Another Dose of Africa


Even though it’s only been a month since I got back from West Africa, a confluence of circumstances make for an early return.  I am in London for a family event, I have an expiring Ethiopian Airlines credit to use, and there are a couple of short and (relatively) reasonably-priced tours available.  So two more to check off the list: Djibouti and South Sudan.

Djibouti is the former French Somalia.  It’s an utter wasteland but it happens to be strategically located near the entrance to the Red Sea and across from the trouble-spot that is Yemen.  Although it is 151st in size among nations — about as large as New Jersey — it is home to the US Africa Command as well as bases belonging to Germany, Spain, Italy, France, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, China, and Japan.  The torrent of military spending results in a price level approximating Paris in a climate and landscape approximating Hell.

The connecting flight at Addis Ababa is somewhat unusual.  Instead of a jetway we board a bus and motor from the terminal, past the parked planes, and beyond the fuel storage tanks.  I begin to wonder, are we driving to Djibouti?  Finally we pull up to a completely unmarked plane.  I wonder, is this some sort of CIA-operated flight?


After a short flight we land in the midday heat of Djibouti City .  It is too hot to do anything except retreat to the hotel and its overworked air conditioning.  There is no traffic or activity in the city until the sun abates, when we venture out to see the sights such as they are.  There are decaying colonial buildings, an oldish mosque, and the People’s Palace.





Apart from foreign military bases, the economic basis for the county is its port.  After Eritrea won its independence in 1993, the only seaport available to Ethiopia (population 120 million) is Djibouti.



In the morning we set out in a caravan of 4X4s across the sunblasted desert landscape. 



This is a society that until recently consumed little and had nothing to discard.  Now there is a surfeit of plastic bags, canned goods, packaging, etc.  As a result, anywhere there are people there is trash of every sort.



The natives are ethnically Somali, but speak Afar, a dialect unintelligible to someone from Mogadishu or Hargeisa.  We stop to visit a nomadic encampment and their baby gazelle.




On the Ethiopian border is Lake Abbe, famous for its lunar landscape. 


Geothermal mud forms chimneys emitting sulfurous fumes. 


Hot springs abound, ready to scald the unwary.



The lake itself is dead, the waters too briny to support life. Yet, there is fresh water nearby.  We spot gazelle, a wart hog, black-headed ibis, and hyena spoor.  Not sighted were the resident flamingoes and ostriches.



We spend the night at a campsite with nomad-style tents, although it is too hot to sleep.



At sunrise, more and slightly different views.



We continue on to Lake Assal, the second lowest point on earth (the Dead Sea being the lowest).  On the way, a photo stop at the Afar Triple Junction, where the Arabian tectonic plate is drifting away from the African plate, from which the Somali sub-plate is splitting off and slowly heading out to sea.  It’s all part of the Great Rift.  You’ve only got a few million of years see it for yourself, so hurry up.



The lake is rimmed by salt flats.  The traditional activity of harvesting and transporting salt by camel caravan seems unaffected by modernity.




That’s it for this quickie trip, the first half of a duo.  Back to the hotel for a night with much-appreciated  aircon. At the airport, I pass on what has to be the world’s cheapest duty free: Scotch whiskey for under $6 bottle.


After a brief sojourn in Addis, I am off to South Sudan, the world’s newest country.  Completely different in people and climate from the desert north and home to 64 tribes and 64 languages (the official language is English), the south gained independence in 2011 and promptly descended into tribal-based civil war.  The Sudan Peoples Liberation Army morphed into a one-party, deeply-repressive kleptocracy currently controlled by the largest tribe, the Dinka.

We land at the capital, Juba, situated on the White Nile at the point at which rapid make further upriver navigation impossible.



The land is green and fertile.  Yet, this is a failed state, stillborn despite natural resources and initial promise.  The petroleum reserves that previously funded the Khartoum regime are now within the borders of South Sudan, but the sole means of export is through a now-closed pipeline to Port Sudan.  Consequently, the only government revenue comes from foreign aid and theft/extortion.  It does not provide schools, health, or other services, only corruption and repression.  Although the government is bankrupt and the army has not been paid for a year, they dare not quit: were the government to fall they would likely be massacred in an orgy of revenge.  Much of this Texas-sized country is beyond effective government control.  If the inhabitants had less pride and more sense, they would be on their hands and knees begging the British to return.

