Flying into Juba last week was surreal. I haven't been back here since 2005 and it is the most remarkable five-year transformation I have ever witnessed. As our plane circled in towards the runway, the bird's eye view showed Juba no longer to be a dusty little town, but instead a thriving almost-city. There is a sizeable network of roads, and the sunlight was reflecting off tin roofs on the mass of buildings below.
I decided to wait a few days before posting on this though, to see whether the same sense of euphoria would be retained once I hit the ground. And for the first afternoon it was. I delighted in seeing shiny new billboards advertising "MTN – friends on Facebook!"; "Voice SMS – if you can't text your message speak it" or advertisements for the New Sudan Insurance Company – sights unimaginable five years ago. KCB, one of Kenya's leading banks, has opened up offices here. At the mobile service provider MTN, I was able to buy a USB modem for (painfully) slow but functional net connectivity. There are a handful of four-storey buildings; and I have been told there is even a supermarket where, for a premium, one can buy Camembert imported from Kenya. The contrasting snapshot between now and five years ago remained overwhelming.
But by day two, the reality check set in. Yes, the transformation is amazing. The question is, amazing for who? Internationals like me? Government officials? Business entrepreneurs from neighboring countries? Ordinary Sudanese? For the first three groups certainly, but for the latter the jury is still out. The paved roads and power lines are in the center of town, along with hotels and restaurants catering to the tastes of the international NGO set who work here. But take a twenty minute drive along the unpaved roads to where some of the Sudanese community-based organizations are and you see a different side of Juba – one that is off the grid and much more akin to the snapshot I have in my head from five years ago.
Yes, I know the obvious response. Internationals create jobs, salaries and training for locals, and the influx of dollars creates markets that a growing class of Sudanese entrepreneurs may capitalize on, which in turn create more jobs and eventually raise local living standards etc., etc. I get that. But that doesn't make it comfortable to sit here blogging with my newly acquired $100 USB modem, while the students I met today at Juba University are studying from textbooks written in the 1970s.