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The Median Strip Challenge

It’s time for a humour post – or one trying too hard to be funny. Once upon a time, South Sudan was born as the newest country in 2011. Nearly 5 decades of conflict had left it with very little infrastructure. There were three paved roads in the whole country and none of those dared to leave town. Annual floods leave most of the population confined to their locality for much of the year. The skill of driving in South Sudan is the ability to navigate potholes that could consume an entire semitrailer, or fording a 10km wide flood plain. In these respects, South Sudan drivers have skills that few have in the West.

One thing the South Sudanese never had to deal with was traffic. In just under two years since independence, the capital of Juba has grown and there is now a new phenomenon – multiple vehicles on the same road (most are government owned V8 Pajeros with frilly tissue boxes proudly displayed on the dash). How to operate a vehicle in such circumstances is quite a challenge. There are still no traffic signals in Juba, probably one of the only countries in the world without a single set of traffic lights. For a little while, there were a couple of stops signs. They were quickly scalped for scrap metal.

But it is not intersections that are causing the most challenge for Juba drivers. It is the one road in the whole country with a median strip. The Japanese, in their desire to assist the government of South Sudan to build Juba from a dusty regional town into the capital city of a country, built a paved road through the centre of town. Using sincere thought, they called it ‘Airport Road.’ They did so because the road goes from the airport to nowhere in particular. It ends at a dusty intersection a couple of miles from a market. As an artistic flourish, the Japanese included a 1 foot wide median strip. Perhaps the idea was that it would have a nicely trimmed hedge to green an otherwise treeless and dusty road lined with ramshackled buildings. Instead, it is a foot wide strip of mud with rusted barbed wire.

Why is this road such a challenge? Well, they didn’t build many breaks in the median strip- perhaps they didn’t want to break up that hedge. And so drivers are faced with the challenge that when they drive on this road, they can’t immediately reach their desired side road or building on the left. There is a foot of mud, concrete and barbed wire in the way. In countries used to median strips, the standard response would be to go past your desired destination until you get to the next break in the median strip. You would then do a ‘u turn’ and go back on the otherside of the road until you reach your desired destination.

That, however, is not how drivers in Juba tackle this situation. They typically take one of two options. The first involves driving over the median strip. This has two benefits. It is the most direct route and, as you drive through the barbed wire, you move it from the median strip and on to the road. As a result, other unsuspecting drivers either have to swerve to avoid the pile of barbed wire on the road or drive over it to see if they can puncture, not one, not two, but three tires.

The second option is also more direct than the ‘u turn’ option. It is also more thrilling. It involves driving at high speed. In this option, you take the break in the median strip before your desired location on the left, or if you are not sure exactly sure where you want to go, perhaps take a break two or three before your desired destination. You then gun your V8 pajero at high speed down the wrong side of the road. Now don’t commit to one of the two lanes. Instead, drive straight down the middle. As you face oncoming traffic, don’t take evasive action to avoid a high speed head-on collision until the last minute. Don’t signal your intention to veer left or right. If the driver of the oncoming car looks startled that you are driving at high speed down the wrong side of the road, glance at the median strip and then look back with a ‘what else could I do’ smile. And if you do collide head-on, then the only sensible thing to do is to let the mob decide who is in the wrong. Regardless, the mob will agree that everyone knows that this median strip is ridiculous.

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Posted at 9:53 PM 01 May 2013
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Posted at 9:51 PM 29 April 2013

Ignorance is bliss

On Friday night I came across an ‘unofficial’ police check point in Juba. They were stopped on a dark track on the edge of town -I was dropping some friends off at a UN agency which happens to be at the end of this dark track on the edge of nowhere. They were positioned not be seen in advance and it was not until we drew up next to their car that I became aware of who they were. We were told to stop. They were aggressive and drunk.

One man kept saying ‘check’ ‘check’ ‘check.’ And here is where ignorance is bliss. I kept saying you are welcome to check the car. The doors are unlocked. Do you want us to get out??? To which he kept saying ‘check’ ‘check’ ‘check’. Before this turned really nasty the seemingly senior member of the platoon waved us on - and not before a drunk soldier had tried to get in the car.

