written by Tyler Merkel (based on notes and interviews with Simon Straetker)
South Sudan. A country habitually poverty-stricken, despite its vast oil reserves. A nation that was embroiled in five decades of constant war until very recently. A region that the International Red Cross says faces mass famine and crisis, second only to Syria.
You’ve probably heard of all of this at one time or another on numerous pessimistic news reports. But this vast, ecologically rich region is so much more than its history of trauma. Did you know it has several hundred language groups, that South Sudan is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in Africa? Or that South Sudan’s sweeping landscape includes one of the largest wetlands on the globe? Or that it’s the youngest country in the world? Or that some of its tribes are so geographically isolated that they have lived completely separate from the modern world? Back in early 2017 I set out with Greenpeace photographer Markus Mauthe to capture the stories of the country and the people who live there.
You might be wondering how I got into this sort of work. Well, the answer is kind of strange. In 2015, Markus was taking a break from traveling around the world and was scrolling through his Facebook feed, where he stumbled onto my films. He rang me up, pitched a project he was starting called “Nature and Tribes,” and we scheduled a sort of blind work date to Namibia and Botswana to see if we could form a partnership. It went off without a hitch.
Two years later, Markus and I have gone on four trips to the most remote places in the world. When I say remote, I mean remote. The sort of places where you have to take not one, but three small planes. Then a boat. Then a mule. Then a ten mile trek. Places where cell service is a far off dream and automobiles seem like an irrelevant myth.
I suspect some of you might be wondering why the heck we would do this. Venture out into the relatively unknown? Leave behind public transit, clean water, showers? Here’s why—to portray, photograph, and make real the rapid changes that climate change and other, sometimes unforeseen influences of the modern world have on these remote lands and the people who live in them. To make real that which has been rendered invisible by insurmountable geography and lands scarred beyond recognition by decades of war.
In the past two years, Markus and I have boarded dozens of flights, rented countless worn out cars and contracted multiple bouts of food poisoning. We have bushwhacked our way through the Amazon, clambered up Namibia’s towering sand dunes, and wandered for days through Ethiopia's dusty Great Rift Valley—all pit stops in our quest to capture the daily life of our world’s most isolated communities. After some time back at home we were finally ready for our next big adventure. So we traded in our euros for a small stack of Sudanese pounds and lined our pockets with multiple visas. We were headed to the world’s youngest country, South Sudan.
Our mini travel troop consisted of Markus, his wife Juliana, geographer and filmmaker Fabian (“Fabi”) Bazlen and lastly me, Simon Straetker.
In the first segment of the trip we would visit the Kachipo, a semi-nomadic paleo-sudanese people who make a living via hunting, gathering and slash/burn agriculture. This sedentary agrarian community resides deep in the eastern Boma Mountains, a region that hosts the last big antelope migrations (around 1.3 million) out of the Serengeti plains. Historically, zebras, giraffes and leopards have roamed this landscape. But today, poaching, famine and non-existent conservation regulations have ecologists wondering whether any of these animals are left.
The area has always been infamously difficult to reach, and hasn’t been explored by Westerners since 1914. Meaning that before we showed up, some people living here have never had contact with the outside world (save, perhaps, for a few meetings with some extremely determined missionaries).
In the second part of the trip we met the Mundari people, who live about 70km north of the southern Sudanese capital Juba, on the White Nile. This tribe is known specifically for their great herds of the massive, otherworldly Ankole-Watusi: creatures look like they were plucked straight out of a folktale. So without further ado, here’s my story.
First Stop: Juba
Our journey began with a long, cramped flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. On this flight we were still surrounded by tourists trading in their frosty European forests for Ethiopia’s safaris, volcanic lakes, and bright sandy beaches.
But when we caught the rickety commuter flight from Addis Ababa to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, these jolly tourists were nowhere in sight.
After a slightly bumpy ride we touched down in Juba and entered into what has to be the most peculiar airport I had ever seen (and I’ve seen some strange airports, let me tell you). I clambered off the plane down a roll up stair ramp and followed the crowd into this patchwork canopy tent with some new construction peppered in periodically. The baggage claim area was actually a bit more of a baggage auction area, where local entrepreneurs waited to grab your bag before you could and deliver it to your car for a small bit of cash. Luckily, I had slipped, weaved and gently elbowed past the sweaty bodies of my fellow passengers and located my three pieces of luggage before they were lost in the fray. Unsurprisingly, African Press named this airport the "worst African airport" in 2016, and I can’t say I disagree. But, though this airport was miserable, it was also unforgettable.
