Juba: The Dream vs Reality

When I accepted an offer to work in Juba, South Sudan for twelve months, I instinctively wanted to write about it. I wanted to write something before I set one foot out there for future reference, to corroborate my initial perceptions against the actual experience of living there.

Knowing what we all know of South Sudan being a country beset with metastatic conflict, I wanted to approach it differently. So I began by researching the etymology of its capital city, Juba.

I wanted to start with the name Juba because it sounded familiar. The word Juba in my mother tongue isiZulu means Dove.  Not only is a dove a symbol of peace, freedom and reconciliation internationally; back home in South Africa, Zulu speakers historically used iJuba to refer to their romantic partners as iJuba Lami,’ which means my love.

None of my initial searches brought up a meaning close to what I knew or understood. The most prominent etymological meaning for Juba which came up were two:

Juba, a name of an African American plantation dance developed in the South with West African origins.

Juba, an ancient 19th century African name for someone born on a Monday.

Since most websites claimed that the origins of the name for South Sudans’ capital were either too obscure or historically unverifiable, I decided to confer the Zulu meaning to its name because it suited my imaginations. I tried to write about this place of love and peace before leaving my home country but couldn’t get past the word Juba. So I stopped right there. 

By the time locals were shouting “Arusa!” (new bride in Juba-Arabic) at me while I was shopping for dresses at the customs market in Juba, I had forgotten about my pre-occupation with the romance of the place. I had covered my face with a scarf to protect it  from the scorching heat and also wore a floor-length loose fitting dress in the same style that new (muslim) brides traditionally dressed in the city.

Arusa soon became my nickname and I embraced it with glee. I was a new person in the city.  As weeks and months went by  I pursued the ‘new bride’ theme with subconscious fervour;  attending as many weddings as I could on weekends and alluluating at every available opportunity.  I instigated discussions on the subject of love and its multifaceted manifestations with strangers, new acquaintances and colleagues. This was my personal narrative.

Even though these discussions came from a good place – they often ended up muddied in the politics of our environment which were not only complicated by metaphysical considerations but also real-life, day-to-day practical policies and ideological positions which informed how everyone spoke, behaved and lived in the capital.

Since my return from Juba I have tried to reflect on my experiences and despite my best efforts found myself mute(d); Unable to cut through the subterfuge and discombobulation.  Unable to express myself or find the words to accurately define, describe and contextualise the experience – let alone the ability to simply explain it to myself. I didn’t know what to compare it to.

It was only after watching two seasons of HBO’s series Westworld that Juba began to make sense to me. 

Westworld is an exclusive mid-western theme park where those who can afford a ticket can live without limits. Guests in the park are hosted by lifelike robots that pass for humans called the hosts. The hosts allow the visitors to live out their wildest fantasies (without harming humans) in the park, which include the most evil, gratuitous violence to the morally depraved acts of sexual pleasure all done with impunity – since the hosts’ memories are wiped clean and re-programmed each time they “die”.

The guest who visit the park are made to believe that they are free to pursue all their fantasies on the hosts – while the hosts who look and feel very much like humans collect and record every piece of information about their interactions with the guests – making them smarter than the guests and the company who created them.  This goes on until a glitch reveals that the hosts are becoming self-aware or conscious, causing them to remember their past lives including the horrors that the guests and workers at the theme park put them through. This glitch eventually leads to the massacre of most of the human guests and workers at the theme park by the android-hosts.

The English Philosopher and mathematician Russell Bertrand once advised that when you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bare out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only and solely at what are the facts.

The fact is, Juba is not a pre-designed theme park with set-narratives for hosts who record the excesses of the human appetite for evil or corruption. Yet, one would be hard pressed to distinguish between some of what happens in Juba to storylines and narratives pursued in Westworld.

It is also true that while the name Juba in South Sudan does not mean a Dove or a place of peace, love and reconciliation: lovers of peace also live there.

So that the closest I can arrive at the truth becomes this: a place without limits or  where almost everything is still new, malleable and negotiable – can only serve to bring out the occupants’ un-conscious. Juba reveals each persons hidden baseline nature, motive or shadow. It brings an individuals’ deepest desires, core beliefs and value systems including repressed emotions to the fore. The truth of who one is becomes self-evident.  All the good and all the bad.

If I should one day be asked to share lessons from my time in Juba, as a worker, I shall wish to echo Bertrand and say that my year in Juba has taught me that, “Love is wise and hatred is foolish. That in this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say *(or do) things we don’t like. We can only live together in that way.  If we are to live together and not die together we must learn the kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the  continuation of life on this planet.”

So that we don’t all end up victims of our own creation like the hosts, guests and theme park management in Westworld.

*my own addition and emphasis


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