Apparently check means money. So they wanted a bribe. When they found out I was too stupid to get it they gave up and let us go. Winner.

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Posted at 6:31 PM 28 April 2013

Banging the drum for rule of law

The grotesque tragedy of the building collapse in Savar Bangladesh, in which as many as 500 people have died and many thousand were injured, reinforces my view that the rule of law is the only way to protect people from greed and indignity. The rule of law is too often missing in developing countries where ruling elites have captured the organs of state and subverted them in their own interests (and foreign interest encourage and benefit from such subversion).

The key gap in Bangladesh is the accountability of both the ruling elites and those who serve their direct interests. The rule of law means that all people are accountable to the law regardless of their political affiliations, status and wealth. And that is what is missing. By all evidence, the man who owned and built the building was a local ‘organiser’ (read thug) for the ruling party. He stole the land from powerless minorities and built the structure without permits and authorisation. His political affiliations meant that the normal standards and checks did not apply. His lack of accountability arguably contributed to the lack of quality control - why spend more to build it properly when no one is going to check.

Bangladesh has building control standards (including engineering certification processes), planning requirements, land laws, and a court system. What is missing is a political commitment to enforce those standards universally, to have the courage and fortitude to protect no one from their misdeeds. Unless the ruling elite are held to account and the formal symbols of law are taken and applied universally nothing will change.

It is the poor garment workers and their families that suffer in tragedies such as this. More unbecoming is the public charity offered by the elite to those who have suffered in patronising shows of sympathy (here I am talking about the true elite -and not middle class Bangladeshis who have gone to enormous lengths to help the victims including attending to rescue efforts and providing lifesaving equipment.). These poor blighted people caught up in tragedy how may I save thee. They wouldn’t need charity and sympathy if they were provided the protection of the law which they are entitled to as citizens.

While we are on this topic, I would also like to comment on the some of the issues that arise out of the practices of Western companies that buy garments from Bangladesh. In this case, the largest tenants in the building were local garment factories. Those garment workers who lost their lives were working for about $40 a month (12 hours a day, 6 days a week). This has again brought into question the ethics of the practice of multinational companies in outsourcing production to countries such as Bangladesh.

For all the codes of practice and standards, garment workers still continue to be subject to unethical practices and practices that not only risk their lives but ultimately, in this case, led to the loss of life. What seems to be missing from all these discussions is the accountability of the garment factory owners. Western companies must answer to the law and their consumers for the consequences of the choices they make in seeking to drive down the costs of producing clothes. Those same companies know all too well that their suppliers cut corners and breach standards and codes. They should be held to account for that.

However, those suppliers, the owners of the garment factories also need to be held to account. They are not making $40 a month in slave to the big fashion houses. Those suppliers are typically making millions of dollar off the back of those garment workers. They cut corners to maximise profit, buy political influence and access, to avoid taxes and the laws of the country. They also need to be held to account, required to follow the rule of law and respect the rights and entitlements of their workers .

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Posted at 6:02 PM 28 April 2013

President of Sudan visits South Sudan for the first time post independence

So President Bashir of Sudan is visiting South Sudan today. This is the President the South fought against for independence and continue to fight with over oil, territory and the border. The same SPLA (army) that fought against him is now imposing a lock down in Juba to protect him. The Sudanese Flag is flown side by side with the South Sudanese flag for the first time since independence. Men with cheap sunnies and very large guns line the streets.

Am I alone in being so cynical about this visit? Will it have any practical benefit? Do the two leaders really want peace or does conflict serve their own political interests and ability to manage their support bases?

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Posted at 10:59 AM 12 April 2013

Jebel Mountain Climb, Juba, South Sudan

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Posted at 11:30 AM 12 February 2013

Mountain Climbing and Breaking Rocks in Juba.

Yesterday, with a group of friends, we set off to climb Juba’s diminutive mountain – Jebel. For Australians, think Hanging Rock rather than Mt Kosciusko. Most people climb Jebel at 7am before the sun sets about scorching the earth and anything that dares raise its head out from under the air conditioner. We were not most people. We had decided to embark on the climb at 3 in the afternoon. It was blistering hot. More than 40 degrees C. It was so hot even the wind had gone inside for a good lie down.

