Thursday, July 12, 2012


Above: black-crowned cranes on newly greened savannah near the River Lal, Warrap.

The rain is here. Every day now in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, grey-white clouds parade across the horizon, driven by gusty drafts. Thunder rumbles and people look up expectantly from their black clay fields, where for the past month they have spent the majority of their time kneeling, chipping at the earth with short-handled maloudas to prepare for the land for planting.

This sub-Saharan country is mostly brittle, brown and dust-plagued for much of the year, but for about five months beginning in May, a carpet of rich green rolls out unstoppably, and a part of the world better known for famine is transformed into a land of plenty. In another month, tall maize and sorghum stalks will reach the pointy thatched roofs of farmers’ tukuls, the cylindrical mud-and-wood houses traditionally built by South Sudanese. Peanuts, sweet potatoes, melons and squash will extrude from the dirt; papayas, guavas and bananas will erupt.

On Monday this week, July the 9th, South Sudan celebrated its first anniversary of independence. This proud but poor nation of nine million people has endured a rocky infancy. A bloody border dispute with its northern neighbor, Sudan, brought the two countries to the brink of a third war a few months ago and prompted South Sudan to close its oil fields, killing the economic engine of both nations. The South Sudanese Pound has weakened dramatically against the dollar, prices for everything from sugar to rice and fuel have skyrocketed. But farming and livestock -- cows in particular -- matter more than oil to most citizens in this pastoralist society, still unspoiled by industrial agriculture. Cattle keep their horns here, and eat only grass. The Nile and its tributaries keep pastures fertile even during the dry season, and are a source of fish throughout the year. (I'm served wild Nile tilapia heads once a week for dinner or lunch. I've learned to tear the bones and breaded scales apart and eat the fish with my fingers, like a good East African.)

Despite everything on the wires about South Sudan's economic collapse, failed nationhood and impending humanitarian catastrophe on the northern border, here in Juba, there is an undercurrent of optimism. Construction has not slowed; if anything, buildings, including expensive hotels, are going up faster than ever. A Grammy winning producer who has worked with Wilco, Green Day and Fugazi is coming here next week to scout for unique South Sudanese voices. The Chinese are everywhere, opening businesses.

At my window in the morning, I listen to the children who walk briskly down my street in neat pastel uniforms and white knee socks, on their way to school. They sing and speak in Dinka or Arabic, neither of which I understand. I hear laughter. They move quickly, looking forward to the coming day.

Above: incredible sprawling tree near the River Lal, Warrap. I saw monkeys (colobus?) near here, too.