A long weekend in South Sudan, I ask myself? Sure, why not! I’m curious to see Juba, and even more interested in visiting the Mundari, nomadic cow herders in the country’s central region. Also, the odd long weekend is all I have these days.
And just like that, 7 days later, I’m on an Ethiopian flight from Oslo to Addis Ababa. Why 7 days? That’s the earliest you can apply for a visa to South Sudan. Also, I seem to have gotten into the habit of making up my mind kinda last minute.
Born on 9 July 2011, in the very heart of East Africa, South Sudan is the world’s youngest nation, emerging from a complex history and a protracted struggle for independence.
Now, my country has a long history of working for peace and stability in troubled countries. That hasn’t always been successful. You’ll remember the Oslo Accords, secretly negotiated in the Norwegian countryside in 1993, between Yassir Arafat and Rabin/Perez (in the days when Israel was led by decent humans), about granting the right to self-determination for Palestine. As we have seen in the years since, that has sadly not turned out so well.
Norway has been closely involved with the two Sudans, too, which explains why there is a Norwegian embassy in Juba, a rarity in Africa. As in South Africa in the 90s, when locals hear where I’m from, they say “Thank you! We will not forget your country’s support for our freedom.”
And I’ll admit it. It feels good to hear. Even though I had nothing to do with it. But peace is tenuous here in South Sudan. Since tearing away from the neighbour to the north, the country has had its share of violence, including a brutal civil war. The war ended as recently as 2020, when President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his deputy-turned-rival, Riek Machar, signed a peace agreement. The ceasefire is still in force and has been kept. For the most part.
2 rakshas driving past President Kiir with his trademark cowboy hat – next to an ad for the Miss Nile Africa 2023 beauty pageant
Arriving in Juba
First order of business as you arrive at JUB is to go through a health check, mainly consisting of having your yellow fever vaccination card checked. Then comes immigration, where you show your passport and a printout of your visa. Both are relatively quick and efficient, as long as you have your documents in order. (More info on visas and other practicals at the bottom of this post.)
On my incoming flight from Addis are three others, also here to visit the Mundari – Sergei from Russia and Sabrina and Mike from the USA. We are expected, and a driver takes us to a hotel in the city centre, only 5 km from the airport.
As a novice in this country, you will need a local guide. We have Mayom. The four of us have a quick briefing with him and our trip organisers, Rik (Netherlands) and Ryan (Australia), before we head out for our first taste of South Sudanese cuisine.
The abandoned Nile ferry
AFEX Rivercamp on the banks of the White Nile is an expat type place, popular amongst UN, NGO and contractor staff. And for good reason. The grilled Nile perch is the best meal I’ve had in a long time.
Just off the riverbank there, we spot Juba’s most famous sight: the Doma, a rusty, half-sunk ferry in the middle of the Nile. An odd landmark, looking intriguing in the light of the full moon.
But how did the boat end up like that? Did it have anything to do with the war? (And interestingly, why do we jump to that conclusion first, knowing full well there is much more to a country than what’s in the headlines?)
Nope, no sabotage or war action! Simple engine failure whilst unloading cargo. The boat was carried downstream, got stuck, and here it is. Nobody seems to remember exactly how long it has been here, but all agree it was before the war.
A new day, and we’re off to explore Juba for a bit, before heading north to the Mundari. We begin at the Konyo Konyo market.
Juba’s Konyo Konyo market: busy, but nothing like the nightmare that is Marché du Niger in Conakry.
Photography is a sensitive subject in South Sudan. The government is wary of journalists and media. If you are bringing a proper camera, you must apply to the Ministry of the Interior for a photo permit. The local fixer/guide can handle this for you. The current going rate is 100 USD. But be warned: even with a photo permit, you aren’t necessarily allowed to take photos, even with your phone, especially in Juba.
The Konyo Konyo Market
I don’t take photos of people without asking their permission. That is just common courtesy. Every people pic in this article is with permission from those involved, or their parents. But taking photos of sacks of rice – or a pink mattress or blue plastic chairs – or of people who clearly want me to – why that should be strictly prohibited, well… why? A need for control taken to ridiculous lengths?
