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




Take a trip to Nairobi, Kenya and you will find a country at war with itself where political contest continues to be a zero-sum game. Next to them in Kampala Uganda even the right to protest is under threat so, citizens and politicians wear red headbands instead.Or you can go across to Togo over Benin in the west and find multitudes of people protesting 50 years of autocratic rule or fly a take a short flight to Nigeria to find a country divided with a people still seeking cessation – Biafra calls. Next door to them in Cameroon hundreds have died in protest against a controlling government. If you like, drift placidly down to Zimbabwe where citizens have resigned themselves to their fate – President Robert Mugabe for life. Or glance up to South Sudan where millions cross the border daily seeking refuge from a hailstorm of bullets flooding their homes. Let your eyes settle for a moment in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has been in the grip of a low-level civil war since King Leopold the second of Belgium declared it his personal property. The landscape is littered with people who are in pain displaced in their own countries because even though the lights are on – there is no one home. There’s no one to listen. There is no compassion or empathy. No sense of duty except, the duty to explicitly self-enrich at the expense of all others. Greed is killing people.

Everything seems set in stone until…

Someone comes along who does something remarkable. His name. Jose Pepe Mujica. Ironically described by the media as the poorest president in the world. In an interview with Al-Jazeera’s’ Lucia Newman in 2013, the 82-year-old former president who served  Uruguay between from 2010 and 2015 …. sips bitter tea, in a small living room barely large enough to fit a TV crew and decorated with shelves full of books which he shares with his wife and a three-legged dog. He speaks like somebody we know

“No. I’m not a poor president,” he said. “Poor are those who describe me as poor. My definition of poor is those who need too much because those who need too much are never satisfied. I am frugal, not poor”

Which means he’s economical about how he spends his money, giving  90 percent of his salary back into public service.

“Frugal with a light suitcase. I live with little, just what’s necessary. Not too tied down to material things. Why? so that I can have free time. For what? to do what I like.Freedom is having time to live. Living Frugally is a philosophy of life but I’m not poor. I have a way of life that doesn’t change because I’m president.

I earn more than I need even if it’s not enough for others. My wife is a senator and she has to contribute a lot to her party. But her salary is enough for us to live. And we still have a bit left over which we put in the bank just in case. I contribute to my political group and projects like housing for unmarried mothers. For me, it’s not a sacrifice it’s a duty.”

He explains

“I don’t oppose consumption. I am against waste.  We have to produce food for the hungry, roofs for those who need a home. Build schools for those who don’t have schools. We have to solve the water problem now. If every powerful person has three, four, five cars and needs 400sq meters to live and a house on the beach and an aeroplane to get here and there… then there isn’t enough for everyone. What does modern science tell us? It tells us indisputable facts. If the current world population aspired to consume like the average American. We would need three planet earth(s). Which means that if we continue tossing out things. Naturally, a great part of humanity will never have anything. They are doomed.”

Mujica only has one car, a 1980s beetle golf. When asked why he hasn’t tried to change the status quo or how his fellow countrymen live,  he doesn’t beat about the bush.

“Because if I tried to impose my way of living on the rest they’d kill me. They’d kill me I know it. But allow me the freedom to express myself. Because we complain about global warming while we assault nature by producing so much waste. We are mortgaging the future of the next generations. I can’t fix this as a government, I am a prisoner of this myself. What I’m pointing out is where we are heading. True there is extraordinary waste here. There are houses only used 20 days a year in Punta del Est. Luxurious houses while other’s don’t even have a shack to sleep at night. It’s crazy unjust. I oppose that world, but I am a prisoner of that world.”

The former Marxist guerrilla fighter is against re-election. For him, a president in a republic is a high-level official who is elected to carry out a function. He is neither a King nor a God. He is especially not – a witch doctor of a tribe who knows everything. He is a civil servant and as such he must leave and be replaced. Mujica believes the ideal way for a president to live is like the vast majority of the people whom he is attempting to serve and represent.

“My goal is to achieve a little less injustice in Uruguay to help the most vulnerable and leave behind a political way of thinking a way of looking at a future that will be passed on and used to move forward. There’s nothing short-term, no victory around the corner. I will not achieve paradise or anything like that. What I want is to fight a common good for progress. Life slips by, the way to continue it is for others to continue your work.”


Once in a while, something so surprisingly beautiful happens.Just when you think you are going to fall into an endless tunnel of nothingness suspended in space and time, you blink and there it is. A, way.

The question is, will you choose it?