As would be the rest of the adventure I was only just embarking on.
Outside, we were hailed by a man dressed smartly in a button up shirt with tapered trousers. He seemed to be evenly coated in a delicate layer of fresh dirt, most likely from his last excursion. In the days to come, this man would save our excursion time and again. He introduced himself as Joan Riera.
Joan is a renowned Catalan ethnologist who is constantly on the move and has visited countless tribes and indigenous communities in Africa. In the ethnological expedition community he is regarded as an exploration authority, having spearheaded trips for National Geographic and some of the most renowned photographers in the world.
Standing beside Joan was his partner, Donald Ainomugisha—a Ugandan fixer, who operated as our liaison and middle man. He was the reason we travelled the roads safely and got to chat with locals. Also, he was a fantastic cook and got us thoroughly addicted to Ugandan cuisine (Matooke, sorghum flatbread, goat stew, to name a few).
Originally, the plan had been to fly out to Boma National Park immediately after we touched down in Juba on Saturday. But as all travelers know, tight schedules only exist on paper. Joan informed us that we would have to wait for a few approvals from some higher ups in the South Sudanese government and would have to fly out a few days later.
We were already stranded. So it was decided that we stay for the next few nights in the Rainbow Hotel on the east end of the city, a compound frequented by the WFP and Red Cross ambassadors. We spent our days in limbo, carousing around Juba in cheap, airy jeeps, ducking into hidden air conditioned cafes and bars where the local upper class and expats spent their days sipping on good coffee and pouring over newspapers from far off places. We quickly learned that some foreigners in Juba don’t really interact with the locals, preferring instead these posh hangouts—sleek modern buildings that stuck out like sore thumbs in the ancient city. Unfortunately due to escalating political tension we too were forced to stay as close as we could to our compound.
The narrow roads of the city were packed with UN vehicles and NGO cars, and the sparse gas stations had long lines of cars and people that never seemed to dissipate. There was a strict 19:00 curfew, and there were regular military patrols to enforce it. There was a general tension in the air, and a wariness in the eyes of each new person I encountered.
A new morning in the city. We learned that even our delayed schedule had been too optimistic.
Joan had tried to procure an affordable flight to Boma but came up with zilch. Which is understandable, considering South Sudan has spent the last 5 decades in a slew of bitter, hard wars, with over 50 distinct ethnic groups grasping for freedom, power, and stability. Even worse, ethnic tensions may continue to fracture the country even more. There is currently a shaky peace agreement forged between the empowered Dinka tribe and Nuer ethnic group, but no one is confident it will hold.
The fallout of coups and fiery battles has also rendered the government’s infrastructure unstable at best, and it was safe to say South Sudanese travel airline companies hadn’t flourished in the meantime.
So we had to get creative. Our only option was to appeal to the former governor of the Boma region—one Deputy Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Yauayau David Jankuch—and have him join us on our journey, so he could procure a flight to Boma National Park.
As it turned out, Joan had foreseen our travel impediments and made contact with The General a few months back, knowing full well that we could only travel seriously in the region if we had the support of a high-ranking politician.
Before we knew it, we were seated across from the reluctant general over a plate of millet porridge and fresh fish, trying to pursuade him to accompany us on an impromptu holiday to his home region and to our surprise, we convinced him. We were bursting with excitement. During the entire dinner, I was seated right beside the General, who was nothing but friendly and open minded. He had deep smile lines and bright, kind eyes.
It’s still strange for me to remember that this man had been an active leader of the Murle militia during Sudan’s bloody civil war and that he witnessed horrific acts of violence.
At the end of the meeting it was decided that we would depart for Boma early Tuesday morning, at first light.
On our final drive back to the Rainbow Hotel from the restaurant, we finally got to visit districts beyond where the expats congregated. Tense peace held during the daytime, and that strict 19:00 curfew rendered the streets ghostly and still. During our curt seven kilometer drive we passed through more police controls than I could count, each of which carefully searched our car for hidden weapons and watched our movements closely.
Because of this tension, we were firmly asked not to take any photos. So I didn’t. My camera stayed stowed away in my backpack. All I have left are these words, unpunctuated with pictures.
Our third day had started in the offices of the South Sudanian Ministry of Defense and Veteran Affairs. We saw the minister in his office, discussed a few final details and obtained official permission for our excursion into Boma National Park. On the evening prior, the Minister asked for a favor in return. He had told us that he was committed to supporting and reforming war veterans, namely by training them for office work and computer jobs. But as a fledgling country dealing with the fallout of constant war for the past few decades, his government lacked the finances.
