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.
After a four-hour flight from Cairo, I see the capital Juba from above through the window of the aircraft. Like most African capitals, it consists of makeshift structures with sheet metal roofs. The presence of green defined by the network of red dirt roads, together with the multicolor of the small houses gives something idyllic to the image I watch, but it may be my subjective perception that idealizes places like this. Far in the horizon I notice a strong storm, reinforcing my main concern about the rainy season that begins in May.
The welcoming is rather inhospitable even for African standards, and it prepares me for the conditions of the country. In a small room without ventilation, all the passengers of the flight are stacked to fill in the entry documents. The required sanitary distances are something unheard of. We spent an entire hour waiting in an unruled queue until we approach the person in charge of checking the documents. Some Africans bypassed the line trying to enter from the side and despite the reproval of the person in charge, at the end they succeed. At some point and while the sweat is dripping in my eyes and the mask has become like a sponge, it is finally my turn, hoping to escape from this hot dungeon that is Covid’s nest. But the phone of our “representative” in the country is missing from my paper and until I fill it in, some more locals bypass the queue again. My potest is more than ignored, I am also imposed of more unreasonable waiting, which is a regular tactic of those having authority in this country and a future lesson to me. After this “jail”, passengers go through a modern thermal camera and another queue for fingerprints, visa validation and yellow fever vaccination certificate, a mandatory for African countries and the only travel vaccine I have done so far, pending for the coveted Covid-19.
We end up in a much more chaotic chamber, where sweaty people were pushed, shouted, trampled on, over luggage scattered on the dirty floor, others falling under the pressure of crowd. Federick, who will be our guide – an obligation for this country – finds me. I care more about my bag which I find lying under feet of Africans, and I grab it. But there will be more formalities to fill for each piece of photographic equipment, for which Federick has already issued the necessary, costly permits. Copying the behavior of others, I push everyone to pass my way, some Westerners are out of control and scream in vain about the no distance conditions. Of course none of them came here for tourism.
For me personally, the trips that fill my soul are the independent ones, the ones that take place with my own forces and my own schedule, that have the satisfaction of exploration and discovery. But in some war zones like this or Afghanistan, guides become mandatory, mainly to get the necessary travel permits. In South Sudan, one cannot go outside the capital without a special permit, which costs a lot and requires additional bribing at some checkpoints. Also, the cost of the vehicle and the money that is rightfully attributed to the tribes, raise the overall cost considerably. As tourism is almost non-existent in the country, there is also not much offer of travel services. However, some members of the tribes that use to be the prepresentatives for the visit, work now as freelance guides and after persistent bargaining we achieved a fair price with Federick who belongs to the Mundari tribe. Federick, has the facial marks of his tribe, three embossed V-shaped lines on his forehead. He had ordered me to bring him a state-of-the-art mobile phone, since his old one was stolen.
The first images of Juba do not differ much from the familiar ones from rest of Africa. Dust, traffic jams, street shops selling their wares… a collage of colors. We arrive at the hotel just to leave our backpacks, in a mediocre room that costs an excessive $100. It is unlikely to find cheaper in this city. Africa generally is not cheap, neither value for money, but here as well as in Chad unreasonable market laws apply. We head to the famous AFEX Camp, located on the banks of the Nile. As in any proper place for westerners, there is a sign prohibiting weapons, which of course does not apply to the guard with the AK-4 who aims my forehead with a thermometer, which is pointless since no one observes basic hygiene measures such as a mask.
This complex is the basis of most NGOs, offering safety, clean and quality accommodation and dining facilities, and a privileged view of the river. The slogan of AFEX is: “home away from home”. As expected, most of the guests are white – NGO staff and around the tables groups of people gather in a festive mood. The prices on the menu seem expensive to me.
A half-submerged river boat is the trademark and the only remarkable sightseeing of Juba. Just a step away, just below the AFEX fence, another world expands, with children and adults bathing naked in the river. Swarms of hungry flies attack my fresh, newcomer white skin. In the following days I will either get used to it or stop being a nutritious food for them.
Federick (short calling him Fed) left for some trip preparations but we are not in the mood for dining at the AFEX camp, neither socializing with white people. We go out for a walk in city neighborhoods, keeping cameras in our bags. Photography is explicitly forbidden in Juba, but these bans challenge me, as does the prospect of filling in my “CV” another arrest in South Sudan, after two more in neighboring (northern) Sudan. Eventually I will hold my passion to capture the beauty I see in the slums of the city. I have found myself in countless places where the presence of a foreigner causes surprise and curiosity, but here they really see us as if we were aliens. As Fed will later confirm, no white guys walks the streets for any reason. The reactions of the residents are mixed. Some react with enthusiasm, many are under the influence of alcohol, some try to block my way but I ignore them, others are more inhospitable and ask what’s our purpose in their “ghetto”. Next to some luxury hotel buildings with barbed wire, people live in extreme poverty. As we’ll see later, South Sudan is maybe the most chaotic African country I’ve ever been. The situation I encountered was even worse than in other countries affected by war and poverty, such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Somalia.
