Summer Nights: Cuban 'Jubans' In South Sudan

In Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, there's a small corner of Havana. A number of Jubans who studied in Cuba have tried to recreate some of the atmosphere of the Caribbean island in their southern Sudanese homeland.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's time now for another Summer Night. We've been taking you to places that come alive as the sun goes down. And today, grab your passport, we're headed to the world's newest country: South Sudan. Nightlife in the rustic capital of Juba consists of a handful of bars and restaurants. Their patrons generally fall into two camps: foreign aid workers and locals who call themselves Jubans.

NPR's John Burnett sent us this postcard from landlocked South Sudan about a unique group of Jubans who miss island life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: They call themselves the Cuban Jubans.

Every Thursday night here at the Havana Lounge is salsa night. That's where you'll find the Cuban Jubans drinking Cuba Libres, listening to the Buena Vista Social Club and remembering their formative experiences as students in Cuba.

Deng Aleer Leek is a civil engineer who spent eight years in Havana. In fact, he was the one who suggested the name of this place.

DENG ALEER LEEK: (Unintelligible) The reason I'm in here - because (unintelligible) in Havana.

BURNETT: The story of the odyssey of these dual nationals is told by a doctor who studied at Camaguey Medical School in Cuba.

DR. CORNICE SIMON MAURICE: My name is Dr. Cornice Simon Maurice(ph). I'm a part of the so-called Cuban Jubans.

BURNETT: Shortly after the second phase that the Sudanese civil war began in 1983, the Cuban government invited about 660 promising South Sudanese students to study there. Cuba has a long tradition of giving free college educations to young people from leftist movements and friendly countries.

The Sudanese students traveled across the globe on big Soviet troop carriers, moved in with their new Cuban families and avoided what could have been a terrible fate, says Dr. Simon.

MAURICE: (Unintelligible) came without indication (unintelligible) the bush with wild animals.

BURNETT: He says they probably would have grown up illiterate. That is if they survived. Two million people died in Sudan's civil war. Instead, Simon and the other students studied medicine, engineering, nursing, accounting and law.

By the late '90s, they'd finished their degrees, but Cuba could not afford to support them any longer and the graduates couldn't go home to South Sudan because the civil war was raging and the country was gripped by famine. Rather than return to this state or be sent to the front, the young graduates immigrated to Canada as refugees to wait out the war.

Then, in 2005, North and South Sudan signed a peace agreement. Soon afterwards, the Cuban Jubans came home. The Republic of South Sudan, now a year old, is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. With 80 percent of its 10 million people unable to read or write, the nation desperately needs educated professionals like Dr. Cornice Simon Maurice.

MAURICE: It's like a drop in the ocean, this number who came back. It's not a big number, but our objective is to make a difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: At the end of long days spent building this incipient nation, the Cuban Jubans relax here at the Havana Lounge in the muggy sub-Saharan night and let their minds drift.

MAURICE: We feel like going back 20 years or 27 years back and we want to make this our small island of Cuba and, at the same time, for us, it's in the way we can practice our Spanish, but we don't want to forget what we learned in Cuba.

BURNETT: And, for the rest of the night, the language changes from Juban Arabic or Dinka or English to the language of their youth.

MAURICE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Juba, South Sudan.

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