Together we decided to photograph people at the veteran center, with the hope that their stories would garner support from monied sympathizers across the globe. It is so easy to forget that these news reports about conflict and economical struggle aren’t just statistics. They are real people, as real as your neighbor and child and best friend. These people just drew the short straw and inherited a bloody, awful conflict. We hoped our portraits could remind the world to see the human face in a statistic. In the simple backyard of the veteran center, we photographed as many veterans as we could.
When we drove home that night I was struck with how surreal this all felt. Usually, most of our adventures have occurred distinctly against government approval. My reflex has always been to hide from the military, duck behind bushes, conceal my camera gear under large coats and always remain under the radar. And then? Then we were carted around town in official military vehicles, escorted constantly by armed soldiers. Eventually I grew so used to being surrounded by AK-47’s that they raised no further alarm in my mind than a cup of coffee.
Second Stop: Boma
At 5:30am my alarm went off. I took one last shower, stuffed my gear into my pack and left for the airport. We were supposed to lift off at 7am to snap some pictures in good light, but instead we took off 3 hours later (of course). But the flip side was that we skipped the innumerable security checks and got to spend some time in a semi-swanky VIP lounge talking with General Yauayau and some other ministers, enjoying some rare air conditioning.
We were finally loaded onto a small, weathered passenger aircraft. We spent two hours in the sky, passing slowly over broad plains, then finally dipping down into Boma National Park which was colored an alien green, with reddish brown mountains speckled sparsely throughout.
The pilots were extremely carefree and even let us film in the cockpit, capturing scenes of the land below, framed by the cold, metal portholes of the plane.
When we landed a small crowd was gathered to welcome us, and after a quick tour of Boma’s conservation and wildlife center, General Yauayau hopped back on the plane bound for his family’s home in a neighboring region.
But we had more traveling to do. I wedged myself into the back of a pickup with seven soldiers, each of them hugging an AK-47 to their chest, and we drove east, deeper into Boma. High winds ruffled my hair and kicked up dust in our wake. In this small sea of guns and men, I imagined this is what soldiers might feel like, right before a fight—that short-lived triumphant euphoria before the battle, when you still feel safe and invincible and fellow soldiers felt like your brothers.
After a few hours we finally reached Boma during the golden hour. We threw our packs onto the ground, spilled out their contents and set up camp.
This was the day we were to meet the Kachipo tribe, but first we had a choice to make. We could either take the long, safe route to their village, or the short, dangerous route. The first route was quite a long hike that could span a few days. The second was a much shorter trek, but involved clambering up a 1000 meter mountain face. We opted for the quick trail. You don’t really need any foreshadowing to know that we made the wrong decision.
After we ascended the first 200 meters, Markus began to feel wobbly and light headed. The soldiers relieved him of his heavy camera backpack and we pushed on. Then he began to feel progressively worse and could only climb in short bursts. I was really starting to feel bad for him, wondering how he felt. Then I didn’t have to wonder because at 400 meters my head started to spin and I felt like barfing—constantly. Also it was quite hot, and the sun beat down mercilessly on our backs.
It was all so peculiar too, since Markus and I had been in pretty good shape. I mean, I have climbed up plenty of mountains before, even while dehydrated.
It soon became clear that we had contracted some virus or bacteria somewhere along our journey. So we pressed on (grumpily), not even considering turning back. It went alright for a short while. Then, at 650 meters, both Markus and I collapsed. Obviously, we weren’t going to make it without some more water. So it was decided that Joan, Fabi, and the soldiers would venture ahead and look for some help.
And us? We just laid down in the center of the trail for three hours, gazed up at the sky and tried to muster up some energy. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. With droopy eyes I watched gentle breezes tug at trees and listened to songbirds chirp out of sight. But then I saw a flash of color out of the corner of my eye, and all of a sudden three Kachipo men appeared over me, each wrapped in their traditional purple, green and brownish blankets.
I practically shouted with joy. To our feverish delight, they had brought a five liter canister of water. I could have kissed our saviors. As I took a few big swigs of water, I looked at each of their kind faces, grinning. Then the eldest of the three ceremoniously dipped his hands in the canister and gently wiped the dirt from my brow and hair.
Obviously, I had imagined our encounter a little differently (perhaps a bit more formal and dignified on my end…walking into the village, shaking hands perhaps?) Informalities aside, this was so much better, since our saviors became our fast friends.
Expert tip for those trying to make some friends abroad: rescuing someone from acute dehydration really is a shortcut to best friendship.
