We are creatures of habit. Most often our decisions are less than tremendous – they’re exercises in functional efficiency, habituated patterns of modest resistance. I face an actual decision. A literal fork in the road. It’s unsettling.
Last week we discovered that Ethiopia has changed its immigration policy. They are no longer issuing tourist visas, except at the airport in Addis Ababa and to residents in their home country. Online, people reported month long turnarounds from the Ethiopian embassy in Washington. The only way for us to make it into Addis would be to fly in. Difficult and expensive as we have bicycles.
We’re cornered. We came from the south. We don’t want to go west. The Congo is struggling after decades of war that killed millions. And they don’t speak English. To go east is to enter Kenya and then end our journey early in Nairobi. That’s an option. Maybe the wisest. But there’s another option, to go north.
North of Uganda stands Sudan, the largest nation in Africa, it’s Texas times four, a land of desert, delta and brush, Arabs, Christians and animists. It too has struggled with war. The South began rebelling in 1955. Peace came fifty years later, kind-of. Last year, the South voted for succession to become on July 9th the world’s youngest nation.
There are many good reasons to not go to South Sudan. The conflict was devastating. Millions died. Millions more became refugees. To say the nation is undeveloped is an understatement. Rurally, less than 5% graduate from primary school. There is no national economy, no university, few paved roads (less than 50k / 30 miles), limited security, limited healthcare (e.g. three surgeons, total), limited governance, limited sanitation.
The official line is clear, “The Embassy advises against any travel in or through Sudan due to the turbulent and unpredictable security environment.” The travel warnings are chilling. I’ve read them each a good dozen times. There are reports of banditry, violent crime, competing militias and growing threats of imminent interstate war.
People I really respect have advised me that to go north is reckless. What will they say, if I end up in a ditch jailed mugged dehydrated dead? The fool. I fear that. I fear that maybe I’m committing the people who love me most to a week of anxious worrying, or much worse yet, to picking up the pieces. I fear that. To recklessly impose on others – there’s not much worse than that.
For the past week I have weighed my options. We cannot escape our history. I am born an American. To be born in South Sudan is to be unlucky, it’s to be born into a war torn society with few of the comforts of even 19th century modernity. And yet, we go through South Sudan – on bicycles – because despite that, I think we’ll be safe.
I wouldn’t go there if I didn’t. Cycling Africa, I’ve gotten the sense the cliché is valid – that a basic level people everywhere have similar simple good intentions. It’s true that South Sudan is poor and that desperation and inequality cause violence, but at present there is less desperation and more hope than at any other time. They believed in their nation so greatly that for fifty years they sent their sons to die. They are now one sovereign people. They have something to prove. I want to give them that chance. I want to see their traditional cultures, I want to see the birth of their nation, of hope, to believe that people can rise above their origins. That’s naive and maybe foolhardy but if I can’t travel that road, I don’t know if I’d know if I’d want to travel any.
In few days time, we cross a bridge to a new nation. We will cycle only in day light and only the well trodden tracks. We will seek out trustworthy people and we will trust them as others have trusted us. Our fate is in the hands of Hermes, the people of South Sudan, to the open road – we ride onward.
As electricity and internet will be lacking, updates will be few and far between. Wish us luck!