As part of a longer trip to the Horn of Africa for six weeks in November and December 2011, I visited South Sudan and Sudan. The juxtaposition of visiting Juba and Khartoum revealed two cities and societies so different that it is hard to believe that they were, until recently, part of the same country.
I am indebted to my friend and work colleague, Adrian Norfolk, for giving me useful advice before arriving in South Sudan and for hosting me at his modest residence in Canada’s small and nascent diplomatic mission in Juba. South Sudan is the world ‘s newest country, recovering from a 50 year long civil conflict that left close to two million dead.
Arriving in Juba airport was one of the more wildly chaotic airport entries that I have experienced. While there is virtually nothing of specific sightseeing interest to see in Juba, there was, nonetheless, something fascinating in watching the bureaucratic energy of the international community working with the South Sudanese in a nation-building project in the world’s youngest country.
For close to fifty years following the end of the second war in 1945, the end of colonialism, either voluntarily or through collapse, has been a defining feature in the emergence of new countries. The effective end of the British, French, Portuguese and Soviet empires have almost tripled the number of countries in the world. There maybe a handful left, but I suspect that only a few more countries will emerge over the next couple of decades.
Apart from spending some time with the small but great group of Canadians there, another highlight was dining in restaurants on the Nile river. At the time of independence in 2011, there were less than 20 kilometers of paved road in the entire country. It may have improved somewhat, but transport is not for the faint of heart.
Sudan in recent years has become a pariah in the international community, and can be fairly capricious, isolated and slow in permitting visas to visitors. It came as somewhat of a surprise to land in a very modern, air conditioned and brightly lit airport with large neon signs saying “Welcome to Sudan”. The city has some nice hotels, good infrastructure in the central part of the city, and is situated at the confluence of the Blue Nile coming down from Ethiopia and the White Nilc coming down from Uganda.
My most enjoyable experience was taking an excursion 200 kilometers north of Khartoum along a good road that reaches the Meroe pyramids. Located not far from the Nile at the southern edge of the desert, the pyramids are impressive and were built by the Nubians about 2500 years ago, almost 500 years after the last of the pyramids were built in Egypt. They are distinctive and quite striking in appearance.
Despite the rather poor standing of the government of Sudan in the international community, I found my interpersonal interactions with the Sudanese I met to be universally positive, something other visitors to Sudan have been recounting to me for decades.
Alas both countries are continuing civil conflict and strife in the border regions. One can only hope the two can learn to share the resources of the oil revenues in such a way that some measure of prosperity can be had by both countries. As of now, however, the troubles continue, and the future of both countries remains in question.