The hike itself was, apart from the heat, quite unremarkable. It is a nice hour scramble over rocks to the top. At the top you get a nice bird’s eye view of Juba and its surrounds. It is as flat as a pancake and dusty. There was a beautiful orange tan haze in the sky that matched the orange tan landscape below.

What is remarkable, is that Jebel is a live quarry. Hundreds of workers are slowly but surely chipping away at Jebel pick by pick and making a pound selling it as gravel and rocks. It is excruciatingly hard labour. The rock is not soft. It doesn’t break in response to the pick, it requires repeated effort for the rock to break apart.  The scene was positively medieval. Hundreds of poor worker swarming over the quarry, chipping away at rocks in the full sun hour after hour. The base of the quarry was shrouded in the stench of death. 100s of bull horns lay scattered across the ground as evidence of a recent bovine slaughter. Hawks and vultures circled above, ominously. As if they were waiting for one of these poor workers to die from heat and exhaustion. 

Work is scarce in Juba. For many people with little option, this work would be the difference between eating and starving. It was a positively humbling scene of brutally hard manual labour.

Most people ignored us and continued working. Those who did notice us waved and smiled. We met one man further up the mountain. His job was to roll large extremely heavy boulders from their natural resting place high up the ‘mountain’ to the bottom for breaking up (and our job was to not get squashed by one during the climb!). As we passed him, he reminded members of our group to drink water. He himself had none. He was nevertheless genuinely concerned for these kwajas’ welfare.

It is easy to find living in Juba hard. I have had more than my fair share of whinges living here. But I don’t break rocks for a living in 45 degree heat. Thankfully. The sheer hardship of the lives of those working in, and living by, the quarry reminds me of the starkness of the divide between the haves and the have nots in this world. Something has to give.

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Posted at 11:52 AM 11 February 2013

(Source: paris87, via southsudanstories)

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Posted at 9:30 AM 30 January 2013

Australia Day in South Sudan

In my last post I suggested that Australia Day was a problematic day because it celebrates colonialism. Even though I like to criticise, I also don’t like to miss out on the fun (and yes that does make me a hypocrite).  So on Saturday we went to an Australia Day function in Juba, South Sudan. The event was hosted by the Australian Ambassador to South Sudan – who normally lives in Nairobi (the weather is nicer there apparently).

The embassy’s visit to South Sudan on the Australia Day long weekend was caused by the Parliamentary Secretary (Junior Minister) for Aid and Development. The Junior Minister had been visiting the African Summit and had indicated an interest in visiting some of Australia’s aid programs before heading home. In an attempt to avoid hosting the Junior Minister, and thus enjoy their long weekend at home in Nairobi, the embassy designed the most challenging program possible. They suggested a visit to South Sudan including a visit to a refugee camp outside of Juba. The plan was that it would all look too hard and the Junior Minister would head straight from his 5* hotel in Addis onto the plane home. The plan backfired. The Minister liked the idea of being the first Australian parliamentarian to travel outside of the capital of South Sudan. And so the embassy hastily put the visit together.

The Australia Day function we attended was the concluding event of the Junior Minister’s tour of South Sudan. We arrived just in time for the obligatory speeches. The Ambassador spoke, followed by the Junior Minister. Both were polite and brief speeches –everyone knows the Aussies are there for the beer not the formalities. The Junior Minister may have been overdoing the ‘I am a man of the people’ shtick when he finished his speech by noting his need for a beer. The Junior Minister did have the honesty to admit the real reason for his visit. This was part of his thank you tour of Africa. African nations had generally supported Australia’s successful bid for a seat on the UN Security Council back in October. It was nice for the Junior Minister to come and say thank you to the African Governments in person. It should have been called the ‘Throw another 1000 scholarships to study in Australia on the barby’ tour.

Pleasantries aside, it was an interesting crowd – the largest group were army types working as UN peacekeepers. And, if there is a group of Australians that more fits their stereotype than these blokes (and two women), then I would like to find them. These were knockabout blokes, a few larrikins, but all salt of the earth types (enter cliché of choice),  knocking back bottles of Nile Gold (XXXX Gold was unavailable) and enjoying mini burgers and chicken drummies.