Scenes from Juba’s colourful Konyo Konyo market
And then this guy appears, smiling and posing, all ‘snap me, snap me’.
Seconds after I do just that, the ‘photo police’ shows up. Are they official? Difficult to say, but they ask that I delete all Juba photos from my phone. They are friendly enough, though, and do not ask for a bribe – so I comply on the spot. Fortunately, they don’t ask to see my deleted files album.
Do not take photos in Juba
As you can see, I took a chance and sidestepped the rules. I’m now going to say that thing you should never say to your children: DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DID! And if I ever return to Juba, I will take my own advice.
Turns out, I was extremely lucky. Being caught taking photos, even of those plastic chairs, can result in you having your phone confiscated or even land you in prison. And I’m betting you don’t want that.
The Jubek Memorial
Our next stop is the memorial to Jubek, guarded by the lion of Juba. (On a side note, South Sudan might very well be the last frontier for Africa’s lions, but that is for another post.)
Only us – and this cute, head-butting lot – at Jubek’s memorial this morning.
Jubek is the city’s founder and namesake, and every year, on 8 July, the eve of the anniversary of the country’s independence, people gather at his memorial, dancing and singing.
Juba’s oldest mosque
Compared to the ones I’ve seen in Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Senegal, Juba’s oldest mosque is small and modest. On special occasions when there are more people than room, there are additional places underneath a covered space outside.
The mosque gardens double as playground for kids playing football. (No photos of them, as there are no parents or guardians about).
Lunch at the banks of the Nile
We lunch at DaVinci, with a view of Juba Nile Bridge, the oldest of two bridges spanning the river, as well as various flotsam and jetsam flowing past at an impressive speed.
Skewered Nile crocodile for lunch, anyone?
Speed is not the word to use about service at DaVinci, though. It’s pleasant enough, and the food isn’t bad. And South Sudan, like most of Africa, is all about the slow life, which is precisely what attracts so many to this continent. Here though, slow reaches a whole new level.
On the road in South Sudan
Time to head to the Mundari, primary reason we’re here. The tribe we will stay with, is located in the Terekeka district, about an hour north of Juba.
Along the road, we are stopped at three check points, all of varying lengths and intensity. Just as in West Africa this summer, a check point is essentially a barrier consisting of a length of rope stretched across the road, lowered when cars are allowed to pass.
You never know how thorough the checking will be; it seems to be up to the official (who may or may not be wearing a uniform). Bribes are often involved, and like in Guinea, our driver has a stack of pounds in the car console.
At the first stop, we are all asked to get out of the car and enter a roadside shack for a passport check. Some are a bit apprehensive, but it’s nothing, really. Just a curious official, wanting a look at us foreigners, rare as we are (South Sudan is one of the least visited countries in the world), and have a chat.
He’s a bit cheeky, this one. ‘Why are you so short,’ he asks me. Fair enough. My 160 cm isn’t exactly tall for a Scandinavian, and it is positively kid size compared to the statuesque South Sudanese (half the population could easily be on the runways in Milan). I have to stop myself from quipping back ‘a small person can get a lot done in the time it takes for a big one to turn around.’ He is friendly enough, but… better safe than sorry.
Nearing the camp, we pass cows herded along the road.
The Mundari of South Sudan
Mayom has brought camping gear: one tent each, with a mattress and a sheet. If you need a pillow, bring one. Or use your backpack. He sets up camp for us, while we go the ca. 100 metres over to the Mundari camp. It’s the first time of many, over the two days we are here.
The Mundari live in the Nile Valley, in central and eastern South Sudan. They are nomadic cattle herders – cowboys, in a way – deeply connected to the livestock. There is a strong sense of solidarity in the group, and the community is organised around the extended family. Elders are revered, and their advice sought whenever there is a dispute.
