Juba is expanding exponentially. I regard the city as the plane takes off and prepares to land on my frequent flights, and I am always surprised by new developments. I see a new five-story building that seems a sudden apparition, a new informal settlement sprouting there, and a new hotel and a bar and restaurant everywhere. Juba is growing, and its echoes are deepening. For the most part, the latest development doesn’t interfere with my sense of direction, 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: 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 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 lost, utterly and completely. 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 place 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 on 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 group leader; a young man wearing a short black jalabia who seems to be the older man’s eyes; and a milder middle-aged man wearing a grey trouser and a white shirt who appears to have no clue about their destination’s whereabouts.
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 the 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 peculiar drawing. Depending on how long it has been since their guide was last in Juba, the marker may have, or perhaps their usual route has been closed off, and they have to take a newer unfamiliar, and now they are utterly lost.
With the high rates of illiteracy in our country, especially in rural communities and among the elderly in urban settings, 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. Because of the absence of street signs and even road names, most of our city-dwellers 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 cater 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 of our illiterate citizens.
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 guides them or stumble upon a relative on the roadside, which is highly unlikely.
© 2015 Apuk Ayuel. All rights reserved.