We are looking for a place on the river bank to have a beer without white people around, but there is no local bar, we have to return to AFEX. In the evening, Fed will introduce us to the most luxurious hotel in the city, the glittering Pyramid Hotel with an impressive array of expensive vehicles in the car park. I was a bit ashamed to get in with my army pants and dusty boots. I wonder, who can pay for such services, in such a poor country? As I know, unfortunately in places like this, the social contradictions are enormous and especially where democratic institutions are absent, some people benefit from that. Members of the government and the army, businessmen, high level staff of some NGOs and peacekeepers, are enjoying a life of luxury at the same time people just outside are malnourished and dying of disease. Of course, the fact that we live in our Western distant world, declaring ignorance, does not absolve us of responsibility nor relieve us of regrets.
The Fed speaks quitely when it comes to government. The memories of the civil war and the dead lying around the city are so recent and of course the ruling authority, despite the absolute (!) winning in the 2010 elections, is considered anything but democratic!
The next morning with my fellow traveler, we are ready for another trip to an unexplored place, to the south of South Sudan and the isolated region of Eastern Equatoria. But Fed is generally delayed, so we spend our time in the hotel garden enjoying the tropical sun.
The vehicle with Fed and the Ugandan driver arrives, suffocatingly loaded with camp supplies. The only space for the backpacks is in the seat part between us, and we load the bag with pens and notepads for the kids over the car roof. We stop at a grocery store where Fed suggests we buy snacks, but we need nothing more than a few canned food and cereal bars we already have with us. Traffic in Juba is unbearable, the dust, rubbish and general image of misery, make up perhaps one of the worst conditions I have encountered… and I have found myself in many struggling places.
There is only one bridge that crosses the Nile River connecting the two sides of the country. Literally, a sole bridge, not only for Juba, but for the whole country! As you can imagine, in order for the vehicles to cross this outdated construction, which is made of materials of a Second World War bridge, they wait for hours in a traffic chaos. Photography is strictly prohibited on both sides of the bridge as the surrounding shacks strangely host army camps. Not that you are allowed to photograph anywhere else of course. Every time Fed hears a click, he brings me back to order in awe, the police checkpoints are constant and peope passing-by may also be personw you shouldn’t shoot. I have read several stories of arrests and subsequent financial rewards.
Heavy trucks are jammed in the damaged road, many coming from the remote se access, the port of Mombasa in Kenya, while others from Uganda transporting fuel, because despite the country’s oil resources, it has no refineries. The first part of the route is torturous and is followed by waiting more than an hour at a checkpoint for formalities and negotiations. Heat, flies, dust, exhaust fumes and people around who stoically endure this hell. Someone is lying on the ground without anyone paying attention to him, is he drunk, sick, dead? The “highway” that leads to the border with Uganda and then to Kenya, splits in two branches.
We are following a southeast route where miraculously a wide road is under construction that will lead directly to Kenya, greatly reducing the kilometer distance. Despite the red dust cloud, the road is much more comfortable and without any traffic. The area is very sparsely populated, with few settlements. At some points along the road there are minefields that are dimly signaled by small signs with skulls or more effectively by demining organizations. There are probably also unmarked ones, some road construction vehicles occasionally explode, I don’t know what happens to human victims. On the way we meet some shepherds with small herds, all of whom have a Kalashnikov on their shoulder. Weapons are widely used in the country, during the civil war the warring parties supplied the population and now protection against animal theft is often evolving into an armed conflict.
The environment consists of low or medium vegetation and sporadically some palm trees that produce an orange-red species of coconut. In the following days following the route to the south we will meet the edges of the rainforest which is the upper end of the Ugandan, Kidepo National Park where during the migration season one can see many antelopes or other mammals. We will only come across some baboons and some dwarf deer called dik dik, a common African fauna. Small lakes are formed by the rains that start this season and host various species of birds, storks, eagles and some ugly marabus that we tried to approach to admire their flight.
