We are jouncing toward the White Nile river in a Land Cruiser, entering a part of the city that is new to me. I have not yet seen the river, arguably the most famous in the world, up there with the Amazon, the Euphrates. What else is in its league - the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Danube? Anyway I'm excited. Most famous or not, it is definitely the world's longest, at 4,130 miles, and it flows northward right through Juba up to Khartoum, then through Egypt and out to the Mediterranean. I've been told there are some nice resorts on the river banks, so I'm surprised when we turn down a dusty dirt road into a run-down area. Goats galore. Soon I can see the tops of huge dark-green trees clustering together, and I know we are getting close to the river. First we drive through the poorest-looking place I have seen in my first few weeks here.
Here, homes are built from sticks, scraps of plastic bags, cardboard, newspapers and bed sheets. I see some shredded UN-issued blue tarps used as roofs. Most of the places are crooked stick-built lean-tos. There are small cookfires, discarded tires and car parts, trash piles, thousands of flattened water bottles and other debris, the ubiquitous yellow jerrycans for collecting water. Naked dirt-covered children. A lady has spread some things out for sale - I can't quite see what but it looks like a half-dozen cans of something. We drive past a tiny boy wandering naked with tears streaking his dusty face. He could be hungry, lost - or it could be that the two older children nearby won't let him play with them. I see my first herd of cattle, driven by a man holding a stick toward the river. Almost all of the cattle have magnificent long curving horns. There is no factory farming around here, so the horns are left alone. Cattle are a food source but are chiefly important as currency and are highly prized.
Our destination is the Oasis Resort. We get through the shanty town and are there. Past security and some thatch-roofed bars, down to a patio with umbrellaed dining tables, and there is the legendary river. Gray-brown water flows strongly past us occasionally carrying broken tree branches. It is a long way to the lush banks on the other side, the east side of the river - a couple of football fields wide at least. We are beneath a canopy of the tallest mango trees I have ever seen. The river bank on this side is lined with huge mango trees and we can smell the tangy rot of fallen fruit in the knotted roots around us. These mangoes are small, no bigger than tennis balls. I can see bunches of them dangling from long stems 200 feet above us.
I watch closely for crocs but my companions say this part of the river is too busy for them. The water is also too murky to see fish, though they are there. I ate fried Nile perch recently at a good South Sudanese restaurant called Mama Zara in the center of town. Here, I order goat masala biryani with butter naan and walk down to the end of the patio. I see the rusted hull of an enormous wrecked barge sticking up at a 45-degree angle from a small island in the river, but few other boats. Upstream, I can see a little muddy beach. Locals are bathing, doing their laundry, filling up jerrycans. Kids are playing, splashing, running around in the water. Someone is washing a motorcycle and a truck, which have been driven into the water. People have spread laundry nearby to dry on rocks and bushes.
Hundreds of miles north, in Khartoum, the White Nile is joined by its largest tributary, the Blue Nile, whose source is in Ethiopia. The White Nile gets its name from its habit of flooding and filling with silts at certain times of year, which it deposits during overflows, enriching the soil and making it productive for growing. The area near the river seems a perfect spot for a permaculture project. Plenty of good fertilizer from cattle and goats; tall mature fruit trees and smaller short-lived trees (papayas); abundant water; people with not enough to eat but some knowledge of subsistence farming. Maize and rice can grow here.
Another Westerner with an overly simplified view of things? But weirder ideas for advancement are under consideration - like redesigning South Sudan's cities into animal shapes. Juba would be rebuilt in the shape of a rhinoceros, with its major thoroughfare constituting the rhino's horn. The city of Wau would have a giraffe template, and so on. Food for thought.