Through the eyes of (the rare breed that is) a Juba Tourist

Yes, I finally made it to South Sudan. And it was wonderful! But I think I have to start at the beginning of the story, which involves acquiring a Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) Travel Permit.

Apparently, you can only get a GoSS permit in Nairobi, Addis Ababa Kampala and Cairo. So anyone travelling to work in South Sudan has to go through one of these three places, hence the GoSS Mission is usually very busy. Surprisingly, Google was not particularly helpful on the requirements to acquire a GoSS travel permit or where you could get one in Nairobi. I have since found out, this is because the regulations change every couple of weeks. I finally found a number and called there to ask what type of documentation I needed to bring. The man on the phone told me to come to the GoSS Mission and fill out a form and then they would tell me what I needed. Not the most efficient way of doing it, as then I had to spend the morning running around Nairobi to get the required attachments for my application. Therefore, before I go on, I am going to list here what you need to get a travel document for South Sudan, in case, by the end of this blog entry you decide to make Juba your next holiday destination:

  1. Two colour passport photos;
  2. A photocopy of your passport;
  3. A photocopy of your yellow fever certificate;
  4. A receipt saying you paid the $50 into the GoSS Travel Permit account in the KCB Bank;
  5. A letter of invitation if you are going there for business;
  6. A list of businesses and organisations if you are going there for business.

And if you are looking to confuse the poor man who is sitting by himself dealing with all the visa applications at the GoSS counter in Nairobi, you tell him you are going for tourism. Apparently Juba is not such a hot tourist destination, such that provisions for this category of traveller have not yet been determined. Someone told me that last year in the official South Sudan statistics they registered 49 tourists. Therefore, I am very proud of single-handedly raising the tourist figures for South Sudan.

Anyway, the turnover time for a permit is 24 hours, but I decided to give it 48 hours just in case. I received my permit the next day and there were indeed a couple of issues:

  1. My visit was listed as “official.” However, I put that down to the fact that the category “tourist” does not yet exist in their visa system.
  2. My passport, according to my permit, was issued in Kenya. To be fair the Bezirkshauptmannschaft Wien-Umgebung, Austria could very well be located in Kenya.

I was willing to overlook these two mistakes. However, the one I thought may give me a few issues is:

  1. They listed my gender as “male” right beside my photograph.

(Note: I showed my friend my permit and asked him to spot the problem. His reaction was “You are really 164cm?” – For the record, I am.)

So I went back to the poor man who was clearly overwhelmed with the large volume of people needing permits, or having issues with them and I pointed out the mistake. He looked at it and said no problem, he would change it and I should come back the next day. I came back the next day and my permit was still in the same place in the pile with the same information. I had to travel the next day I decided to risk it. Although it was good for my travel purposes, it was kind of upsetting that neither the Kenyan immigration officers nor the Southern Sudanese immigration officers even flinched when looking at my permit. Oh well, the permit is now hanging on my bedroom wall, just in case I ever need to be reminded of my gender.

The next day when I finally exited the plane in Juba (as a man), I was greeted by unbelievable heat. It is like walking into a sauna. It was 37 degrees when I arrived. Juba airport is two rooms; one for arrivals and one for departures. The arrival hall consists of one wooden table for immigration, one opening in the wall where the man with the tractor comes by with the luggage and hands it to you through the hole in the wall, another wooden table with customs where they ask you what is in your suitcase and depending on the answer, decide to write with chalk on your suitcase. This is your permit to exit the arrival lounge. The seating and the pick-ups are on benches outside this room. I was apparently one of the only people on my plane not wearing a brightly coloured NGO t-shirt. So a man came up to me and asked me whether I was ok with getting into the city. Apparently again, tourists to South Sudan are a rare breed.

My friend picked me up from the airport and took me on a little driving tour through Juba. It is a wonderful little city, which I will try and describe here (as unfortunately, for security reasons you are not allowed to take pictures). One of the first things you see in Juba when you enter is a large clock on a roundabout with the full countdown until the referendum.

Referendum Countdown Clock (Photo courtesy of Tracy)


The referendum spirit is high in Juba. It always is part of most conversation. There are registration booths all around town and when you are sitting in cafes people will come and ask you whether you registered and sensitise you on how to vote (even after you explain that unfortunately, you are not eligible to vote).

