Nairobi, via Juba
Descending through the clouds, an expanse of green filled the window as I peered out down to the capital of South Sudan. Four hours ago I had no idea that my flight would be transiting through here, and now I wished there was a way to spend some time in the city I had spent so much time reading about during the past four months.
The contrast between the aerial view of Khartoum was striking. The Northern capital is a mass of concrete surrounded by desert. My first glimpse of Juba was a collection of tokuls engulfed in verdure. Landing, a UN helicopter sits on the runway as we taxi in. This is the land of UN agencies and NGOs.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 ended Africa’s longest running civil war here in Sudan, and as part of that agreement, a timetable was scheduled for a referendum on the secession of the South. As part of the CPA, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the National Congress Party (NCP), the ruling parties of the South and North, respectively, were obliged to make unity “attractive” to voters. The rhetoric in Khartoum had been that they were trying this, although many people felt it was too little too late. But still, the talk was talked. Stepping off the aircraft, the first thing that alighting passengers see is a huge billboard compelling people to vote for independence in the upcoming referendum, bearing the face of Salva Kiir, the President of South Sudan and First Vice-President of the Republic of the Sudan and the logo of the SPLM. The referendum will be taking place in just over five months time, if all goes well. I want to be back here for then.
In the Juba terminal, the vibe is a very different one to that of Khartoum. The humidity is stifling, and the whole affair a lot more “rustic”. There are a few white faces in the crowd, each one screams “aid worker”.
I feared that I might face more problems with my now expired exit visa and the debacle that ensued my arrival at Khartoum airport. My fears were unfounded, and I was stamped and ushered back on to the aircraft, along with the sole other transiting passenger from Khartoum.
I expected the plane to fill with Southern Sudanese making the journey to Kenya, but as we climbed the steps from the runway, the door was closed and we taxied back to the runway. This Kenyan business man and myself had the whole of the Russian plane to ourselves.
This is the first time in my ten months of traveling that I will be crossing borders unconscious of the moment when one country changes to the next; the land between two cities an unknown.
“Welcome to Nairobi International airport, the outside temperature is 18°c” announces the pilot. “Bliss”, I think, after four months in temperatures that hovered above 40°c. I can breathe again.
Walking past the duty free shops, alcohol is once again freely available. After four months in Sudan, where the substance is illegal, it seems odd to see bottles of vodka, whisky, gin, stacked on shelves. A line of Japanese tourists stand before me in the queue for a visa, one is wearing hot-pants. This is going to be quite the culture shock after the last ten months spent in the Muslim world. Now, I just hope that they let me in. My passport expires in three months.