electrical discharge of the celestial dome.
The Mundari tribe
After a full-day trip, we return from Kapoeta and the province of South Equatoria, to the capital Juba and Central Equatoria. We won’t stay in the city at all but we continue west, to the cattle camps of the Mundari tribe, just 25 kilometers away. I did not expect that the most famous tribe in the country after the Dinka, would be so close to civilization, still maintaining their bizarre traditions.
The life of the Mundari, like that of the other Nilotic tribes, is oriented around cattle which serve as food, as a form of currency, and to determine the social status of their owner. In order for a wedding to take place, the prospective groom must offer cattle to the bride’s family. Every man can get as many wives as he can support. The Mundari are involved in wars with the Dinka tribe over cattle claims during the drought season.
Among other bizarre customs, Mundari men use to wash their hair with cow urine, giving it a yellow-orange color. Mundari practice ritual scarifications as a rite of passage into adulthood. The typical pattern of the Mundari scar consists of three V-shaped lines at the forehead. The Mundari are a thin and quite tall tribe.
The easy road is interrupted by a river that we have to cross it on foot and carry our things on the opposite river bank. The water reaches to the level of the underwear and the clay is quite slippery but it’s one of these moments that give some bit of adventure. Of course it won’t be pleasant to fall with all my stuff in the river.
After two days with the Mundari, after crossing the river again and loading the car, we go to a cattle market just outside Juba. The place is interesting, but the attendees have a mixed attitude towards us. Some want us to take pictures of them while others ask us to delete any photos that may appear. Most ask questions about the purpose of our presence, no white people has been found there before. Fed is not taking part in the discussions, after all there is nothing to explain, and the fact that we don’t intend to buy cows makes us unwelcome there. People do not understand why we don’t own livestock in our country. In an adjacent tin slum, Fed meets his friends who smoke joints all day.
We return to Juba where we are looking for a hotel. The prices are the same, the cheapest one costs $100 and we have a hard time finding a room with twin beds. My fellow traveler has had flu-like symptoms for days now. A female hotel manager, is a beautiful 30-year-old lady who I immediately recognize from her characteristics that she comes from Ethiopia. She will offer us breakfast at no extra charge and in the evening she will tell us about her life in this country, the dangers, the difficulties and thecurfews that all foreigners are subject to, regardless skin color. She had never met tourists again in the country! The Greeks of Juba were her friends, businessmen in the supply business, but apparently they did not seek to meet us. Although I rarely look for the Greek expats, we visited the Greek restaurant named Notos, but the owner was absent in home country. Finally we ate at a cheap, local restaurant on the street.
An adventure awaited us at the airport, just before the return flight with the covid tests, which fortunately were resolved after moments of agony, but this is another story.
Africa is generally a tortured place, but South Sudan, the youngest country in the world that has fresh wounds from civil war, is a place unknown to headlines, off the map for international aid and especially in its remote parts the controversial NGOs have not existance. The experiences I gained from this place were amazing and I hope that when peace and democracy prevail, it will become a great tourist destination.