There is plenty of traffic on the long, straight, dusty University Road: matatus, large trucks, motorcycles, motorcycle trucks, ubiquitous white Land Cruisers with the organisation’s name emblazoned on the side and the flood proof exhaust pipe sticking up like a chimney above the roof. There are shiny 4X4’s, (far easier to obtain than a house). There are ‘ordinary’ cars which look impossibly ill suited to the rougher roads, and even plenty of Subarus just like mine. Somehow they have all managed to get fuel even though the queues I have seen stretch as far as the eye can see. We cross the road with care, negotiating the slippery deep gutters on each side with a skip and a jump. Their capacious depth is a measure of the volume of rain that falls here. Thunder sounds ten times louder. Above, large birds of prey – kites I think – wheel soar and dive in a kind of communal night prayer as they all say ‘goodnight’ to one another before settling down. The soft low-light of the setting sun illuminates the coveted magic hour for taking photographs and the scenery is an artist’s paradise.
The small shops and lean market stalls colourfully display frequently dusted and precariously stacked jars and tins with labels you don’t see in a fat UK supermarket. Marinated chickens are roasting over charcoal. Aromas tantalise. A slender lady carries a large brazier of red hot coals with alarmingly thin mitts to protect her fingers. She moves with prudent speed. And we avert our gaze as the next chicken is slaughtered at the chicken burger takeaway. Balanced on a small stool a lady throws dough into a bowl of hot fat at shin height and health and safety throw an apoplectic fit. The staff of one shop are just starting their evening meal in a huddled circle so we pass by. A sign promises the best pizza in Juba. We disagree and suggest they change their point of sale strap-line to ‘the best pizza in Africa – probably’. It was just wonderful! The enterprising and friendly staff call me “Malcolm in the Middle” as we exchange names and phone numbers.
Women balance heavy loads on their heads. Once it was a pitcher of water: now it is a crate bound in the plastic that will soon choke the streams. Men sit in the shade of a large high-rise block of dubious construction and drink tea of various flavours and watch the world go by. Some play chess or dominoes. Young men with motorbikes wait for a fare and focus on their mobile phones. A drunk and a street boy plead unsuccessfully for something to eat. I therefore avoid eye contact with the next man who tries to greet me. He turns out to be a local Pentecostal pastor, once thrown out of Khartoum and now doing a great work in Juba. He graciously overlooks my slight and we chat at leisure. We will pray, as they say here, at his church on Sunday.
The restaurant on the corner is serving traditional vegetarian food because their customers cannot afford meat at the moment. At a stall we buy bananas which are full of flavour. Recently you could get 20 bread rolls for £5.00. Now you get 10 and they are smaller and the baker is still bearing some of the loss incurred by inflation. Eventually we find a jar of jam made from an indeterminate fruit. For a treat we get some mango juice. A sudden pleasant waft of incense mingles with the dust and smoke and diesel. It would be unwise to get a camera out on the street so I let the sights and sounds and smells assault my senses and try to take it all in.
I am staying in a hotel in the Ethiopian quarter. The establishment is owned by Ethiopians and staffed by Eritreans, Ugandans and Kenyans. The local shops stock produce imported from Kenya and Uganda. This is part of the tragedy of South Sudan: the 54th African nation state could produce all these brightly labelled goods. Even the tasty bananas were imported. Similarly vast quantities of powdered milk are imported when South Sudan has sufficient cows for a thriving dairy industry. Traditionally cows are seen as money in the bank. Every young man wants enough cows to marry the girl he loves. It will take a supernatural shift to change the culture. And suddenly the word ‘transformation’ is a very long word indeed.
But transformation is the goal and already there is a considerable body of evidence to support the theory. And that is why my newfound friends are here. The Biblical theology is African. They present a course written by Africans for Africans. The former missionaries did not see all that is in Scripture because they came looking at the Bible through their own cultural spectacles. The latter missionaries are changing mindsets. It is a vision of hope to counter the popular impression of the continent, that regular trademark, sorrow, tears and blood.
The friendly Pizza business is South Sudanese through and through and we devour our meal with the assurance that we are enjoying authentic local cuisine. And the Apostle Paul says,
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”