The basis of their economy is the cows. That – and daughters. To get married, a young man must pay a bride price – in cattle. Cows are expensive; 600 USD is not uncommon. 45 cows seems to be the minimum bride price, but if the girl is particularly sought after and has several suitors, there’s competition, potentially increasing the price to astronomical levels. So what’s a poor young man to do? Steal cattle, that’s what.
They have a unique way of life in many ways, the Mundari, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and we will experience some of their distinctive customs tomorrow morning.
Getting aquainted with the Mundari
All is OK with photo permits here; no photo police to worry about. In fact, everyone loves being photographed, locals and us visitors alike. It is serious business, though. It reminds me of family portraits from the sepia era. No frivolous smiling and laughing.
But when we see the results, it’s big grins all round.
We spend the rest of the day hanging out at the camp, playing with the kids, surrounded by cows. Many, many cows, more cows than people. Life circles around the cows and their rhythms.
Sunrise at the camp
Up at 05.45 – bright and early, in time for sunrise. And it is a sight to behold, the sun rising over the Mundari camp.
The tribe is busy, cleaning the cows with ashes. Some have white faces, some have red hair. Some have both.
I mentioned distinctive customs. Some of those are for practical purposes: the white comes from smearing their faces and bodies with ashes. Ashes from burnt cow dung. Keeps the flies at bay, we learn. Other customs are simply fashion statements. I know you’re curious, so I’ll get right to it.
A lot of hair bleaching is happening this morning. The bleach of choice is uric acid. It takes 6-7 consecutive days for the hair to bleach to the desired shade of pale. Most everyone has very short, almost cropped hair, so I suppose the process needs to happen frequently if they want to keep it up.
When you think about it… is that really so different from what the rest of us put ourselves through? All over the world, people do peculiar things to their bodies, conforming to the beauty standard du jour, even when it involves pain. (Wearing stiletto heels comes to mind – or injecting Botulinum toxin into the face.)
The Mundari hair bleaching tradition can also be a bit painful if they’re not careful. Cow urine contains ammonia, which hurts your eyes. But why would you get it in your eyes, you ask? The men collect the urine in a pitcher and pour it over their hair, and I suppose you can have pretty good control that way. But the young boys simply stick their head under the cow.
Tempted to give it a try? I thought not. But you can, if you want to.
I have long, curly hair; bleach of any kind is a firm no-no. Would I have given it a go if my hair was short, and I could rinse it out quickly? Well, I’m all for leaving that comfort zone. We stagnate if we don’t. But to be honest, I’m not sure I’d be brave enough for just this.
The people in the camp gleefully tell of a Danish lady who did try it. Well, I met that Danish lady in Lviv recently, and look forward to telling her she is now a legend amongst the Mundari.
Cows on the loose
We go back to our tent camp for breakfast, and a bit later, around 10 o’clock, the cows are let loose. Hundreds of cows are headed towards us. Normally, I would be a bit concerned, or at least, get out of their way. I’m reminded of a transumanza I witnessed in Le Marche some years ago. On their way up the mountain to graze, a herd of cattle raced through the little village Piobbico, totally disregarding any human in their way.
But these cows, they don’t run. They meander, the Mundari cows. With all the time in the world. They stop, for each other, and for people – or walk around us. Slowly. Majestically. These are friendly cows.
Photo by Ryan Randell
The rest of the morning, we hang out with the Mundari.
Over the last two days, I have gotten a glimpse into Mundari community, and I can’t help wonder about how conflict and displacement and, not least, environmental changes, will impact them. What does the future hold for the traditional Mundari way of life?
Back in Juba
In the afternoon, we return to Juba, stopping at a craft market along the way.
I ask about postcards – and stamps. Neither is available. In fact, South Sudan has no postal service. If you want to send something, you use UPS, I’m told. Postcards: a new business idea for UPS? Probably not. I suspect postcards might be dying. Bit sad, really.
Juba also has a cathedral – visited by il papa himself earlier this year – and a university. Both are worth a visit. But I skip it. A shower and a dip in the hotel pool is all I want just now.
