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As South Sudan clears another milestone for independence, its capital booms

South Sudan's capital, Juba, is exploding with new construction, incoming foreign residents and new embassies.

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The Eritrean consulate has operated out of a modest rented office since 2006, shortly after the peace deal was brokered, but a staffer there says they are looking to move out of their space far down a rutted dirt road near one of Juba’s busiest thoroughfares.

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Many nations are gearing up to establish their presence here, and private investors are seeing the advantage of getting in relatively early, no matter the upfront costs of doing so. At the Eastern Pearl, the latest in a rash of recently-built hotels, one can feel as though she has just touched down in Beijing. As a young Chinese receptionist drank hot and sour broth in the newly furnished lobby, she said she was one of 15 hotel Chinese staff who moved to Juba a few months ago to staff the latest plastic-walled (think “container” again) hotel in town.

The Eastern Pearl is a greyish blue multiple-story oddity, adorned with sparkling Santa Claus posters and blue and white ceramic urns. The receptionist said it was built in “less than six months” and cost “not more than two million” US dollars to build. Indeed, like many other buildings in Juba, this hotel seems to have sprung up overnight. A deluxe suite is $680 per night, while “business housing” is only $180 – the receptionist did not volunteer the details as to whether the “Chinese massage” advertised on the large sign outside is included with the room.

Juba’s population is fairly diverse, and most everyone has a hustle of some kind. Whether you’re a Uganda “boda boda” (motorcycle taxi driver), a Somali petrol station owner, a Norwegian aid worker, an American journalist or a Congolese sex worker, surviving and attempting to thrive in Juba is not for the faint of heart. As every almost every news story that mentions Juba notes, it’s a dusty place, made worse by increasing smog that traps in hairdryer-hot air during the dry season. During the five-month plus rainy season, it’s a muddy, often smelly, difficult-to-navigate series of swamps and rivers of open sewers.

But part of Juba’s charm is its hustle-or-be hustled spirit. Independence of the South come July is all but guaranteed, but Juba may hold on to its growing reputation as a frontier boomtown for some years to come. There is more to this city than meets the eye from behind the windows of a white 4x4 LandCruiser or from the air-conditioned sterility of a container office put up overnight. From the tin-roofed bars blaring Ethiopian music to the riverside restaurants bold enough to serve snapper imported from the Red Sea or even sushi, Juba is hopping with the excitement of a place on the brink of something. As an official from the commission that organized the independence vote said Sunday when announcing the results of the referendum – a landslide in favor of secession – “Sudan is having labor pains.” Watch out world, Juba is coming out.

Maggie Fick is a Juba-based journalist who blogs here.

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