Covering the News in an 'Uncertain' Sudan

The hardest thing for anyone from a developed country to get used to in Sudan is the lack of certainty. You leave the West with expectations that something that worked yesterday, such as the phone, will work again today. Then there are even more basic questions about food and safety.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The U.S. has to reckon with West Africa because of its oil reserves. East Africa is home to energy and Islamist groups. NPR's Gwen Thompkins covers that region, a job that requires you to go to lawless places like Mogadishu, Somalia, and look for a place to stay.

GWEN THOMPKINS: When I was there, I went with Edmund Sanders, who is the L.A. Times correspondent. And so when Edmund goes to Mogadishu, he always stays at the Peace Hotel. And so we went to the Peace Hotel.

INSKEEP: The Peace Hotel.

THOMPKINS: Right. Which actually was a holding of General Mohammed Aidid during the time when Aidid was, A, alive.

INSKEEP: This big warlord, yeah.

THOMPKINS: Yeah. He was controlling most of Mogadishu as well as most of Somalia.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's some symbolic point here in that you were staying at some place called the Peace Hotel that had formerly been owned by one of the biggest warlords there. In order to have peace in that part of the world, do you basically have to have a really large gun?

THOMPKINS: Well, that's a good question. And in fact there is a Sudanese leader, John Garang, who had a theory on this. John Garang was head of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army movement.

INSKEEP: Southern Sudan, yeah.

THOMPKINS: Yes.

INSKEEP: Rebellion.

THOMPKINS: And it was a rebellious group. It was a movement that brought Khartoum, the central government of Sudan, to the table and actually ended in a peace agreement that might end in a referendum that could bring independence for Southern Sudan.

And his view was that guns do rule, you know, in this part of the world. And the only way that you can have your say is if everyone is armed. If you give everyone a gun, then no one has a clear advantage and reason will prevail.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk a little more about that part of the world. You've got this huge country, Sudan. Darfur is one region that people talk a lot about. Southern Sudan, there was also civil war. There is now a peace agreement. You've been there. What did you see when you just walk down the streets in a city in southern Sudan these days?

THOMPKINS: Southern Sudan is an endlessly fascinating place in large part because it has been at war almost since independence in the late 1950s. And there have been two civil wars. This last one was a 20-year war that ended in 2005. And so the city of Juba, the capital of that region, you know, it has one paved road. That's it.

INSKEEP: This is a large city we're talking about?

THOMPKINS: Well, I mean, in the 1990s, it had about 70,000 people. Now it's believed that it has close to a million people living in the greater area.

INSKEEP: Oh.

THOMPKINS: It has one paved road. Just imagine a very hot, dry Eden. People are starting from scratch, you know. There are no permanent buildings there, or very few prominent buildings there. You know, I mean, if you're going to go to Juba, which is the capital city, you're going to live in a tent.

You know, there is construction going on everywhere. You just hear hammers and drills and everything, and people running with, you know, wheelbarrows full of wet concrete. And you know what it is, Steve? It's like watching someone build a set for a play.

INSKEEP: When you talk about a city that was 70,000 a decade ago and is now a million, that's something that's happening all over the developing world, cities just exploding. Can you explain why a million people would want to come in from wherever they were to that particular city? What's driving that?

THOMPKINS: Well, there are two separate reasons. I mean, in Southern Sudan, in Juba, people are going there in part because, you know, that country really experienced a depletion of population during the war.

Refugees are coming back, internally displaced people are coming back, and they are seeing their fortunes, you know what I mean, in Juba. I mean, that's where the action is so to speak. But throughout the rest of East Africa, yes, cities are exploding.

INSKEEP: What's the hardest thing to get used to when you come from the United States?

THOMPKINS: The hardest thing to get used to is the lack of certainty. When you leave the West, you bring with you an expectation that if something works yesterday, then it's going to work today. And that expectation is completely groundless in East Africa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So, you know, so if your phone worked yesterday, well, good for you. But that has nothing to do with today, you see. And it could be anything. It could be just the fact that there's a power outage. You know, the prospect of chance interrupting the day-to-day flow of your life is so great in this part of the world.

And so, you know, it is amazing how difficult as an American it is to sort of give up the notion that you can be sure of anything. But in the scheme of things, perhaps these things are not as important as other values. You know, if we've got enough to eat today, if everybody is safe today, if everybody is in good health today, then maybe that's a little bit more important than whether, you know, your Internet connection comes up.

INSKEEP: Gwen Thompkins, good to talk with you.

THOMPKINS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: We'll be looking forward to more of your reporting when you head back.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: NPR East Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins. And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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