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.