Talking Point: Africa’s newest nation is finding its footing

Thursday September 8 2011

By Karoli Ssemogerere

Many strange things have happened this summer. First has been the misreading of the weather. At very short notice the heavens opened and serious rain kept farmers busy in the fields during the month of July and first half of August. Of course, this rain has avoided locations where abuse of the environment has been harshest. The weatherman may not say it but the district of Kalangala, home to Bidco, has lost its crown as the rainiest district in the country. Kalangala in the 1990s had 220 rainy days a year.

Leaving America in the punitive mid-summer heat to tend to the fields, I was quite relieved to enjoy bearable weather. If these summer temperatures arrive in our region; temperatures on the scale of 110F- grave harm to forms of life as we know it are likely. The advance of the Sahara, while moderated, is not over. What I found extreme, however, was the increased chill in the morning. It felt like Kabale. Low temperatures cannot be good news for germination rates or fruiting. At an experimental plot a few miles from the city where myself and my family “forage” for food, strange things have happened. The coffee planted on marginal soils seems to be in a state of continuous flowering- confused by the new seasons.

I am typing my column this week though from a hallowed location-- Africa’s newest nation-- the Republic of South Sudan. Not much in travel advisories can prepare you for this pilgrimage. In downtown Juba, a digital traffic clock proclaims East Africa’s 6th state: a muted reaction perhaps to Khartoum’s application to join the East African Community.

Great cities tell their story from the sky. Cities on major rivers: Shanghai, Stockholm, London, Seoul, New York, etc are only rivaled in beauty by those sleeping by the ocean. Seventy per cent of the world’s population lives in these habitats. Juba is laid out like a grid. It appears from first impressions that despite its location as a landlocked country- Juba is a very costly city- the new government is insisting on, and has received the foundation of a very high quality urban road network. Most of the city is still unpaved; but the murram roads are wide and will be paved in due course. Juba’s airport is small and informal; luggage is delivered by hand on a few spare desks in the arrivals hall.

On the street when you ask the ordinary wanainchi how it feels to be independent; the answer is almost eternal gratitude. This nation has earned its place by shedding a lot of blood at the hands of its former colonial masters. In our childhood, we always heard of war in southern Sudan, false attempts at peace and a promise that seemed so far in the future. Today, apart from Arabic-- the most important language of business in the new country-- there are no signs left of the former colonial overlords. A discussion on South Sudan TV (South Sudan seems to have mastered the art of information diet), little in the form of headlines focuses on integrating Arabic speakers in the new South Sudan civil service who were trained in the north or the Middle East in Arabic in what will be an English-speaking nation.

Nothing comes cheap here: Internet access, transport, food after effects of a dollarised economy when Uncle Sam released boxes of money into circulation in a domino effect that provided false supports as far south as Uganda, delaying Uganda’s fiscal Armageddon through inflated asset prices and an unrealistic exchange rate. Banks are overwhelmed setting up shop alongside money changers waving crisp new South Sudan Pounds.

Our Minister of Labour Syda Bbumba maybe in political soup back home but her ministry needs to have concrete plans to manage Uganda’s biggest export in South Sudan so far- skilled and semi-skilled manpower. This export is likely to create political tension with our northern neighbour and is a result of a vulnerable economy back home. University graduates, technical people, doormen, porters are all here- a thumbs down to the high unemployment situation back home. Many are occupying positions in the downmarket economy that the South Sudanese will want for themselves as they settle down to build their country.

Enjoying a lunch one day, our conversation switched to the arts and sports. I asked my host who had written one of the world’s cheeriest anthems- the South Sudan National Anthem. It was written by music groups at the local university. When we shifted to sports, South Sudan’s plans were in basketball (height advantage included) and volleyball as the new nation makes it mark among its more established neighbours. Amen I can say- viva the new Republic:

Mr Ssemogerere, an attorney and social entrepreneur, practices law in New York.