Sunday, June 23, 2024

A Kenyan in warring Juba: This is home, sweet home

Paul Ngarama Kimani,Home. Is it where your clothes are? Or where your cat lives? Some think of it as where your loved ones are, others where you can find solace in tough times. I think they are wrong.

Home to me is the place, wherever, where you have people with whom to share the grey and the sunny days, people whose midnight cries of anguish and agony do not bother you a bit because you know that at some point you’ve also cried in your sleep.

Where the people whose sorrows you share live, that is home. For me that place is South Sudan. And I want to go back home. Tomorrow. Or next week. Or next month. I want to go home.

My name is Paul Ngarama Kimani, born in Mbeya, Tanzania in 1967. My parents, George Ngarama and Monica Nyawira, were both Kenyans who had gone to Tanzania as business people back in ’61, but we moved to Kenya soon after my birth, in ‘69, and I grew up here. Now my name is Pastor Paul Ngarama Kimani, and South Sudan, not Kenya, is where my heart is.

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I will tell you why I love the country many are fleeing, but before we get to that, let me tell you how I ended up there in the first place.

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Back in 2004, I packed my bags and found my way across the border into the then Sudan. But, while that was the first time I was really journeying to Juba, I think my journey had actually started way earlier. Back in ’69, to be precise.

My father was a barber, and when we settled in Nairobi he sought — and got — permission to be the Embakasi Garrison barber.

His business saw me through secondary school, so it was only natural that, after studies, I would join him. For another 15 years, I shaved the heads of soldiers in various garrisons across the country. Business was good, but I still needed something stronger on which to tether my life.

The opportunity came in 2003 when, as a lay preacher with the Africa Christian Mission International, I visited Kakuma refugee camp to evangelise. That visit became some sort of an eye-opener to me.

In the eyes of the thousands who gathered to listen to me, I could see the hopelessness, the trauma and the scars that had sent them fleeing across the border.

In those eyes I also saw a desperate cry for love. The brutal nature of war had robbed these people of not only their homes, their villages and their nation, but also of their sense of being, their humanness.

Herded into the camp, they were collateral damage. Children of war. Destitutes. Or, if you want me to be politically correct, refugees.

A year later in 2004, I met a Sudanese soldier who had come to Embakasi for training on demining. At the height of the civil war, militants had planted thousands of mines in the disputed regions, and these were now maiming the civilian population at an alarming rate. His name was Joseph Wanni from Yei, and I told him I wanted to go to Sudan.

Wanni, a likeable fellow, smiled uncomfortably, then told me I must be out of my mind to want to set foot on one of the most mined lands in the world.

Upon my stubborn insistence, he caved in and gave me the contacts of his brother. Deep in his mind, he probably thought I was just joking, that there was no way I was going to leave the relative security of Nairobi and venture into a land where even the most hard-core, wild adventurers dared not venture.

But I did. One day I just woke up, packed a Bible, a notebook and some other religious material, and crossed into Uganda on my way to Yei. Back in the day, when you crossed the border into South Sudan, you immediately started questioning your wits.

I was perched atop a lorry, and every few kilometres we would come across a roadblock manned by either loyalist soldiers or rebels. They would harass us a bit, but all let us through after pocketing a bribe.

“Keep to the beaten tacks,” they would warn us every time they wave us through. “Don’t veer off. If you do, you’ll be blown to smithereens by the mines.” We heeded the advice, and on the dusty, god-forsaken stretch between the Ugandan border crossing and Yei, the consequences of war lay all over the place: blown up trucks, burnt homes, deserted villages, abject want and death mixed promiscuously, creating one of the most distressing scenarios I have ever seen.

After a day on the road soaking in all the desolation, we arrived in Yei, where I stayed for the next six months. Here, I joined the Sudan Pentecostal Church, and with it I moved from one state to the other, preaching and struggling to survive by running small businesses here and there.

Life, to say the least, was hard, but the doors to the future opened in 2005 after the warring parties signed a comprehensive peace agreement that would eventually give rise to Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan.

Juba, the capital-designate, all of a sudden became very attractive, and so I moved there immediately. In between the preaching, business — I dealt in general merchandise, including clothes — was also booming and, within a year, I had saved enough to put up rental houses in the capital and open a better, bigger clothing stall.

Between 2006 and 2009, Juba was the place to be. The guns had fallen silent after decades and the economy was booming. Kenyans, Tanzanians and Ugandans flocked here to set up all manner of businesses.

Curiously, however, the natives showed little interest in entrepreneurship, and so it was only a matter of time before the foreigners started to hog the pie and call the shots.