Our goal is to take advantage of the good weather and reach the Larim tribe, a route inaccessible in the event of a storm. Arriving at the small settlement of Torit we make a stop. Some young girls with shaved hair, an earring on the lower lip, a cloth wrapped as a dress and bare chest, approach with curiosity along with a gang of children. An elderly woman smokes a pipe, a typical habit of women in southern tribes. As in similar cases, the people of the countryside, unlike those of the city, are receptive, cordial, cheerful and sociable. And of course they are excited to photograph them, especially for children, the fun with images has no end. Children persistently but always politely ask for empty water bottles – a practice also adopted in southern Ethiopia – as each container has a special value in arid African lands..
A few kilometers further is a settlement called Camp 15, where just two weeks ago there was an armed guerrilla attack that killed 16 women. An armored vehicle of the peacekeeping forces now guards the village.
We follow a bad dirt road that starts from this point and develops into an off-road field with dry waterholes for about 25 kilometers in the wild. The “path” is not even shown on google maps and I hope it will not rain before our way back. On the way, women and children carrying water from long distances, shout asking for a lift. Unfortunately the vehicle has no free space at all.
Arriving at our destination, the darkness has suddenly spread its veil. Surprisingly, in this wilderness we come across some buildings. This discourages me about the authenticity of the tribe we’ll meet next day. The buildings include some classrooms and a couple of residences. The Larim tribe still lives in simple huts in the surrounding areas. Our camp will be set up in the shed of one of the buildings, relieving my stress about an impending storm, as the sky was illuminated by sporadic lightning. A spacious military-style tent was set up for each of us. I admit that I did not expect such luxury, but it seems that the NGOs operating in the country have left know-how behind. I also did not expect to enjoy any kind of shower all these days, but we managed using a pot to wash some of our head and body parts from abundant dust and sweat. Our nutritional satisfaction was even more unexpected, the Ugandan driver/owner of the vehicle was also an excellent chef. With eggs as the main ingredient, he will always prepare a simple but delicious dinner, starting with today’s tasty sandwich, accompanied by plenty of tea plus my whiskey that I had obtained from the duty free in Cairo.
Fed is a fan of the Rastafari culture, a fan of Bob Marley, and in addition to the joints that support this lifestyle, he also has a portable speaker that will fill the night of lightnings, with tunes. I will complete the playlist with some tracks I have on my mobile from my favorite musician Damian Marley, Bob’s youngest son, as well as African artists like Henri Dikongue. How full I feel, my travel desire is fulfilled again! I am in a place I have always dreamed of through the photos of Sebastiao Salgado and instead of having fun in a bar of the western world – which are closed due to covid anyway – I enjoy an alternative entertaining experience in this extreme part of the world, hard to discribe if someone hasn’t experience it!
I wake up in a landscape surrounded by greenery, under the shade of tall trees that soften the scorching sun. A black, granite hill known as Kimotong rises to the edge of the small settlement.
The Larim tribe, also known as the Boya, which has about 20,000 members, are pastoralists with the main crop being sorghum, corn and beans, but they are mainly engaged in cattle herding and hunting.
The tribe’s huts are not far away and the first half-naked women appear smiling with their babies in their arms. They wear decorative beaded necklaces as well as an earring on their lower lip, some have a series of metal rings on their legs and all have strong embossed spots on the chest, arms, abdomen and face. A color, often ragged piece of cloth, tied to one shoulder, covers part of the body in men and women or forms a kind of skirt, leaving the abdomen and chest bare for immediate breastfeeding by infants. Multicolor is popular in African clothing, which I believe highlights the beauty of dark skin. But in particular, these rare, endangered tribes have very interesting clothing with their half-naked appearance, something that is likely to be lost in the next generations.
Women do heavy work with the livestock, carrying animal feed and water that they balance in large containers on their heads, typical throughout Africa. Males are few, usually gone with the herds to remote pastures. Polygamy prevails in all of the tribes, even in the bourgeois societies of the capital. A man can marry as many women as he wants, as long as his wealth in animals allows, since he has to reward all the relatives of the bride with several cows.
Until now I was trying to follow some health measures, wearing a mask when I was close to people. Of course Fed and the driver were not caring about COVID regardpless they were in contact with many of people. Sanitary conditions, as expected, are absent in the villages of Larim, serious diseases plague these people and COVID is a less important threat. After each photo of people posing with enthusiasm, they want to see their image on my camera, on a close contact around me. The heat is around 35 degrees, the mask makes no sense anymore and my concern about whether I’ll catch the flu before my return flight is left to fate. Crowds of children who cough and are full of snouts come and hug me, touch the strange white skin and pull the hair of my hands, something unusual for them. Babies greedily squeeze their mother’s skinny breasts for a drop of milk, an image that reminds me of another tormented tribe of Cameroonian pygmies. As one of them grabs the nipple, a jet of milk ends on my face while me and the mother, burst out laughing. Of course I don’t avoid people, I long to take children in my arms, babies full of dirt that do not wear diapers.
