Sailing down the mysterious White Nile

Monday February 11 2008

By RUPI MANGAT

IT’S MANGO SEASON IN JUBA. ACtually, it’s mango season all year round here, for the climate suits the king of fruits well. It’s hot, but there’s a cool breeze along the Nile.

The river is mapped by the luxurious green of the gigantic mango trees, their branches drooping under the weight of the fruit. The ripe ones rain on the ground — easy picking for children who gorge themselves on the sweet juices of the pulp.

I’m honoured to step into the Liberty again. Not the Liberty of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, but the Liberty of the Nile — as I call it.

“The Liberty is the first cruise boat on the Nile (in Juba),” coxswain Johnson Semasaze announces proudly. He’s Ugandan, one of the many East Africans working in Juba as skilled labourers — salaries are good.

“It was launched on March 12, 2007.”

With that he starts the engine and we go a-cruise on the Nile. A steel bridge carries cars over the river bound for the border town of Nimule on the Uganda-Southern Sudan border.

We are on the White Nile, once the greatest mystery of the world. Even the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt who built the magnificent pyramids 4,500 years ago, had no clue where this mighty river that kept Egypt alive, sprang from. It wasn’t until 1858, after many attempts by European explorers, that the mystery of the Nile was solved by John Speke.

“That’s the Titanic Juba,” points out Johnson jokingly. It’s a barge that hit the rocks many decades ago, judging from its sun bleached appearance. Not far from it lies the new Sudanese port, where three barges are bringing in bales of flour and other items from Khartoum.

“It takes 21 days to sail from Juba to Khartoum but one month to sail from Khartoum to Juba,” continues Johnson. “That’s because of the current.”

As we sail further downstream, leaving Juba behind, tiny islets dot the mighty river.

“There used to be three crocodiles on that islet till last year,” Johnson points.

Every now and then we sail past homesteads. Children wave in excitement, the adults watch. We have to sail pretty close to the banks, as the river is shallow in the middle but deep by the banks.

We round an island. A group of children run to the edge shouting and waving to us, playful like regular children. But they are not.

“This is the main island, 18 kilometres long. It’s called Gondolo Island,” says Johnson. “We will land and you can meet the children.” Until then he hasn’t said anything about “the children.”

“There was only one old man who lived on the island but now he only keeps an eye on the children,” he adds.

WE STEP ASHORE. THE OLD man, a trio of cheeky monkeys brought here by the boat owners and the children become curious on our arrival. Mzee Philip Ladu knows Johnson. The children stay close together, eyes wide open. The monkeys play, gorging themselves on the mangoes. The children scream “Kako! Kako!” trying to draw the monkeys’ attention. Kako is monkey in Arabic.

The story of the children unfolds. “These are Bare children. They have been here for a year. You see, there are two tribes who live along the riverbanks — the Mondare and the Bare. They are cattle people but the Bare do a bit of farming.

“But there’s another tribe in the interior — the Murle. They are mostly barren so they steal children.”

I’m shocked. In this day and age?

“The Dinka, who are also cattle people, steal the children and barter them with the Murle for cattle,” I’m told.

I recall someone in Juba telling me that the most prized possession of a Dinka are his cows. They don’t even like using them for working the fields and can trace up to 12 generations of a cow!

I strike up a conversation with the children. Gabo Dick, my guide, translates.

“I want to return home,” says Stella Lajon, shy with downcast eyes. She looks in her early teens.

“I’m afraid of the water,” says Emmanual Loku. He is about six years old.

“The Dinka kidnap the children so they can get the cattle for dowry. The Mondare and the Bare have people who have their eyes and ears open all the time to raise the alarm when trouble is near,” says Gabo.

“The Murle are fighters. They are very tough; they are the ones who get jobs as soldiers. They come to steal the children during the dry season because then their footprints can’t be seen.”

There’s concern about the children but this isn’t the only group of children being hidden from kidnappers. Child soldiers are used as free fighters in many parts of Africa. They come cheap as there’s little or no money used for their upkeep. A minister was scheduled to meet the children a few days after my visit to address their plight.

Southern Sudan has been at war for most of the time since Sudan attained independence in 1955. It is vast — the size of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania put together — with little infrastructure and still an element of insecurity beyond the towns. Most of it is still remote and hard to access. There are very few schools.

THE REGIME IN THE NORTH never developed the South but exploited it for its minerals and oil. That’s why the Sudanese People Liberation Army fought for freedom,” comments a senior government official.

“Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and the South in Nairobi, things are looking better. We are struggling to put structures in place before we can talk of progress or development.

“Southern Sudan was a closed territory. It has a history of exploitation and slavery by the North. That’s why we have remained underdeveloped. Our children have grown up during the war. They have never enjoyed peace. They have never enjoyed their country. We have really been second-class citizens in our own country. Our literacy rate is only 20 per cent.

“The South is potentially rich. We have fertile land and water but the government never developed the agricultural sector either. We don’t even have banks for farmers to take loans.

“The Arabs in the North used religion for political power. Since 1958, we’ve had military rule in the south, dictatorship, coups and countercoups. Then, in 1983, the Sharia law was introduced. We were called an Arab state. But we are not Arabs. We are black people. We have been fighting for basic human rights.”

Later, I spot a huge banner hung on the wall of a church in town. It’s about peace and reconciliation. Curious, I enter the church and listen to snippets of conversation.

“People in the Nabanga area are preparing for war against the Lord’s Resistance Army,” says a church elder from the area. “The LRA is still abducting people from Nabanga as recruit for its army.”

There’s concern that the CPA is not being implemented at the speed that it should be or with full backing, which slows the rate of progress. Even though there’s oil and other minerals bringing in investors, it’s a challenge.

There’s concern that oil dollars may not trickle down to the society and equal opportunities may be few for the indigenous population. But for now, Juba is enjoying a burst of investor interest in oil and minerals.