The next biggest group at the event were South Sudanese Australians. The Australian community includes 30,000 individuals with South Sudanese heritage –most arrived in the late 90s early 2000s as refugees or as part of Australia’s humanitarian programs. As a result of the thriving South Sudanese community in Australia, the links between Australia and the South Sudan Government are pretty tight. The President’s daughter has Australian citizenship, most of the Vice President’s family are Australians and these connections extend right through the Cabinet and senior positions in the bureaucracy. The Australian government is ‘proud of these multicultural links’ – so too are Australian mining companies desperate to find a competitive advantage in this land of potential opportunity (once the conflict has been ‘sorted out’).

For so many of the South Sudanese Australians at this event it was a proud day – a day to celebrate being hosted by the Australian Government as Australian citizens.  Chatting to these guys and gals it was hard not to be impressed by their stories. For many, getting to Australia and being recognised as Australians was the culmination of years of hardship, years spent running from conflict, years in refugee camps. Hardships that most Australians lucky enough to be born in Australia will fortunately never know. The end result for them was freedom and opportunity. For all the stories in the Australian press about how the South Sudanese have ‘struggled to integrate’ into Australia, on this night I met dozens of young successful South Sudanese Australians. The first ever NSW policeman from a South Sudanese background was there. He is now a detective.  I met a man who had become a qualified tradesman working in Australia’s biggest mines in WA – rich beyond his dreams – and keen to use his skills to give back to South Sudan. I met young Australians who had been born in refugee camps and who were now studying hospitality at TAFE or studying to be accountants and lawyers at university. These success stories don’t interest the tabloid press but need to be told to give a more realistic picture of multicultural communities in Australia.

I hate jingoism and patriotism, but on this night it enjoyed their unbridled enthusiasm for Australia. The way in which the older army blokes freely mixed with this younger generation of Australians made it hard not to be proud of the success stories of Australia’s multiculturalism.  

It was a great night, I really enjoyed having a beer and a chat with Duc and Dut – but it was definitely time to go home when the Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi! oi! oi! chants came out.

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Posted at 2:12 PM 28 January 2013

An UnAustralian Day to celebrate Australia Day.

Last Saturday was Australia Day, Australia’s national holiday. When it comes to choosing a day to celebrate our nation it is a rather problematic choice. In this ‘post-colonial’ 21C it is pretty funny that our national day celebrates the very act of colonisation. It literally marks the day when white people took over the land on which Sydney now sits without regard to the people who had called that land home for thousands of years. It is even less funny that 225 years since colonialism began on the Australian continent, Indigenous Australians have life expectancy and mortality indicators much closer to those in the Central African Republic than non-Indigenous Australians.

That Australia Day is 26 January has probably more to do with the great Australian trait of avoiding difficult discussions rather than a deliberate attempt to rub salt into the wounds of Indigenous Australians. It also reflects a grave overwhelming fear of many Australians – that any debate about this day would lead to a loss of a public holiday. While some countries have an overabundance of public holidays Australians generally only enjoy 11 days. These holidays are jealously guarded and any debate that may threaten them gets Australians very nervous. People may even ring radio stations and say things like ‘yeah na, you know, like, I just think it is unAustralian.’ This word ‘unAustralian’ is reserved for grave acts of treachery against the Australian people such as suggesting Tendulkar has had a greater influence on cricket than Shane Warne or reducing the alcoholic percentage in VB.

An essential problem is that, in the rush to establish Australia as a nation, some colonial buffoons with ridiculous moustaches decided that Australia would go forth into the world as a fully-fledged nation (ignore that we kept the English Monarch, English National Anthem, English Governor-Generals and English Nationality) on 1 January 1901. As 1 January is New Year’s Day, it was already a public holiday. And so we stuck with 26 January. When it comes to reconciliation without Indigenous country men and women any discussion that could lead to a loss of a public holiday is off the table. Period. ‘Like, yeah, um, I know it’s not all PC and stuff but like it’s just always been that day.’ Well like to be all PC and stuff, I think we need to think of a better day to celebrate our nation.

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Posted at 12:38 PM 28 January 2013