On the road to Yei

On The Rubbish Road

(All Photographs (c) Giulio Petrocco).

Shit was going down. A battered hose funneled it from a creaky Ugandan truck into the fetid pool of Juba’s only waste disposal plant, while bored soldiers sat peeling sugar cane next to the gate. The stench, a young soldier told me, could be worse. By the end of the day, the wind will have driven the solid matter over to the right of the pool. Then the workers will take out the waste, cover it with petrol, and set it on fire. Then, the soldier said, casually flicking shards of sugar cane to the ground, the stench is terrible.

High Times

It is early 2011. South Sudan has just voted to secede from the north, and N, the dyspeptic Ugandan owner of a fleet of six waste disposal trucks, was staring forlornly into his third Guinness. “It was so much easier to make money back then,” he told me, “before everyone else arrived.” Shortly after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which brought an end to Sudan’s second civil war, Juba began to boom, as the UN, foreign traders, and NGOs arrived in town, bringing a demand for hotels and hedonism with them, and leaving high prices in their wake.

For N, even if there was harassment by the army, arbitrary detention, and endless beatings, there was money to be made.

N is one of many East Africans who has arrived Juba over the last seven years, attracted byhigh salaries and the opportunities offered by the war’s wake. Few stay long. Most live abbreviated lives; everything they earn is transformed into dollars, and sent home. They are waiting to live again.

When at War

Little of the money that flows into Juba stays there, and it shows. The town is struggling to cope with a massive influx of people, and the need to create a state infrastructure almost from scratch. During the war, the government controlled Juba, while the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) dominated the countryside around it. Residents during this period speak of dark days hunting for food around the squat stone houses that used to be the entirety of the town, and now constitute only its center.

Rubbish was not a problem for wartime Juba; people simply burnt it. In the villages close to the Sudanese border, where I do my fieldwork, you can see residues of Juba’s past: bones, vegetal remains, and old hides are pushed into oil drums and set on fire; the ash that remains can be used to fertilize the fields. People in Juba still burn their rubbish, but the waste is different: wrinkling plastic and leaking batteries glistening in the slow-burning heat. People light their fires at dusk, and the fumes mix together into an acrid blue haze that hugs the city. This rubbish can be used to fertilize no fields, and enrich no crops; the cauterized plastic is kicked onto the street, tripping us up as we walk.

I met N for a drink in one of the hotels that now cram onto the banks of the Nile. We sat outside, under a mango tree, and listened to E, our jovial Ethiopian waiter, talk about the problems the hotel faces with waste disposal. “We have paid our money! But the company never comes!” I ask E what he does with the rubbish. “Either we get one of those small unlicensed Ugandan companies to pick up the waste, or…” And he nods his head sideways, to the great river passing us by.

When E is safely out of earshot, N makes his excuses. “We only have six trucks, and there are so many hotels now, so many businesses.” It is difficult to get spare parts for the vehicles. Everything in Juba is imported, along bad roads, from Kenya and Uganda, and N’s company finds itself simply overwhelmed by the pace of Juba’s expansion.

Events at the waste disposal plant haven’t made it any easier. It was built in a valley outside town, where they could use the natural slopes of the land to assist with the movement of the waste. Shame nobody asked the neighbors. The waste disposal plant was built just below Bilpham, the main SPLA base for the whole of South Sudan. When I visited the plant, I could see enormous white houses on the hill above, glinting in the orange sun of the afternoon; it could have been Los Angeles.

Construction was finally finished in 2009, and the plant was shut down within days. Not only did the smell interfere with the colonels’ breakfasts, but the local authorities had built the plant in the valley where the SPLA used to get its maram, the red soil used to build roads. “We were beaten savagely,” N tells me, “they blame us for the smell. It is like this all over Juba.”

Finally, after long negotiations, a compromise was reached. Soldiers would man the entrance to the plant and charge the waste disposal companies a usage-fee. Back in early 2011, when I last visited the plant, vehicles licensed with the local authorities would be charged the equivalent of $40, and unlicensed vehicles $80. These relatively high fees mean companies like N’s only cater to hotels and NGOs.