Juba is an up and coming city. It is dotted both with proper cement housing and mud huts, which I think give it a wonderful flair. The only pictures I was able to take were flying in to Juba on the plane. Here is a bird’s eye view of South Sudan and Juba:

What makes it very different from Nairobi is that the mud huts are side-by-side with the large houses. I am not sure whether segregation comes with development, but having a mixed community is certainly something I really like. It is a surprisingly safe city (contrary to all descriptions, I did not see any Ak-47s, however, I am told this is not the norm). You can walk everywhere, again something I appreciate after living in Nairobi – in fact, I actually felt safer in Juba than I sometimes do in Nairobi. There are boda-bodas and Matatus are starting to appear in the city (as are arrogant matatu drivers, who think they own the road) but definitely do not have a coverage or a system yet like in Nairobi. There are a lot of Kenyans and Ugandans who have moved to Juba looking for employment opportunities, and in fact often in the restaurants, you hear the waiters speaking more Swahili than Juba Arabic. There are some great restaurants as well –  I had some great Chinese food and a lovely brunch on Sunday. The roads in the city centre are surprisingly good. However, when you are off the main roads, they are still pretty rough. Either way, this is a city showing a lot of potential. And it is sometimes difficult to imagine that you are in fact in a country that was ravaged by conflict only a couple of years ago.

A downside to Juba is that it is incredibly expensive. This is a direct result of the fact that they import EVERYTHING (down to a lot of the fruit and vegetables). Although it is a very green and fertile place, the infrastructure and livelihoods of the people were so damaged during the war that a part from oil, South Sudan does not really produce anything at the moment. The result is high inflationary prices for all goods. Furthermore, rent is high too due to the lack of housing – but more and more is being built, and there is even talk of some apartment complexes.

So what does one do as a tourist in Juba? Well, aside from the referendum clock, a main Juba attraction is of course the John Garang memorial. John Garang is considered the father of the soon-to-be country. It is a simple grave, not very ostentatious, but definitely a monument many Jubans are proud of, including the young SPLA soldier who showed us around. There is a large billboard in front of the memorial site explaining who John Garang is and praising him in the highest names – or so I think, as the spelling and grammar in the English translation is so terrible that in parts it looks like it is written in code (e.g. I think “whit fldd” was actually referring to “white flag,” but I cannot be sure). One of those moments where I wish I could have used my camera. However, at the memorial there is a registration centre where, at the time we were there, there was also a large group of SPLA military policy were being registered. So taking out a camera at this time would not have been the best idea.

Another wonderful thing to do is to go and see the Nile that flows through Juba. Not quite the swimming hot spot (unless you like crocodiles), but just a great place to sit and relax at one of the restaurants along the Nile, with a cold drink and a hot day (you are always guaranteed the hot day).

I also decided to take part in the Juba Hash House Harriers run on Saturday afternoon. Yes, for some unexplained reason, I decided that Juba was the perfect place to start my running regime, ignoring the fact that I am quite unfit and it was about 38 degrees. However, it was a wonderful way to see Juba as the run took us through the back streets, through the compounds of huts and markets as well as along the Nile. The large group of foreigners deciding to go for a run in the blistering heat was a site that definitely entertained many of the Jubans we passed. They came out of their houses and stopped what they were doing to cheer us on (or in my case, when I started walking because I could not run anymore, I was greeted with laughs and cries of “you lazy, hurry up” – but all in good humour). The little children jumped up and down and high fived us with cheers of “good morning.” It seems that for most children there, this is their extent of their English, so that is the greeting at any time of the day. Ahh, the children – again a time I wish I could have taken some pictures.

Juba nightlife consists primarily of house parties. With the large expat community in the city, there is usually a house party somewhere in the city every weekend. I managed to attend two: on Friday we went to one at the UNDP compound and on Saturday we went partying with the peacekeepers at the UNMIS (United Nations Mission in Sudan) compound. This was kind of a surreal experience. The UNMIS compound in Juba is huge. It has all the barracks for the peacekeepers, who are predominantly Bangladeshi, then there are various bars, a running track, a swimming pool and a hospital, to name some of the features. It is a really self-sufficient area. The party was hosted by UNMAU (the de-miners) and I am told that the parties they organize are definitely among the best in Juba. I had a fantastic time.

Finally, as a tourist, I felt the need to buy a souvenir. So we went to the market to look for t-shirts. Here two of the more popular designs:

I personally went for a lime green Government of Southern Sudan t-shirt.

So, I realize that this blog entry has so far exceeded any previous one. In part, this is due to the lack of pictures and so I felt the need to describe everything in detail because a lot of people have asked me “so how is Juba.” And in part it is because I absolutely fell in love with the place. I really would love to work in Juba one day – it is a place, that perhaps contrary to many people’s expectations is beautiful and green, with smiling and friendly people and generally a wonderful atmosphere. Hopefully, through this blog entry, I will actively contribute to raising Juba’s tourist numbers.

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2 Responses to Through the eyes of (the rare breed that is) a Juba Tourist

  1. Tracy says:

    So interesting to hear about Juba through the eyes of someone new to the city. You make it sound so nice. You are welcome to download some of the pics of the referendum countdown clock on my FB page and use them if you wish.

    I am so glad you enjoyed it. Looking forward to the next time our paths cross.

  2. jonathantsbower says:

    Awesome! Kudos for visiting South Sudan as a tourist – I shall do the same one day. And Hash Hound Harriers…in 38 degrees.. amazing. In Fiji it is generally between 20 and 30 degrees, usually about 25-28, which is perfect.

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