I am in Southern Sudan doing some preliminary interviews and trying to figure out where I should base myself when I come back for a year in June. But I also want to reacquaint myself with things here, see some friends and road test my evolving Dinka language skills.
Last Monday I arrived in Juba and almost immediately set about the task of getting out of Juba, to Lakes State, first stop Yirol, then on to Rumbek and surrounds. After a couple of days I managed to get a lift to Yirol with Norweigian People’s Aid who had a car taking some supplies up there.
Yirol is a large town in Lakes State (but it is much smaller than Rumbek, the State capital). It is on the shores of a large swampy lake and was an administrative centre during the British period. The town is scattered with colonial buildings in varying states of ruin, amongst newer structures from the Nimeiri period (the 1970s) and recently build government offices, a hospital and a new guesthouse is being constructed by the lake.
Yirol town seems like a very cosmopolitan place. There is a mix of traders from the North of Sudan, restaurants run by east Africans as well as local Dinka and Atuot people (and a few lost looking UN staff). At night the main market is lit up in a rainbow of neon lights from stalls all selling the same things. A little way from the centre there is another, smaller market where you can get “traditional” produce like dried fish, pipe tobacco and wild foods. It’s called ‘medinyiin’ which means squinting eyes because this is where people used to come to get illegally produced alcohol during the British period (I saw none for sale in 2010, but can report that beer and wine is freely available in Yirol).
Asides from the markets the focus of the town is Freedom Square, where people gather to play football, cards, watch wrestling and dancing in the evenings. There was an imperceptibly small livestock auction going on when I arrived: a single bull and three goats were being sold
Life in town is very mixed. Most people live in family compounds, which sprawl out into considerable suburban areas. But there is also considerable cultivation by the lake and there even a couple of cattle camps in the town itself. All these different ways of living mixed up together
On my second day we took a walk to see the lake and met some people who were waiting to cross to their homes on the other side. They had come to Yirol to buy supplies (mostly sodas from the look of their bags) and were trying to make the return journey. It takes about 45 minutes, either in a canoe, dug out from a palm tree (or there is one plastic boat). We discussed getting to the other side, but no one I was with had much experience of navigating the dug out canoes, which are deceptively hard to keep steady with passengers and no one was brave enough to take us all! Next time I am in Yirol I will make it to the other side of the lake.