'Normal' life in Juba

November 11, 2010

Sudan is in the news more and more these days and will continue to be as the Jan. 9 referendum on independence draws nearer. It is a sensational and important story, and such stories make the headlines. But if you just hear about Sudan in the news, you might come away with the feeling that all is fear and uncertainty. Yes, there is fear and uncertainty in daily life here, but it takes a back seat to the fact that life goes on, ministry goes on, and it will continue to do so no matter what happens.

Life in Juba and southern Sudan just seem normal to me now, so things don't catch my attention like they used to.

Juba, the regional capitol of southern Sudan, is growing and changing rapidly. It is a boomtown. Housing and goods are expensive and sometimes difficult to come by. Construction and the opening of new businesses is so fast that in a matter of weeks a road can change so much you can't find where you usually turn (the lack of named roads or road signs don't help). Thatch and mud structures, which were the majority of buildings throughout town two years ago, have been replaced with larger concrete structures.

Since I arrived here two years ago, I've spent about 500 hours driving on the dirt roads of southern Sudan. The condition of the roads means it can sometimes take hours to travel just a few miles. Furthermore, several de-mining teams work on different roadsides (the roads themselves have already been cleared).

De-mining roadblocks become social gatherings, because traffic is stopped 45 minutes out of every hour. People from the nearest village bring beverages to sell and roast corn on the cob. All the cars and buses line up and people pile out to sit in the shade and chat. But when the guard goes to lower the barrier, all the camaraderie vanishes and it's a mad dash back to the cars. It reminds me of the chuck wagon races at the Calgary Stampede. Everyone piles in, and they are off. No one wants to be stuck eating anyone else's dust. But after about a quarter mile, the order is set. I never make the front, but fit in somewhere behind the Landcruiser hardtops (Africa's favorite off-road vehicle), with the smaller pickups and SUVs, but in front of the small cars, taxi vans, and buses (unless the bus is headed for Kampala. I never manage to pass Kampala buses; no one does.)

The faith that people have in southern Sudan, and the openness with which they talk about their faith, have become normal to me. It is conventional wisdom here that faith does and ought to change you, and that God is present and active in our daily lives. In a post-war society, division, hatred, and anger run deep. It is only natural that tribe is pitted against tribe. Yet, I have met so many faith-filled men and women who not only preach but really try to live into reconciliation and the breaking of tribalism, men and women who experience God strengthening them and encouraging them from day to day.

Just like anywhere, people here make good choices and bad choices in their daily lives. Just like anywhere, they are concerned for their family and trying to make a living. But what is most inspiring is that so many people here get on with life, with living and laughing and loving and hoping, even when the stakes are so high, and the odds are stacked against them: the worst maternal mortality rate in the world, some of the worst disease incidence and child mortality rates, widespread poverty and insecurity, and looming political uncertainty.

In the presence of my Sudanese colleagues and friends, and my colleagues and friends from around the world here in Juba, I am constantly learning and, I hope, growing. One thing I am definitely learning is that joy is a choice. Choose to dwell in God's arms, and all the joy and hope and love and strength you need can be yours.

-- Robin Denney is an Episcopal Church missionary living in Juba. She is the agriculture consultant for the Episcopal Church of Sudan and teaches at Bishop Gwynne Theological College in Juba. Her blog is http://robin-mission.blogspot.com.