As Juba rumbled towards midnight, the ecstasy of the people here began to reach new levels. Cars drove through the streets honking, people walked the roads draped in flags, faces covered in national slogans. When midnight hit, people even further erupted, cheering, crying, hugging, laughing.
On any other night I would never try to walk home, but with the number of people on the street and the overall sense of jubilation (or should I say JUBAlation? No? Ok.) I couldn’t have been safer. On our way home we ended up being picked up by a friend who drove us through the central roundabout with the countdown clock. Such infectious celebrations that I nearly got out of the car to stay there the rest of the night.
Today’s celebrations at the John Garang mausoleum were just as joyous, although miserably hot. The celebrations were scheduled to begin around 10am, but in true South Sudan fashion, they didn’t start until 12:30pm. The excitement was palpable.
Of course, South Sudan didn’t plan for enough seating for all the foreign dignitaries and VIPs (see: true South Sudan fashion), so they spent about an hour an a half asking all the South Sudanese VIPs an generals to please give up their seats. The claim was something along the lines of, “It’s our day, so let’s show the world that they’re important and we appreciate them coming to see our nation’s birth! And hey, our bodies are used to the heat and sun!”
Um… pretty sure that on your birthday, people are supposed to do special favors for you, not the other way around. But ok.
After the show finally started more than 2.5 hours late, things were hot and muggy and our water supply was dwindling, so we decided to just stay until the flag raising was over. There were formalities of prayers and military salutes and parading and the official reading of the Declaration of Independence, and then… the flag raising.
I’ve been privileged in my life to witness some pretty extraordinary moments in history. I stood in Hyde Park in London during Live 8, and I stood in Grant Park in Chicago when Obama won the presidency and gave his speech. Standing in the John Garang mausoleum watching thousands erupt in cheers, crying, hugging, vehemently waving their own flags… well, it was among those indescribably moving experiences, to be sure.
More than made up for the 6 hours I spent standing in blazing sun. Well, you can’t take back the sunburn, but at least it made it worth it.
All the dignitaries are fleeing, so life in Juba should start transitioning back to normal. While a lot of the other improvements in Juba fell short of their mark (lampposts not finished, trees planted too late, the new supermarket not opened) one thing they did manage to finish was putting the lights on the runway. Now all the VIPs can leave pretty much anytime, so they’re fleeing ship mostly tonight. But I admit that as nice as the lights are, seeing planes take off at 8pm is really disconcerting after 5 months of nothing after 5pm.
Reflecting on how amazing today has been (even knowing full well the struggles South Sudan now faces as a brand new nation), all that keeps going through my head is this:
They’ll call me freedom, just like a waving flag…