Into the Dust: Back to Africa
One week ago I hopped on the first of four airplanes that would begin the longest stretch of my journey back to South Sudan. Last Friday, I arrived in Kampala, Uganda and would rest for a day before catching a Zawadi bus across Uganda to the border of South Sudan. 5:30am Sunday found me in the middle of downtown Kampala at the Zawadi booking office. Parked at the curb of a street tucked away from the heavy city traffic, was the large orange bus that would take myself and 64 other passengers north. There were already some other travelers (all African) waiting outside, and small family slept on mats inside the travel service’s office. Even though Kampala has its share of Westerners, they are not usually found traveling around the country alone by bus. I could tell my fellow passengers were trying to hide looks of slight confusion and intrigue.
As luck would have it, the roster for the day was full and I had landed a seat in the very back of the bus. This is not much of an issue for the first four hours of the ten to twelve hour journey, but this quickly changes once the bus passes Gulu and travels into northern Uganda. From Gulu, north, the route crosses through some of the territory most severely ravaged over the past decade by Joseph Kony and the LRA. Ugandan co-workers have recounted stories of witnessing burning vehicles along the roads north of Gulu less than ten years ago. The rebels are now long gone, having retreated into the depths of Congo and the Central African Republic, and life for most continues peacefully.
Once on the dirt roads leading to South Sudan, the relatively smooth drive turns into a brutally bumpy ride as those of us in the back jostle around in the dense heat and dust of dry season. By this point, it is already mid-day and our overland vessel has become an oven on wheels. In Africa, you never really live inside. Whether indoors or inside a vehicle, life is always lived quasi-outdoors, only safe from the elements of sun and rain. Just south of the border town of Moyo, our bus reaches the Nile River at Loropi. The British colonists nor the Ugandan governments of the past half-century have been too keen on infrastructure development, especially in the North. Uganda could have a full power grid and widely paved roads servicing the geographically small country, but government corruption and the nation’s presidential dictator, Yoweri Museveni, have other interests in mind, mainly personal power and wealth. However, this is nothing uncommon on this continent.
To cross the Nile, which sits close to 300m wide, we disembark and sit alongside our bus aboard the small ferry that shuttles vehicles and their passengers from one side to the other. As one can imagine, this is extremely inefficient. An hour further north, and I arrive in Moyo, Uganda. Tired, sweaty, and dusty, I meet Longa Moses, who has driven the Land Cruiser from Kajo Keji to take me home. I moved quickly through the Ugandan border, greeting my friend Harry at immigration. I had already paid the $50 single entry fee upon arrival in Entebbe, so no extra payments or “fees” were necessary. My six-month visa for South Sudan had expired in December; I planned on paying whatever the single entry fee would be at the Jale crossing. On the South Sudanese side, I walked into the immigration office to greet Alex, whom I have developed a friendship with. After six-months of traveling back and forth, most people at the border know me. He noticed the dwindling pages in my passport, and like every border official during my travels the past two months, mentioned I need to get more pages. Nodding in acknowledgment, I watched him stamp me into the country and hand my passport back. He welcomed me back to South Sudan with a smile and sent me on my way home.
Driving from the border into Kajo Keji, the scenery had arrived at the full transition from rainy to dry season during my absence. The last time it had rained was the last week of November. During my first six months in South Sudan, the landscape had been shockingly vibrant. Colors of green I had never witnessed jumped out from the tall grasses and thick vegetation. The green, contrasted with the deep red soil and bright blue sky made for a palette of colors I had not found anywhere else. Now Kajo Keji resembled the Sudan I had seen on television during the referendum one year ago. Dry and dusty, the landscape reflected back shades of brown, red, and yellow with the trees still holding onto what green coloration they have left. The six foot tall grass that previously covered the terrain had all been burned. At night, what is left can be seen being devoured by distant flames, flickering in the hills.
The earth has dried out and emptied the remaining crops from the soil. A layer of sand and loose dirt is whipped across the ground and through the air by the constant breeze. It can be found resting on just about everything. Cleaning is now a constant chore. The point seems futile at times, except to keep your head above the water. I don’t think I will make any progress against the constant dust until the rains return. However, the wind and dust are a continual reminder that Africa surrounds me, a reminder of the immersion. In a place like Kajo Keji, just like the dirt, Sudan is in everything: The complex and tragic history, the meeting of the 21st century and centuries old, and the reluctant, but eager hope. I am back to tell the story of that eager hope.