After we all drank our fill, we started to climb again. Slowly. We ascended 20 meters, dry heaved for five minutes, climbed, heaved. Not exactly triumphant looking, but it worked. It’s all a bit fuzzy to me now, but I know that at one point I was carried on the shoulders of the first Kachipo I met, the one who cleaned my hair. At other points, we would climb up a few meters on our knees. Then after two hours of this, we finally reached the entrance of the village, collapsing into the tent our friends had already set up.
That night I had a few nightmares that were borderline hallucinations. The next day, while Markus and I were dazed and ill in the confines of our tent, Fabian, Joan, and Juliana explored the village, met with Kachipo tribe people and even wandered out into the surrounding areas.
As it turned out, the village’s only water source was a 15 minute walk away. The chalky brown water had to be strained and boiled a few times to render it drinkable.
During my sick day in the tent I read "Oil, Power and a Sign of Hope" by the German development aid Klaus Stieglitz, who revealed that in the northern end of South Sudan, more than 300,000 people’s groundwater has been poisoned.
Various companies, unencumbered by environmental protections and conservation laws, have haphazardly drilled for oil in the Unity State, routinely letting their waste drain into the groundwater layer, thoroughly poisoning the natural irrigation system and numerous tribes’ groundwater.
When samples of this water were examined, scientists found a high density of harmful heavy metals. Even worse, they discovered that the water’s salt content was 8 times higher than what is found in clean, drinkable water. Meaning that this metallic, salty water has to be heavily filtered and if not, it will only dehydrate its parched drinkers.
One of the major oil-producing companies in this region is the Malaysian group and Formula 1 sponsor, Petronas. They have generated millions by ripping every ounce of oil from Sudan’s soil, and yet the company has been totally uninterested in developing clean, environmentally friendly waste disposal tactics. Why would they? Toxic groundwater in Sudan won’t affect their foreign shareholders.
This morning commenced with a party—we were officially welcomed to the tribe with a Kachipo greeting dance and donga (a ceremony that shows men's strength and bravery), all of which lasts a minimum of three hours. My health had improved quite a bit by that point, and I wondered if all I had needed was a cheery welcome dance to cure my ailments. Markus was still fending off shivers and headaches, so the spiritual ladies of the community gathered around and willed the gods to heal their foreign friend.
We interviewed a few more tribe members and learned that we were their first white visitors. Which was quite shocking—I mean, when was the last time someone told you that they had never met anyone that looked like you? Later that evening, Markus and I were led up to a jagged plateau that overlooked all of Boma National Park. The ladies’ spiritual healing apparently needed a few days to kick in, because Markus was still quite weak. He hid it quite well though. Even though he was practically half dead, there he was, filming on a hilltop, laughing and creating breathtaking images.
Right then I knew that photography was like breathing to Markus. Vital. Life-giving. Unceasing. I swear he could probably fall off a cliff break both of his arms and still take the most dazzling photos.
Today we woke up at the crack of dawn and began a long day of filming. Fabi, Markus and I started interviewing and photographing people. We took a lot of breaks, and Markus often handed off his bulky SLR camera to the tribal people so they could snap photos of their friends and family.
A few hours later, Fabi and I visited a family on the village's outer edge and they kindly allowed us to explore their house. It was quite small, only three meters wide and one meter tall. We all had to crawl to enter. But that was quite fine with the current tenants, since it only served as a dry place to catch some shut eye.
We explored the village for the rest of the day and captured hours of footage. But as the sun dipped below the horizon, we sadly realized that we had to move on. We would have stayed longer, but the local water wasn’t exactly helping our mysterious infections. So we packed up our gear, said some heartfelt goodbyes and bound down the same arduous path we took up.
Joan, bless his heart, had sent two men from the Jie tribe with twenty cokes to meet our group halfway down the trail— a surprise for his dehydration-prone comrades.
Third Stop: Jie
The next morning we found ourselves in the Jie village, home to a tribe that has turned away from their traditions and history in the pursuit of Western living. In the process of their westernization, many members of the tribe do not recall their cultural knowledge and tactics for subsisting off the surrounding land. And since job opportunities and produce are scarce, they have become reliant on International food programs.
We encountered a terrifying amount of people scarred and thin and constantly plagued by poverty and hunger. So we dug into our bags and handed out our food. It wasn’t even close to enough and the very act of handing out a few slices of bread to a group of children felt like such an insanely inadequate gesture. After a while we had to leave and begin our two kilometer hike across a boiling hot savannah to reach our base camp. Coming from temperate Germany, it was difficult to imagine surviving, let alone living here. That evening our hosts slaughtered a goat and then fried it in its own fat over a large wood stove.
