Underneath the mango trees

News conferences in south Sudan's languid capital spill out of government buildings as the world's media descends for t

    Juba, the main town in southern Sudan, was its normal, languid self on Saturday.

    It was as if the townspeople were taking a break from the hectic pace of the day before which saw rallies, public meetings and an all-night music concert.

    Those who were busy were the organisers of the week-long referendum beginning on Sunday along with journalists and poll observers from all over the world here to witness and record the historic event.

    While the observers busied themselves by consulting senior government of Southern Sudan and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement [the ruling party] officials, journalists had a string of press briefings lined up for them.

    It began with a joint briefing by Chan Reec Madut, who heads the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, and Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the minister for information.

    As the nascent ministry’s conference room was small, the briefing was held under a mango tree.

    "It is good not to have a five-star hotel in Juba. This should be a great, different experience for you,” Benjamin said, alluding to the usually more comfortable environs journalists work from, at least those covering events in big cities.

    No one was complaining and the outdoors was better than a stuffy meeting room. But it was hot.

    "I am sorry I cannot even offer you water as I need to save every penny to conduct the referendum," Benjamin said. Money is a big problem for the government here as the promised funds from the north are yet to come and most employees have not regularly received their salaries.

    As with everything here, people hope for things to get better once they secede from the north and are willing to go through any privations just to see through the referendum.

    "Nobody had asked us about our destiny for generations. Soon we will have a place for ourselves under the sun. It is a miracle nobody thought would happen," Madut said, thanking God and the international community for their support to south Sudan.

    While the next briefing was at the interior ministry, the more eagerly awaited one was a rare meeting with the Salwa Kiir, the president of southern Sudan and the first vice-president of Sudan.

     "Having come from far way places, it would be good to see him," Benjamin said, inviting all present to come to the presidential palace.

    Scheduled to start at 3pm, at first journalists were confined to a small presidential briefing room with all the trappings of office. But when more journalists, accredited or not, started gathering outside the palace for entry, the venue was shifted.

    Again it took place under trees. Luckily, Juba has lots of shady trees introduced from India by the British, like neem [margosa], tamarind [the name is derived from the Arabic for Indian dates] and of course mangoes.

    The trees give Juba a respite from the heat because of a blazing sun and its location atop a massive rocky outcrop.

    But despite the shade and the thoughtfully provided bottles of water, the journalists started getting restless as Kiir delayed his appearance as he was meeting a Norwegian delegation and Senator John Kerry from the US.

    While the US role in southern Sudan is well documented, the Norwegians are one of the biggest aid donors and active in the NGO sector along with scores of others.

    "We waited for 54 years to arrive at this stage. A few more minutes of delay should not affect you," said an official in reference to the length of the civil war between the north and south.

    After an hour of waiting, as a bonus, Senator Kerry made an appearance to make a brief statement and take a few questions.

    Soon it was time for the president to make his appearance in his black gallon hat given to him by George Bush, the former US president.

    He quickly read out an appeal to his people to maintain calm and went back into the palace without taking any questions. But then it was a rare photo opportunity.

    The information minister apologised for the delay and sparse arrangements. "But then we waited for 100 years," he said. That the length of the wait for self-determination almost doubled inside an hour amused many. 

    And no one complained. That's a virtue one learns quickly in Juba.


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