We gather the children to distribute stationery, notebooks, markers and lollipops, as well as toys that my fellow traveler had collected from his nieces. Τhe children maintained a polite attitude towards each other and did not grab from the little ones. Hopefully in the future, when the restrictions of the pandemic are lifted, we will gather more goods from public participation.
Carrying weapons is a pride for men, even young children play with AK-47s full of bullets in the magazine.
The villages extend over the whole area of a large valley, the view of which we enjoy from the granite hill and the imposing surrounding green mountain formations. A small natural cistern is formed on the rock where some water is collected, green from the algae and probably impure, but it offers an opportunity for children to swim. Back in the buildings of the central settlement, the school is in operation and it is time for music education. The students sing accompanied by two percussions, a plastic container in the role of a drum and an improvised musical instrument “rain”
Fortunately, weather is on our side, although at some point on the horizon there is always a strong storm. After passing the hard part to the main dirt road at Camp-15, the torrential rain will catch us on the easy rpute to Kapoeta, a small town and the sole one before the Kenyan border. In Kapoeta will make a short stop, visit the local street market and eat in the only local restaurant around, a dish mostly of lamb bones and rice that my cat would hardly accept, but here the hunger prevails over the sense of taste.
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.
In the morning, I get out of the tent, and see all the villagers, young and old around. And they are all so enthusiastic about our presence!
The Toposa are an ethnic group living in the extreme southeast of the nation of South Sudan, near the Kenyan border. Like all tribes of the country, they played an active role in the civil war in exchange for weapons and livestock, while armed conflict continue to this day due to cattle theft. This Nilotic tribe, which are mainly pastoralists, maintain a traditional way of life, including their animistic local religions, mixed with Christianity brought by missionaries. Toposa members live in simple huts, are barely covered in fabric, decorate their bodies with embossed tattoos, and women wear colorful accessories made of beads and feathers. Also characteristic is the metal ring that girls wear from an early age by piercing the lower lip and removing the two lower teeth. Women use to smoke a typical pipe.
The tribe sets up a dance, probably to honor our presence and to welcome the goods and money we offer for our stay, all vital for them. The friendship I feel from these people is rare, those who are considered primitive by Western stereotypes, those who struggle to survive, are more human than many others. I dance frantically with women and take young children by the hand in a spree cycle. At some unsuspecting moment of our stay in the camp, two women who probably have a leader principle and showed sympathy to me, invited me to lay on a cow skin. They gave me a baby and a baby lamb and they stood proudly for us to be photographed.
Children play, like any child on the planet, and derive more joy from the simple, improvised, experiential, interactive games rather than the consumables of the industries in the modern world. Marbles, gymnastic demonstrations, archery. We offer small toys here as well and many children seem to ignore their use. Most of them are afraid to touch a small toy in the shape of a crocodile!
The men of the tribe are left away with their herds, only women, children and old people are in the village.
The woman who seems to be the leader, distributes the food offers, fairly to the other members. Between the main huts with the small doors that seems only hobbits fit in, there are some smaller ones used as granaries and food storage.
But the living conditions of these rare, endangered tribes is not just the idyllic one presented in documentaries. Our interaction with people has revealed once again that the living conditions of indigenous tribes like this one are extremely unfavorable and the Toposa are one of the poorest local communities I have ever encountered. Adults and children suffer from malnutrition and disease. Some babies are infected by yellow fever and malaria, their eyes are yellow and their urine green! It is shocking to see children heading for death and not being able to help! Some adults suffer from skin and other unknown diseases. They ask us for medicines but apart from some antibiotics, paracetamol and malaria prevention pills, we have not much supplies neither medical knowledge. Everyone defecates almost anywhere and hygiene is an unknown concept. We had few food supplies, canned food, cereal bars, croissants, for the days of our stay with the tribes. Apparently we give the supplies, we are ashamed to eat even a can of beans that was our breakfast. The children were licking the dishes, the dogs were eating the eggshells! It is one of the times when my emotions collapse, eventhough I am used to traveling in poor places that face lots of suffering and misery, there are some things I can not stand…
The food we distributed was scarce for so many people, the medicines also few and difficult to help if one has no medical knowledge. Of course the pens and notepads we carry on each trip to offer to kids, here were most useless. These conditions, unacceptable in the 21st century, threaten the Toposa, their authenticity, the beauty, the unforgettable friendship of these people and most of all their survival. As I have concluded in other cases, unfortunately the future of the indigenous tribes is either modernization or extinction.
