After years in exile during the war, the son of an independence fighter returns to Juba, capital of South Sudan. It isn’t always comfortable, but it is his home.
|Nuer Maker Benjamin gave up a comfortable life in London to return to his homeland, newly independent South Sudan, one of the least developed countries. (Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times)|
“Things that are not offensive in London are highly offensive here. People are very proud, so anything can be insulting to them, and you can misunderstand each other most of the time.”
For young South Sudanese such as Benjamin who returned from the diaspora in America, Australia, Europe or other parts of Africa, Juba isn’t always what they hoped. Many of those who remained here during the 22-year independence war resent those who left and have come back with their degrees and worldly experience. Government jobs go to those who did their bit for the war, and their proteges.
But for all its deprivations and anxieties, Juba is the only place that is, finally, home.
As one returnee, Winnie Lado, put it, “I’ve never felt the kind of belonging that I have felt here.”
Beneath, there is unease, for some. South Sudan is one of the least developed countries in the world, and returnees with children know they could give them a better life in another country.
The traumas of war echo in niggling daily tension, brittle relationships or sudden explosions of violence.
“People seemed very rude, the way they related,” Lado said. “The reason is these people are traumatized. All they’ve seen is war, conflict and running around. They don’t know anything else.”
Benjamin had the uncertain, confusing childhood of a refugee. He saw his mother only a few times before her death in 2009 and didn’t meet his father until he was in his early 20s.
From age 9 to 15, he lived with relatives in Cairo, where boys taunted him with names like Chocolada and Konga Bonga. In London, where he studied film, the racism was more subtle, but the frequent police harassment was equally disturbing.
Coming home, Benjamin knew there was some risk that South Sudan could collapse into a failed state or go back to war. He came anyway.
Benjamin is the son of a senior government official and former rebel fighter, George Maker Benjamin, who fought in the war against Sudan. He grew up hearing of his father’s distant deeds.
“He had a good reputation,” he said. “He was a hard-core politician and he had a habit of not combing his hair.”
Benjamin didn’t meet his father until a 2004 visit to Dallas, where his father was working on the resettlement of a group of Sudanese child soldiers called the Lost Boys of Sudan.
He’d been waiting years to meet his father, but when the moment came, he felt strangely vacant and cold.
“We shook hands, as if it was just another man,” he said. “I didn’t feel anything.”
The childhood distance between him and his father chilled Benjamin’s emotions.
“He has sacrificed a lot of his life and time to the movement, based on what he saw. It turned him cold and emotionless. It’s difficult to drop what you saw and felt, and suddenly be a father. He has his own burdens and issues to deal with.”
In Juba, the scars of the 22-year war play out in small daily encounters.
“I’ve seen people being beaten up. I didn’t know what to think. It was outside of what I knew,” Benjamin said. “Then I began to understand, it’s actually normal for such things to happen. If there’s a car accident, people see mob violence as a way to punish the guy who caused the accident. Violence has become part of the culture.”
It took some adjustment, especially his encounters with police and security officials, who can be aggressive or corrupt. But as the country recovers from its bitter past, he is full of plans.
There’s the film festival he’s organizing through his Benjamin Bil Sound Mind Foundation (named after his grandfather).
On the happier side, there’s the wedding he has arranged for his sister, involving many negotiations and formalities in settling the bride price (nominally in cattle), organizing documents and other details.
It’s an important responsibility. Planning the wedding and consulting with his father have anchored him to Juba, and to his father.
“I always understood where my father was coming from. I understood his mind-set and that it would not be easy for him to open up to me. Some of it would be regret that he wasn’t there.
“It’s only now we’re getting closer. He’s opening up to me and telling me more about himself.”
In the jostling streets of Juba, where the prices are high and electricity and water are unreliable, there’s plenty he could be disappointed with. But the down-at-heel city has welded itself to Benjamin’s heart.
“I feel it’s part of my destiny,” he said. “I feel a lot of joy.”
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