As we drive the city streets our driver, without inquiry or prompting, points out members of different tribes, although to me they are indistinguishable.  There is also great distrust: other tribes, it is widely believed, engage in such practices as incest and child-stealing.  A prohibition against photographing government buildings, military, police (few of which are in uniform) effectively means no outdoor photography allowed. 

There is no dearth of high-end hotels, as the city is a hub of NGO aid activity.  Aside from clogging the streets with their white 4X4s, they are hard at work painting murals and erecting billboards inveighing against the prevailing mores which favor child labor, child soldiering, and child marriage. The people pay far more attention to banners promoting a lottery in which the prize is an air ticket to France (i.e., "outta here").

Before setting out for a four-night camping trip, we enjoy a night in a swank hotel. 



The Chinese have rebuilt the main north-south road as a modern highway, so our progress is swift.  We reach a Mundari cattle camp, next to which our own camp is set up.  As evening approaches, the herders bring their animals together for the night. 


Smoky fires keep away the insects.


These people are tall.  They are Nilotic, the blackest of black, much darker than west Africans. .


When night falls, there is spontaneous singing and dancing.  Unfortunately, even my low-light capable iPhone cannot capture the action.



As dawn breaks they draw milk before dispersing for a day’s grazing.



We break camp and continue on to Dinka tribal lands, stopping for supplies at a town.  The Dinka are the tallest people in the world.  The women are six-foot and above, slender, and wear shimmering formal gowns as daily wear: they look like runway models showcasing the latest fashions.  I very much desire to capture the scene, but, alas, no photography permitted in the towns either.

We set up near a Dinka cattle camp.  Their routines are similar to the Mundari.



Cattle are kept as a store of wealth and as a bride-price for marriage; all other purposes and uses are secondary.  Much as you would have flowers in front of your house or a fancy car in your driveway, in the camp the best specimens are proudly placed on display.



We drive back to Mundari country, where we camp by a village. 



While the men generally are out with the cattle, most of the women, children, and old people shelter in the village and engage in subsistence farming.



They so love their cattle that the children, when posing for photographs, hold up their arms to mimic horns.



Kids, when not posing.





We return to Juba, our progress much delayed by frequent checkpoints.  The corruption is much more insidious than in most of Africa, where you offer a “gift” and are on your way.  Here, although we have all the required permits, we are more than once detained and forced to report to an office where our guide spends 30-60 minutes answering to some martinet for some pretextual or imagined infraction.  The result is the same: money changes hands and the “offense” overlooked.  As foreign tourists, we are subjected to mere inconvenience; for a local to utter a word of criticism about the government can result in years of torture and imprisonment without trial.  Estimates are that there are 10,000 political prisoners in custody.

Passing through the city, we cross the Nile and head east into the hills.  This road is far more typical of Africa: an unpaved series of potholes and gullies that make for slow going.  Moreover, the rainy season has started early.  We do not reach our destination until late at night.  To stay dry, I have them set up my tent in a school classroom.


The tribe we are visiting is the Lotuko (a/k/a Otuho), physiognomically quite different from the Dinka and Mundari. Their village is on the lower slopes of a mountain, situated for defense against enemy raiders and overlooking their fields in the valley below.



The villagers don goatskin skirts and colorful beadwork vests and, being little-visited, are pleased to perform a dance for us.




Afterwords, back to our Juba hotel and its much-appreciated plumbing. 



On our final day there is a rally for the upcoming elections.  (Not that the outcome is in doubt.)  Shops and businesses are shuttered lest they be accused of preventing their employees from attending.  Everyone on the street is wearing freshly issued red shirts and caps emblazoned with the party initials, SPLM, Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement.  (Of course what the people really need is liberation FROM the party.)  I try to buy one, but no one is willing to part with theirs,  probably for fear of being accused of undermining morale or some other treason. 


The final act of this drama takes place at the airport, where the power has failed.  There being no functioning x-rays or computers, baggage inspection is done manually.  With the aid of a mobile phone and laptop, boarding passes and luggage tags are written by hand. (Towards the end of the process, electricity is restored and the remaining few are printed.)

That’s it.  Two more countries under the belt.  I retrace my route back to Florida via Addis and London.



Trip date: May 2024