Returning to Juba we spend the night in Kapoeta to recharge our batteries. The remote town is of limited interest despite the outdoor market frequented by members of local tribes. In the market I saw women holding bundles of many banknotes, not at all negligible for the standards of the country. Some peculiarities that impressed me were a flock of antelopes circulating in town. In the evening I was enjoying my beer outside a local bar, when they passed quickly in front of me. If I had not seen them before I would have thought I was under influence from Fed’s smoke. Another peculiarity was that in the run down inn there was a huge stream of flying mosquitoes on the inside of the window. I could not remove them and they filled the room. In addition, countless crickets completed the scene. We didn’t get into trouble of changing a room, so I closed my bag, but the travel buddy carries some crickets in his underware for days after and in his bag until our return to Cairo and Athens.
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.
In the background, smoke emerges causing the sun’s rays to be eclipsed. Under a huge tree, some Mundari men, dressed in blankets, are resting on plastic chairs. A little further, the scene I have seen in the iconic Salgado images from the similar Dinka tribe, back in 2006… As if nothing has changed since…
A sea of huge horns is shaking through the smoke under a golden light, a scene of revelation where demons of hell emerge through the fire! And among them naked people covered with ashes wander like ghosts…
One of the most eerie, indescribable images I have ever seen in my life unfolds before me!
I enter this chaotic universe, where the smoke from the stacks of animal feces that burn, along with the smell of ammonia from the urine of hundreds of animals, cause an almost fainting feel.
The large-horned cattle, which belong to the African “Sanga” breed, are being treated well by their shepherds and do not feel threat. So despite the pointed horns, they are not aggressive. The ground is full of feces that accumulate on my boots creating a heavy sole. My clothes and nostrils are soaked by the fumes of burnt manure. But I am in ecstasy, in a show with the most impressive lighting and smoke systems. This place is the paradise of the photographer, everything advocates amazing results. Clouds in the sky on the east create a kind of painting with a spectacular palette of orange, light blue and purple. The herds are gathered in the camp for the night with much care, while the newborn sheep and goats enjoy special protection in huts covered with tarpaulins and fires to keep them warm. The camp is not a village, the villages of Mundari are quite far away, but the care of the animals involves many young children and a few women who take care of cooking.
The morning light restarts the daily process that you’d say has been going on for centuries in the tribe’s society that is tied with their cattle.
The bizarre rituals of Mundari require the collection of cattle feces by hand, their accumulation in piles and then their burning. This disgusting work is undertaken by children of all ages, usually naked or dressed in rags. Cow urine is collected and added to the mixture, but the most outrageous thing is that kids and adults take the opportunity and bathe in the “golden rain” every time an animal urinates! Urine ammonia gives the Mundari hair a reddish color. Another tactic is to blow air into the cow’s womb which causes reflex secretion of milk from the breasts and feeding primarily to thirsty calves and then to humans. Milk is usually drunk directly from the nipple of the animal or collected in containers for future consumption without any boiling process and protection against disease. The ash produced by burning the feces is used as a coating on the face and body of Mundari, to protect it from tse tse flies, mosquitoes and sunlight. This gives them an eerie look, making them look like ghosts. They also take special care of their cows, carefully covering their fur with ashes. To secure the property of the animals, they mark them by cutting the tips of the ears into specific shapes. Like the other tribes, the Mundari carries AK-47 weapons and even machine guns.
The Mundari are a much more “wealthy” tribe than the others we have encountered and are familiar with technology such as mobile phones. Nevertheless, they still maintain a traditional pastoralist way of life and their children usually do not attend school.
By noon, the herds are driven across the river in search of pasture, only to return before sunset in this repeating ritual.
The hours within the day, when herds are left away to seek pastures are of little interest. Few women and children are left for us to socialize, all happy and friendly to a certain extent, till the men ask us to stay away from their women. A funny thing is when a child who has just bathed in cow urine, comes to see the photo I just took. The younger ones are all coughing and sneezing, the flying insects are partying in the piles of feces as well as on my skin, I hope my natural antibodies will prove me resistant once again.
As travelers, we are used to being constantly on the move, but the surrounding area has nothing interesting to see. We enjoy a little rest and personal hygiene in the river but we still want some change of scenery. We look into a chance of exploring the vast swamp of Sudd, but apart from the high cost, this season the watersways are flooded and the tribes living there have retreated further away into dry land, so there is nothing to see but water. Another idea is to visit the Dinka tribe. This plan was also rejected, since Dinka is said to be quite modern and in addition, the permits cost, the bribing that will be requested at checkpoints and the money Dinka people will ask for, may exceed $ 300-400.
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.