South Sudan’s dreams slipping away already
With a gnarled hand, the elderly widow picks up a rock and taps it with another rock until it shatters. Then she tosses the pebbles into a small pile.
The tap-tap of stone on stone echoes like drips in a cave as women pound stones to pebbles in the blasting heat of Rock City, on the outskirts of Juba, capital of the new nation of South Sudan.
Davidka Clement made the long trek to Juba from her village a few years ago. She had heard that South Sudan, which fought for decades for independence from Sudan, would soon become an independent country with its own leaders, who would care about people like her.
The country became a reality in July, to momentous celebration, but it changed nothing for Clement or the other pebble women of Rock City. She sits in her small square of shade, beneath a shelter of sticks and plastic, pounding stones.
It takes 10 days to make a pile about two feet high, but there are many pebble sellers in Rock City and few buyers. Much of the business goes to a nearby quarry, where people buy gravel by the truckload for road building and construction.
Clement makes about $1 a day.
“There’s nothing,” she says. “What do you do? You just come and do your work. I go home, my body is in pain. I cry, but I come back.”
Freedom wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Long marginalized by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, the southern part of the country was one of the most destitute, least developed places on Earth, with just a few miles of paved road. But last year’s peaceful secession sparked a surge of hope among South Sudanese. With their own flag, their own government, their own oil, they would build a decent country.
Instead, the government has taken the well-worn path of many other rebels-turned-leaders. Corruption and nepotism are pervasive, public services are negligible, and on a recent visit to Juba there was more evidence of demolition than of reconstruction.
In January, the government suspended oil production, which accounts for 98% of its revenue, in a dispute with Sudan over transit fees for shipping crude through the north by pipeline.
The joy of independence is a distant memory. Austerity is the new refrain.
Clement reaches for another rock.
“I left everything and I came to the city because they were saying: ‘Government, government, government. They want to help the poor people who are suffering.’ That’s why I came here,” says Clement, who wears a ragged, grimy dress. “But the government doesn’t want to help.”
Juba has about 370,000 inhabitants and the exhilarating atmosphere of a place in a hurry, with hotels made of shipping containers and thrown-together humanitarian compounds on nearly every street. New roads unfurl across the landscape like runaway rolls of paper.
Hotels are full of chattering oil analysts, government advisors, workers for charitable organizations and freelance journalists, waiting expectantly, like birth attendants in a delivery room, to see whether the newborn will live or die.
The bustle cannot soften the bleakness of the place. Red dust makes every surface look rusty. Plastic water bottles lie heaped in gutters. Tick-infested dogs poke their noses into garbage piles, and women cook pancake-like breads over charcoal fires on the roadside.
On every corner, motorcycle taxis sit waiting for fares. The sickening thunk of a car colliding with a motorcycle is heard several times a day.
The promise of a better life in Juba, made possible by South Sudan’s oil money, drew not only Clement, but thousands of Kenyans and Ugandans. They work as drivers, cooks and waiters, serving beers and burgers to the army of aid workers who keep the country’s hospitals and schools running.
Even in the capital, the main hospital is scruffy and grim; in rural areas, schools and medical facilities are scarce.
With the government slow to open clinics in Juba, private ones have sprung up. On the edge of Rock City, a half-finished clinic looms above the street, with patients lined up on benches, waiting to see a doctor.
The prices in South Sudanese pounds are scrawled on the wall: Admission: £20 ($6.25) Consultation: £15 ($4.60) Blood sugar: £10 ($3.12) Ultrasound: £40 ($12.48).
Last year, Hassan Awule, head of the clinic, was full of optimism: He would build an operating theater, a pediatrics unit and a morgue. Today, his ambitions have shrunk and the second story of the clinic is just a shell.
He was realistic enough not to expect help from the government or aid agencies, but he believed that with oil, South Sudan’s economy would grow enough to employ people who could afford to use private clinics.
“Even this month, there’s a danger this business could collapse,” Awule says. He has just held a crisis meeting with his senior staff members to decide how to save it: Raise prices, lay off some of the 48 personnel or slash salaries.
“There’s not enough money coming in to pay the staff,” Awule says.
Then there’s the cost of basic services the government doesn’t provide: Water has to be trucked in, and electricity comes from noisy diesel generators.
Awule fears that conditions will deteriorate further with the suspension of oil production. Corruption is an equally serious problem, he says.
“The management has failed. They’ve taken [oil] for personal benefit. Some politicians have millions while other people have nothing. It’s wrong.”
At the Juba market nearby, people complain that the government is busy dismantling one of the few institutions that provide decent livelihoods.
The air rings with the sound of hammering, but it’s not the sound of creation. Muscled men with mallets are tearing apart shabby little shops with dirt floors and sheet-metal walls.
Dust from the demolition rises like smoke. Dried corn and beans are scattered like confetti in the skeleton of one shop. When a women rescues a wooden box, a large spider scuttles away and crawls into a crack in the wall, but it won’t escape the demolition for long.
The government says it is upgrading the place, but shopkeepers say it’s just a pretext to kick them out and put officials’ friends in a rebuilt market.
“They say this is fourth-class,” says welder Wami Martin, 47, standing in the ruins of the shop he ran for 13 years, now reduced to twisted metal and broken planks. “They did not say what class they want it to be. We don’t know if they want it to be second- or third-class, but they want it to be built out of concrete and zinc sheet.”
Like most of the other shopkeepers, Martin has only a temporary ownership document and no money to rebuild to the government standard.
“What I fear is that land has become big business. Government officials can take the land and rent it out to other people. It’s happened many times. Our worry is that we might not get back our land.”
A tall man wearing sunglasses eavesdrops conspicuously on Martin’s complaints. The conversation ends.
In Rock City, Davidka Clement sits with eight big piles of pebbles, waiting for customers.
Looking back on her life, all she remembers is work. She started as a child, carrying water and making food. None of the girls in her village went to school. They all worked.
She is surprised to learn that not every woman worked as a girl.
“Didn’t your mother show you how to do those things?” she asks incredulously, pounding on a rock.
She talks of her marriage to a man chosen by her parents, and of her 10 children, all of whom, she says, either died or left home.
She strikes the rock harder.
“I wish the government would look at me as someone who’s poor and ask me to come and do some work, so I can survive,” she says.
“We have our new country, yes. But if you stay without work, it’s no good.”
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