Our final dinner is at a local restaurant, quirkily named Comrades, an interesting place painted in dusty pink and mint green. I like it; it has a 1920s vibe. Reminds me of the Kam Leng hotel in Singapore, Peranakan style.
Time to leave
I have barely touched the surface of South Sudan. Still… I feel I have gotten an idea, however faint, of what the country is like. My conclusion: South Sudan is an interesting country to visit, with plenty of cultural diversity and fascinating nature to experience.
Here’s to a bright future for the world’s youngest nation.
Visa, money, rules and other practicals
Several companies organise group tours – or individual tours – to South Sudan and the Mundari, including Culture Road and Young Pioneers. It’s not really a complicated travel destination, though, so you can organise it yourself, if you prefer. But you will need a local fixer/guide.
As per November 2023, getting a visa for South Sudan is fairly straight-forward for citizens of most countries. (As always, this info is subject to change, sometimes at short notice, so check and double check). You apply for an e-visa maximum 7 days before you’re scheduled to arrive in the country, using this site. Here is what you need:
Passport size photo
Scan of your passport’s photo page
Yellow fever certificate scan
COVID vaccination certificate
LOI (letter of invitation) – this is issued by your guide/fixer/tour company
Photo ID of your contact person (also guide/fixer/tour company)
Your passport must have min. 6 blank pages. No reason for this is given, and they only give you an ordinary stamp on arrival. But… it is a rule, and if you arrive with fewer than the 6 blank pages, you might get in, but most likely at a cost (i.e. bribe).
Note: all photos and documents must be in .jpg format, and max 293 kb – so if you don’t know how to compress photos and convert a pdf to a jpg, learn it now. I use ilovepdf.com (no, nothing sponsored).
The application form is rather elaborate, but once you’re through answering the 55(!) questions, send it through along with all the jpgs – and pay the visa fee (USD 100 for single entry, non-refundable.)
The reply (hopefully including your visa) should be in your inbox within 48 – 72 hours, but often quicker. Print it out, and hand it over along with your passport when you arrive at the airport in Juba. (I have heard they sometimes accept digital versions of the visa, but if/when they do, again… expect bribes. Just print it!)
The local currency is the SSP (South Sudanese pound). There are no ATMs, so bring cash in US dollars. It’s easy to change money at your hotel, at the market, in the airport, at kiosks along the street, basically everywhere. Note: only crisp, clean notes are acceptable!
Accommodations in Juba can be quite expensive. I stayed at Dembesh Hotel: a simple, but nice enough place, with a swimming pool also used by locals (but with quiet hours between 1500 – 1800).
Various tips and advice
South Sudan uses C and D power plugs. Bring an adapter to be on the safe side.
Make sure you are properly vaccinated and take your anti-malarials.
Make sure your travel insurance is adequate.
Don’t expect much in the way of tourism infrastructure.
DO NOT take photos in Juba, even if you have bought a photo permit.
Last, but by no means least:
DO NOT travel in South Sudan without a reliable local guide. You will need them to get the visa in the first place, to help you get photo permits, to pass the various check points, to show you around, and, most importantly, to be safe. Also, there is not much public transport and you cannot rent a car. You can find a guide by asking at various message boards, in facebook groups for Africa travel, or here (vetted by veteran travellers).
Safety in South Sudan
We cannot skip this part entirely, can we. The US State Department says ‘Do not travel to South Sudan due to crime, kidnapping, and armed conflict.’ And, as is also the case with Iraq, they add their usual advice to draft a will and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries and/or power of attorney.
As expected, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a bit more sober, expecting common sense from their citizens. They do advice against travel to South Sudan, noting that the political situation is unpredictable, which makes travel planning a bit of a challenge. But the risk of terrorism is low. In fact, the worst problem is road safety, especially at night. Which is very similar to any number of African countries.
I also have friends and acquaintances from home, who have lived in South Sudan around the time of independence and after, working for the UN or to help build infrastructure. The verdict is unanimous: Common sense goes a long way. Don’t do stupid things.