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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Think about the Wild West, and some images may come to mind: dusty roads, homesteaders and land speculators, boom towns, hot tempers. Well, it turns out you can find them all today in an unexpected place: Southern Sudan.

Our Africa correspondent, Gwen Thompkins, has been in Southern Sudan and saw reminders of the American West everywhere.

GWEN THOMPKINS: There's a painting in the window of an art gallery in Nairobi, Kenya that depicts a scene from recent history - January 2005, to be exact. John Gurang, the now dead leader of perhaps the most successful rebel movement in Southern Sudan, is represented on the canvas. He's shaking hands with Ali Osman Muhammad Taha, the first vice president of the government of Northern Sudan, based in Khartoum.

These former adversaries had just signed a comprehensive peace agreement, ending what was at the time the longest civil war in Africa. In the painting, everyone is smiling.

Mr. DKONYO MAINA (Artist): It's a fleeting moment. The parting clouds and the feeling of movement was also very deliberate. It's kind of depicting where they're coming from; they're coming into the light, and so the darkness is behind them.

THOMPKINS: That's the artist, Dkonyo Maina(ph), a Kenyan. He painted the scene from a photograph and is hoping that one day, someone will hang it in a museum or a university or some other public space in Southern Sudan. But perhaps a found portrait would best capture the region today. This is what Southern Sudan sounds like:

(Soundbite of machinery)

THOMPKINS: And this:

(Soundbite of construction work)

THOMPKINS: And this:

(Soundbite of construction work)

THOMPKINS: The capital city of Juba is materializing before everyone's very eyes. Southern Sudan is a hot, dusty, shadeless, raggedy, war-ravaged landscape. Dirt roads and potholes force drivers to bank and weave like drunkards. But now, new houses, new government buildings, new schools and businesses are going up. Many of the roads are graded, and new sounds exist where there used to be silence - or worse, gunfire.

(Soundbite of construction work)

THOMPKINS: When is the last time you saw someone running with a wheelbarrow full of wet cement?

Ms. ROSE NJAGI (Assistant Project Officer, UNICEF): There's pressure to catch up with the rest of the world, because during the war, Southern Sudan lost so much time in terms of infrastructure, communication and development.

THOMPKINS: That's Rose Njagi. She's an education officer at UNICEF.

Ms. NJAGI: The government is trying to build systems. The private investors are coming in. They want also to build, like, a private-sector economy. UNICEF is trying to do education and - there's so much happening at the same time, it's stressful but it's also exciting to see something new coming out of something that was not there before.

THOMPKINS: Back in the 1980s and '90s, Juba had about 70,000 residents. Now, aid organizations here believe there to be a million people in the area and more are coming. To paraphrase a line from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Juba is busting out all over.

Mr. CHRIS BURKEY (Hotel Manager in Juba, Southern Sudan): We accept Sudanese dinars, Sudanese pounds, Kenya shillings and dollars.

THOMPKINS: That's Chris Burkey(ph). He's a manager at one of the hotels here in Juba, where each guest gets a tent with a cot and a plastic chair. But whether prices are in dollars, dinars, pounds or shillings, Juba ain't cheap. For one person to rent a tent and share a latrine with other guests costs about a hundred U.S. dollars a night. To get your own bathroom in your tent hikes up the price to nearly $200. That's a pretty good deal here. With few permanent buildings up, most hotels are campgrounds that have come to look like television's 4077 MASH unit.

Professor TOBAM LALIYU: The Wild West days are here like gold rush is here. Everybody from Southern Sudan wants to have something in Juba here. So Juba is going to be South Beach(ph).

THOMPKINS: That's Professor Tabam Laliyu(ph). He teaches fine arts at the newly reopened Juba University. This area is rich in oil, and Laliyu is betting that as Juba ascends, so will the rest of Southern Sudan. Because while Juba has only one paved street, he says the smaller villages and enclaves in the region have less than that.

Prof. LALIYU: You can go to the village and as soon as you're out there, we are back to 1880 or 1780 in the village there. We are back there.

THOMPKINS: Juba has a toehold in the 20th century because Northern Sudan wanted it so. The town used to be Khartoum's stronghold in the rebel south, but since the 2005 peace agreement, former rebels now control government in Juba, and by extension, in a semiautonomous Southern Sudan. Khartoum has its own president in parliament, and so does the south.

In 2011, voters here are schedule to decide whether they will stay as one with the north or break away and become their own nation. Until then, investors like Ana Anpanichid(ph) say, there's money to be made.

Mr. ANA ANPANICHID (Investor, Southern Sudan): Well, yes, it's true. The peace make money. And people can live comfortably, and then they can think (Unintelligible) before they start. Now going to war again, I think that's what the - the advantage of what we're seeing at the moment.

THOMPKINS: But many in the area are still making the same living they made during the war. The women and children are still collecting mangos on the far side of the Nile River and selling them for about a buck and a half a piece. There's still goats for sale and cigarettes and not much else, except the topaz-colored Nile water itself.

(Soundbite of children playing)

THOMPKINS: Businesses buy it every day by the truckload.

(Soundbite of children and adults conversing)

THOMPKINS: It's down by the riverside where disagreements can turn quickly to fights. Recently, a militia hostile to the government attacked port workers over a shipment of food. And people who work on the river's edge appear to always be on edge - the psychological toll of years of war.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through Translator) Don't chase us away. We are here. We are friends.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh no, no, friend.

Unidentified Man #1: You don't hurt a friend. Don't (Unintelligible)…

THOMPKINS: They don't like strangers here, particularly the ones who speak Arabic. Perhaps it's because of Northern Sudan's often ruthless efforts to make the black people of Southern Sudan more Arabic, to impose the Arabic language and Islam on essentially English-speaking Christians. Or maybe it dates back even farther, to the efforts of British colonials and missionaries to impose English and Christianity on people who were essentially polyglutton animists. It's been this way for as long as anyone can remember.

(Soundbite of men arguing)

Mr. SABRINO BARNABA FOROJAWA: We were considered very wild people, all right? We weren't wild, actually, we were defending our territories against other people, you know, coming to lord it over us - whether they were British or anybody else.

THOMPKINS: That's Sabrino Barnaba Forojawa(ph), the vice-chancellor of Juba University.

Mr. FOROJAWA: Slowly, of course they had superior guns and so they were able to, you know, bring us under heel. Then we started having schooling, and so the struggle shifted into war of ideas now.

THOMPKINS: That war of ideas quickly pitted north against south and Muslim against Christian. In 1989, civil war pushed the university off campus and all the way to Khartoum. That's when the Khartoum government commanded that classes be taught in Arabic. Now, the university is back in Juba, in session, and in English.

Mr. FOROJAWA: You know, that is a lot of joy. There is a lot of sense of achievement here. Right now, you go around, you are a Southern Sudanese -people know what Southern Sudan is like, you know? At least those who read, you know, in many parts of the world.

THOMPKINS: When the modern history of Southern Sudan is written, it will likely begin near the end of Juba's only paved street. That's where John Gurang, the brilliant and brutal leader of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, is buried. He died in a helicopter crash not long after signing the peace agreement that ended the war between north and south.

History is not yet paved. So like everybody else in town, the general will have to wait for progress to come to him. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Juba, Southern Sudan.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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