The first time I went to South Sudan was in April 2012 and the country was almost at war with Sudan. I remember sitting at my gate in Addis, waiting to board my flight to Juba, feeling scared and nervous. It felt like standing on a trampoline before diving into deep water.
The best advice I got before going to South Sudan was to keep an open mind and to have no expectations, because there is just no way to be prepared for what you will experience. With that in mind I decided to relax, stop worrying, observe my surroundings and deal with whatever comes my way.
At my gate in Addis I looked around to see what kind of people I was travelling with. They were mostly men, most of them older, there were Chinese businessmen, aid workers and people working for the UN. I particularly remember one man. He was South Sudanese. I could recognize the scars on his forehead from pictures I had seen. He was tall and was wearing a brown suit and looked like he could be someone important. However, the reason I remember him is that he had a goatee and was wearing huge, brown, round 80’s style glasses and on his feet he had fluffy slippers with tiger stripes. I couldn’t stop starring and wished I could take a picture of him (although I knew that the image of him would last in my mind forever).
Watching this man, trying to understand who would wear such a fantastic outfit with fluffy tiger slippers, took away most of my fear and nervousness and I only prepared myself to be amazed. I took one last deep breath and boarded my plane with the sense of having jumped into a deep and unknown ocean.
Today I am returning to Juba. This time to a civil war. I am back at that trampoline, waiting to jump. Just like the first time I feel scared and nervous but the excitement is not there. I am returning to a place that used to be my home, where I have friends and memories and still some of my belongings, yet I feel like I am diving into the unknown. The war has changed South Sudan and it has changed me. Once again I need to keep an open mind to what I will see and experience. Once again I need to take one last deep breath, jump and remember to swim for the surface.