After heavy rainfall in the night, our ten kilometer journey became a muddy slip and slide and the drive back to the airport felt like one of those impossible racing arcade games. When we finally reached the airstrip, we jumped on a cramped bush plane and flew to the next region over to visit Minister Yauyau’s hometown. The airstrip for his village was so short and bumpy that I was sure we might make a crash landing. Our brief visit was uneventful and after drinking some stew with the Minister, we hopped back on a plane bound for Juba.
Fourth Stop: The White Nile
After a brief reprieve in Juba (A.K.A. a series of long, desperate naps), we headed north of the capital to meet the nomadic herdsmen of Sudan—the Mundari tribe. They were grazing their massive herds on the banks of the White Nile, next to their perennial village. After driving 70 kilometers, we quickly pitched our tents by the mouth of the White Nile and made a beeline for the Mundari’s cattle camp, cameras in hand.
We learned that only the young men of the tribe live as nomads and tend the ever-moving herds, while the families and elders of the tribe inhabit their village all year round. In one interview, a young shepherd told us that “these animals are our life.” Then another Mundari cheekily told us that marriage was your only ticket out of your cattle tending job.
At the cattle camp, the Mundaris took us on a tour of their minimalist stucco homes. At noon we hung out with the children, who burnt cow dung and rubbed the ash on the livestock and even dusted it on their own arms and legs to keep mosquitos at bay. One Mundari informed us that if you were going to head to another rowdy village you might want to smother on a bunch of ash and throw on a hyena skin for good measure so no one would try to fight you. While another tribesperson added that the ash doubles as soap.
At dusk, their cows were summoned home, and poured into the village from all four directions. For two hours, the ground rumbled and hummed as 700 hundred pairs of Ankole-Watusi hooves gently plodded the ground in this mass homecoming. The animals’ slow stumbles kicked up a storm of ash that glowed in the setting sun’s light.
The next day I flew my drone across the village, capturing whimsical photographs of the Mundari peoples’ massive herd nestled against the White Nile river. As per usual, my drone sparked some tribespeople’s curiosity, and a little later on I showed the herders what their animals and home looked like from a cloud’s view. Then, when everyone else set off to work, we perched ourselves under a tree’s canopy to read, nap in the early morning sun and drink in the otherworldly plains.
In the evening we returned to the village and filmed the Mundari wrestling (South Sudan’s favorite pastime besides soccer). We also observed the tribespeople drawing gorgeous swirling geometric structures on one another.
On the very last day, we got to visit a simple church some wandering missionaries had built for the Mundaris quite some time ago. Every afternoon, like clockwork, the church would fill up with tribespeople and they would sing melodic worship ballads that could be heard by the Ankole-Watusi wading through the dusty plain, eating every piece of grass they could find. It was sublime and sobering and beautiful, all at the same moment.
It was the morning of our departure, and we were still at the White Nile cattle camp. We hung around the camp and captured a few last photos of the chalky plains in the pink and blue morning light. As per usual, time escaped us and our farewell to the Mundari people was very brief, as goodbyes often are. As it would turn out, the Mundari tribe would be migrating as well. Soon they would move their gargantuan herds into the mountains next door, since these plains would be underwater soon enough.
So we were on the road. As expected, we got stopped by innumerable police, trying to make one last buck off our travel troupe. But Mayong (the minister’s secretary and our unofficial guard) plainly told the dodgy police to shut it and let us pass. It worked. Thanks to him, we made it to the airport, with just enough time to sprawl beneath the VIP lounge’s orgasmic air conditioning and briefly avoid the utter chaos of Africa’s worst airport.
There aren’t any quick fixes for the problems South Sudan faces. Additionally, the situation only grows more dire since about half of South Sudan’s population of 11 million people are threatened with famine; inflation is at 300% rendering the country effectively bankrupt. The country is overflowing with rich natural resources, but global companies have bastardized it all, claiming the profits and poisoning South Sudan’s water as thanks.
It’s overwhelming, I know. But even though this conflict is complex, it is by no means hopeless. So here’s what we can do to make a difference.
1. Inform ourselves about the issue and read "Oil, Power and a Sign of Hope" by the German development aid Klaus Stieglitz.
2. Try to consume less petrol! After all, it’s our demand for oil that drives these human rights violations.
3. Donate to organisations like Oxfam who provide food supplies to people in desperate need.