One of the many things which I have had to become an expert on here in Sudan is the handling of flights for our personnel into, out of and around Sudan. Just as people who a century ago would have known the schedule of the railroads in their local town, think of the references to the coming and goings of trains in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, I have had to become expert on the schedules of planes arriving and departing Juba. If I hear of a visitor arriving, say, on Uganda Airways, I automatically think, “ok, arrive around 11am.”
One of the most important means of travel within Sudan are the flights operated by the World Food Program of the UN, or WFP. WFP operates flights all over Sudan, connecting many places which no commercial airline would ever consider serving and yet which often house sizable numbers of aid workers. WFP allows personnel with NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) to fly upon their planes allowing easy access to most parts of the country. For anyone who questions the value of the UN, please know that the UN does actually provide some very valuable services, believe it or not.
The WFP offices in Juba are located on what used to be a miserable road out near the airport. It’s actually much better than when their offices were located down near the Nile River. Oh! how I hated driving on that horrible road with its monumentally deep ruts and muddy lanes. The road to the new location was just awful, which means typical.
When you first turned onto the road where the new offices are there was a small lake you had to cross. This mud-bog began life as a simple depression which simply grew and grew during the rainy season until it spanned the road and was about 20-feet long. But, because I drove to the offices so often, sometimes several times in one day, I knew that there was actually a land bridge cutting across the lake at a 45-degree angle which if you were lucky enough to know about would allow you to cross without getting too far bogged down into the mud. This was actually a good thing to know since I discovered an earlier time when the front wheels of the Toyota pick-up truck I drive got stuck down in a ditch that the four-wheel drive function on my car doesn’t work.
Beyond that the WFP road, which like nearly all roads here is dirt, was just a maze of deep potholes and uncomfortable bumps. But after not having had to drive there for about a week, I had yesterday to drop-off a paper at the WFP offices and I was stunned when I turned the corner to find that the authorities, and I’m not really sure exactly who is doing road-work, had resurfaced the road with a fresh layer of stony-dirt and graded the whole thing nice and smooth. It was so wonderful to drive upon, I was giggling like a kid in a candy shop! It’s so great when something good like that happens, especially related to driving in Juba.
Driving in Juba takes special care and diligence. I do have a Sudanese driver’s license, the getting of which is a story of its own. About five or six years ago they say you could almost literally count the number of cars in Juba on your hand. Now the narrow streets are choked with cars, nearly all of which are driven by people convinced they need to go first. Add to the mix of regular cars and lorries (“trucks” for those of you not forced to live amongst British English speakers) are large numbers of motorcycles (nicknamed boda-bodas) and various assorted other wheeled vehicles which you may find crowding the streets.
Driving around town is a death-defying experience, literally. I read in one of the local newspapers that, on average, three people a day die in auto-accidents in Juba. I think that number must be low. Driving is a constant mix of trying to avoid the vehicle in front of you being driven in an unpredictable manner while at the same time not being rear-ended by either the car or boda-boda following about three inches off your rear bumper.
The other thing you need to watch for are cars deciding that the vehicle in front of them is simply not going fast enough (never mind if you are driving on a street crowded with school-children or other pedestrians) and taking the opportunity to pass anytime, anywhere. Most of the roads around town are only two lanes but this business of passing can turn two-lane roads into three and four lane roads. The same is true whenever traffic must slow down or come to a halt for some reason. Rather than remain in a single line, which would have the advantage of allowing all of the traffic to flow past the obstruction quickly, in Sudan all driver’s first instincts are to break ranks and try and cram their way towards the front of the line thereby creating a huge bottleneck. The situation can be likened to trying to pass fluid through a funnel: pour in just enough and the fluid flows freely, try and pour in too much and the funnel quickly backs-up and gets full. Sigh. On the other hand, I have also succumbed to the freedom of random passing so often that I am no one to write critically about it.
Of course, all the while you are trying to make your way through traffic the boda-bodas, who make their living carrying people and goods upon their backseats, are snaking through traffic often at a high rate of speed and with a complete seeming disregard to human life. Anyone who has driven here can recount horror stories of trying to make turns (with turn-signals engaged!) while bodas are approaching from the same side either oblivious or unconcerned with your maneuvers. I have myself ridden a few times on the backs of bodas. It’s one of those things I only do when the shock and horror of my last ride upon a boda wears-off. I actually considered purchasing a boda not long after I first arrived, until I was advised that there is an entire wing in the Juba Hospital full of boda accident victims.
Driving in Juba at night takes scariness to an entirely new level. Never mind the fact that there is little in the way of street lighting (though there are actually now a lot of solar-powered streetlights on some main roads which is a big help) or that there is a fine layer of dust which extends above the ground about thirty-feet making the act of driving like being in a rust colored fog, or the fact that about one third of the vehicles on the roads in the evening will not (or can not, because they don’t work) use their lights, for me the scariest part of driving at night are the people who simply pop-out from behind obstructions to walk across the road directly in-front of on-coming traffic. Not to be rude, but very dark black people who in-turn are dressed in dark clothing and who pop-out from behind parked cars or other such things about five feet in-front of you scare the heck out of me. I have almost hit so many pedestrians to the point that now I rarely drive after dark unless it cannot be avoided.
Driving in Juba is so scary that a visiting friend that was left gasping for breath after we nearly struck yet another darkly dressed pedestrian who had stepped out from behind a parked car directly in front of our vehicle suggested we develop a video-game called “Juba Town” where the object was to drive around a simulated version of Juba at night without hitting or killing anyone. We think we’ll make a bunch of money off that idea.