The Needling Journey

N only deals with human waste. D only deals with rubbish. Both of them dread making the rounds. One day I sat precariously atop of one of D’s trucks as it slowly moved through Juba’s busy streets. People came out of restaurants to scream at us. “We pay for you to take our rubbish, but where are you? You have not been here for weeks.”

D’s workers shrug and point to the grinning Eritrean driving the truck. He is the boss, they say. Happily, the boss speaks neither English nor Juba Arabic (nor is he the boss), and so the complaints become background sound; the song that accompanies us as we pick up Juba’s waste—batteries, rotten food, old hides, needles from medical clinics—heave it onto our sole tarpaulin, and lift it into the truck, before jumping on, atop the rubbish (needles in the bum are a hazard of the profession), and moving onto our next destination.

Like N, D has an official license from Juba’s local government, and like N, his company is unable to handle the burgeoning needs of the town. One of the problems D faces is simply finding a place to put the rubbish.

On the Road to Yei

About a month earlier, I had gone to see Juba’s waste dump, accompanied by the town’s Public Health inspector, Scopas Lukudu, who hails from the Bari tribe that constitute the original residents of the town. He did the same job before the second civil war, and is part of an older Bari administration that feels increasingly marginalized by the national government’s domination of Juba. 

Together, we travel out of town, heading down the road to Yei, 80 miles to the southwest of Juba. Around the mountain of Jebel Mara, buildings become more spaced out, and villages full of tukuls—the wattle and elephant-grass huts of South Sudan—become more prominent. In 2009, 30,000 people were cleared from Juba town. Two years later, the land they occupied remains fenced off and empty, sold to speculators still nervous about the prospect of war. The displaced people, many of them Bari, moved out here, onto the Yei road; they congregate under ad-hoc assemblages of blue UNHCR canvas and cardboard boxes, looking blankly back at a Juba that used to be theirs.

We pass the mountain, and, after a checkpoint, the land begins to be fenced off. The UN and the government are both moving out here, and huge portions of territory have been allocated out. There is an enormous sign for the Land Commission standing in front of a vast empty expanse.

Just after the sign, the sides of the road start to fill with rubbish. It is not Juba rubbish—the drift of bottles and cans, tossed to the side of the road—but vast mounds of smoldering waste, burning slowly in the noonday heat. Amid the burning mounds I see neatly arranged piles of scrap metal, delicate constructions as intricate as Jenga towers. Elsewhere, piles of beer cans, ash gray from the fire. “There is no recycling here, but sometimes people take the metal to Uganda or Kenya,” Lukudu tells me.

When we finally arrive at the dump, there is a rope running across the road, blocking our entry. The dump, built with USAID money in 2006, has been occupied. A family, lolling under a tree at the side of the road, tells me the story. Two weeks ago, a military man, who claimed he was a colonel, came to the dump and told them he owned it, and that henceforth, all dumping is prohibited. This is perhaps a less legal land appropriation than that of the ministries next door, but they are clearly not unconnected; with all those government buildings about to be constructed, the dump is valuable real estate. When I last spoke to Lukudu, in January 2012, he told me the dump was still occupied.

Now people can’t use the dump, the whole of the Yei road has become a vast dumping site. There are small shacks lining the side of the road: bare skeletons of stick with simple skins of blue plastic, fluttering ragged in the wind. On my trip with Lukudu, I didn’t encounter a soul living in the rubbish, and he assured me no one lived on the dumping ground. Later, I went back alone. There weren’t a few people on the dumps; there were hundreds. Some of them are returnees—people who spent the war displaced in the north, struggling to eke out a living in the shantytowns around Khartoum. In the run-up to South Sudan’s referendum on secession, they returned to their fields, and found them smoldering.

Now the returnees have become farmers of rubbish. They pick through the scraps for food and burn the rest, selling the metal to Ugandan merchants, who dispatch it south for recycling. All around Juba, the rubbish is piling up. It is not past memories, however, that are slowly filling up the Yei road, but fragments of Juba’s future—the endless plastic bottles and cans that are a harbinger of what Juba will become.