By the time the locals realised something was amiss, it was too late. There was a Kenyan-run business on every corner, a Tanzanian this and a Ugandan that here and there. We had set up our own little commercial colony in Juba, and the fantastically militarised natives were beginning to get the heebie-jeebies over that.

Tensions rose. Arguments over the price of goods started getting nasty. And then, as if to show us who were the real cow boys here, demobbed soldiers, angry to the marrow, started walking into foreigner-owned shops, picking items and walking away without paying. “Go back to your country!” they would bark if you dared as much as raise a finger.

Juba, then, became a businessman’s nightmare and, in 2008, I packed and left for Rumbek in Lake State. But, just as I was about to set up a life here, clashes among the Dinka erupted over pasture land.

Now, in South Sudan, when neighbours quarrel, a gunfight is never off the limits. So, when the matter is as serious as pasture land, run for your life.

War cometh. Over those few acres of grazing land, several people died, including four foreigners caught in the melee. As church leaders, together with the local leaders, we organised reconciliation meetings and helped bring back the peace.

But, while Rumbek had opened up my eyes to the seriousness with which pasture is taken here, it also showed me how war can ruin, completely, the justice system of a people.

One Ugandan learnt that the most brutal way. The middle-aged man was driving a truck laden with supplies when he ran over a local. Soon, an army of riotous men and women surrounded his truck, baying for his blood. Naturally, he bolted towards a police station, where he was put inside a cell as the police quelled the emotions outside.

We all thought the worst had passed when calm returned to the streets, but a few hours later a man walked to the police station, asked to see the driver and was allowed in.

He said he was the dead man’s brother, and that he wanted to have a word or two with the Ugandan. A few minutes later, shots rang inside the prison. Then the visitor casually walked away, past the reporting desk, through the gate and into the streets. For running over his brother with his foreign truck laden with foreign goods, the foreigner had to die.

Obviously, there was no way I was going to survive here — once, while preaching at a local church, I was slapped for asking a man not to spit inside the building — so I moved to Wau in Western Bahr el Ghazal State, where I stayed for some time before finding my way back to Juba in 2010.

I have been in Juba since 2010. I was there when we got independence in 2011!

In Nairobi, people have been asking me whether we, the Southerners, saw what was coming towards the end of last year. My answer to them has always been the same: “Yes, I think we did.”

The announcement by Riek Machar that he would be in the presidential race come 2015 was the first pointer to turbulent times ahead. After his shock declaration, there was clear and open bias in how the government was treating some of the leading politicians.

When, in July, Machar was sacked from the Cabinet, we all knew it was just a matter of time before he or his supporters schemed something. Even though he told his supporters to stay calm after the boot, it was clear that a political crisis was looming. The sacking was unexpected and it came as a shocker, especially looking at the total number of ministers and deputies who were kicked out.

Juba was tense.


No one knew what Machar was planning. He sort of went underground, but we knew something was coming; we just didn’t know what it was. Then, on December 15, all hell broke loose.

The first round of the anarchy found me at Nyakuron market. We heard gunshots coming from the general direction of a local cultural centre but dismissed them as another price haggle, or quarrel, gone wrong.

Half an hour later, the gunfire became intense. People started running into their homes. My house was located at a place called Jebel, and to reach there I had to follow the gunshots. A woman — Ethiopian or Eritrean — lay dying on the road as I dashed to safety.

By evening, heavy artillery shelling took over from the automatic rifles and, by morning, the place was deserted. Military cars patrolled the streets, but they offered little sense of hope to many.

A day later, the robberies started. Soldiers — or men dressed as soldiers — started making house-to-house calls and taking anything valuable they found before raping women. Three days after Juba started crumbling, we were given two hours to vacate the places we lived in. I took nothing. I just walked out.

At one in the afternoon, I was in a Toyota Landcruiser, together with some eight other people, hurtling towards Uganda through Numule. The road, aside from the newly laid tarmac, looked the same as when I had used it back in 2004: soldiers all over the place, choc-a-bloc roadblocks, and bribery demands for us to be let through.

But, as I sat inside that Landcruiser, my back turned against Juba, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands I had left behind. I had lived among them, with them, for nine years.

I was their church minister, standing before them every Sunday to tell them about God, to teach them forgiveness and hope and perseverance. Yet here I was, hurtling towards the border at their greatest hour of need.

As I crossed into Kenya, I had this nudging feeling to go back to my people, back home. I hear that a ceasefire agreement was signed in Addis Ababa the other day, and that there is some sort of calm, however uneasy, sweeping through Juba now.

I want to go back to South Sudan. I want to go back today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. I want to go back to my people. For, despite all the differences, they laughed with me.

Yes, I want to go back

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