Juba is expanding exponentially. As I regard the city as the plane takes off and prepares to land on my frequent flights, I am always surprised by new developments. A new five-story building that seems a sudden apparition here, a new informal settlement sprouting there, and a new hotel, bar, and restaurant everywhere. Juba is growing, and its echoes are deepening. In the most part, the latest developments don’t interfere with my sense of navigation or direction as I go about the city. Except for once.
There is a Genenna in Rajaf West I had gone to once in 2012 with friends. I had tried to revisit it last year, but for the life of me, I couldn’t retrace the way. I am generally good with directions and have an almost photographic memory when I am paying attention. However, an informal settlement had sprouted in the middle of the route I had taken to the Genenna two years ago. The landmarks I remember were many. The creek that I must cross, the big tree that I must turn left after, and the lone house with the green door that I must turn right after. And I had to pass through that three tukul house with the odd road through it, and then I’d be on the open way to the Genenna.
Imagine my bewilderment and shock when I arrive at this place, and the map in my mind is rendered obsolete by the new developments. I was utterly and completely lost. I had no visible reference point, except for the creek. And it’s been two years since I have been through this area. The sparsely populated area, it once was, is now an intricate web of informal settlements and markets. Congested is the word. But lost became the only word reverberating in my psyche.
Today, there was the usual jam on the way from custom to Bilfam caused by the heavy traffic on the roundabout. I have my windows down as I listen to the radio and look around me. I see this company of four. A young woman, wearing a deep blue and black lawa with a black tenora, head shaven. An older man almost lame in one side (seems to have had a stroke or an accident because his eye on that same side is somehow affected) wearing a Kaunda suit; he appears to be the leader of the group. A young man who is wearing a short black jalabia who seems to be the eyes of the older man. And a milder middle-aged man wearing a grey trouser and a white shirt who appears to have no clue about the whereabouts of their destination.
This company of four keep looking backward then forward as if for a landmark that eludes them. Some are pointing northward for the direction, and others are pointing southward. They huddle for a moment to build consensus and try to remember their vanished marker, and then look up and down the street again to no avail. They finally reluctantly head southward on the cue of the older man. I imagine that the company is looking for a big tree or an abandoned vehicle, or a tukul house with a beautiful drawing. Depending on how long it has been since their guide was last in Juba, the marker may have vanished. Or perhaps their usual route has been closed off, and they have to take a newer unfamiliar, and now they are utterly lost.
There is a high rate of illiteracy in our country, especially in rural communities and among the elderly in urban settings. That coupled with the high influx of rural dwellers to the city, keeping in mind a villager’s perspective of landmarks is of paramount importance. Not to overstate the difference between a villager and an urban dweller, but to say that it is the lowest denominator to be considered. Most of our city dwellers, because of the absence of street signs and even road names use the most rudimentary and natural way of directing. Most directions go something like this: “Drive on Shari Kizito and then look for the unfinished amara on your left and take that turn and the house is the one with the bright green zinki.” I am not discounting here the progress made by the Juba City Council in streamlining our roads with traffic lights, street names, and navigational signs on the major roads. However, most of these developments are catered to a small percentage of our population that is literate in English, ignoring the needs of those literate in Arabic and other national languages, and those majority of our citizens who are illiterate.
It is therefore crucial for the sake of our cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents walking from the villages surrounding Juba, that in developing we leave or make new permanent markers on the roads. Most of the time they are walking to Juba to take things to the market or to visit a relative’s house they haven’t been to in a couple of years, and then you see them in the streets, bewildered. They don’t have a phone to call and ask for directions. Their only salvation is to remember another house on the way so that a child is sent to take them or stumble upon a relative on the roadside, which is highly unlikely.
© 2015 Apuk Ayuel Mayen. All rights reserved.