Juba goes Miami: Fun on Queen Juba, a double-decker boat with twin 320-horse-power engines. (photo: The Niles | Akim Mugisa)
It is just after three on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the South Sudanese capital Juba. Men and women, many wearing bright orange life jackets over their African attire, head for the pier of the Queen Juba 001 for the first ever Oky African Boat Cruise Party.
Passengers pile aboard the double-decker white boat and twin 320-horse-power engines roar to general excitement. High-fives clash in the air and people embrace as the boat’s Assistant Captain Aaron Kitonyi gently steers the Queen Juba 001 away from the platform.
The deck is abuzz with expectations of seeing the indigenous people of the River Nile banks and the famous Gondokoro Island, a historic site that once served as an Egyptian garrison and the base of British explorer Sir Samuel Baker during his 1870s expedition.
The Nile, which at some 6,853 kilometres is the world’s longest river, snakes through South Sudan on its way through Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea, offers spectacular views of unspoiled nature.
In South Sudan, an area which is roughly the size of France and Germany combined, the river is used for transport, fishing and its water is taken by many households and for agriculture. However, until now, it has remained an untapped resource for leisure activities.
This contrasts with neighbouring Uganda, where in areas like Jinja, Murchison Falls National park and Panyimur, offer rafting, kayaking, fishing competitions and camping sites among other leisure pursuits.
A forest of mango trees hug the east and west banks of the river and local ethnic groups appear from their Tukuls (mud and bamboo houses) and wave to the passengers. Fishing and transport canoes make way for the large cruise boat. An onboard disc jockey plays loud African beats and the sounds of Emmanuel Kembe’s Let us celebrate and Bob Marley’s One Love echo across the water.
“We are heading to Malakal,” one passenger jokes to a group of onlookers, referring to the capital of Upper-Nile State, which lies more than 500 kilometres away.
South Sudanese artists including Yuppy Jay of Jay family, Meen Meen of the Coozos Clan, comedians and music promoters were among the passengers of the first boat cruise party. Tickets cost 300 South Sudanese Pounds (about US$ 95) for the three-hour voyage.
Guests on the front deck challenge “driver” Kitonyi to crash the boat into a lively, six-feet long, yellow-and-green snake which is swimming just metres ahead of the boat, but it struggles out of harms way just in time.
A light-hearted argument ensues as to whether the man at the wheel is called a driver, until one of the passengers explains that Kitonyi is a captain, accord- ing to nautical terminology.
Wine, spirits and bottles of beer are served alongside local food, including home-made samosas and chicken thighs. Guests dig their spoons into small ceramic bowls of Githeri, a traditional Kenyan dish made of boiled maize grains and beans.
A couple of water-ski boats circle in the distance, prompting a group of passengers to shout “Al-Shabaab, Al-Shabaab”, in reference to the notorious Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean. Smart phones click and flash as revellers snap selfies in various poses.
One of the business partners behind the party cruise, Wani Michael, explains the trip was designed to celebrate African diversity and unity. “We need to rejuvenate our lost African cultures. Few from the younger generation can sing African songs, they don’t know our cultures in dressing and feeding because the western culture is killing ours,” he says.
He said they created the river trip to enable expatriates, corporate people and socialites to travel along the mighty water body.
Data Gordon Emmanuel, a worker at the Zain telecommunications network, praises the trip as a welcome break from the bustle of Juba city: “I was happy to see the natural green scenery along the Nile.”
Down in the cabin, five-year old Emily wears a small safety vest and is accompanied by her father, an executive member of the South Sudan Artists Association. “It is good,” she says. “It feels good to be in this boat on the water.”
At half past seven the sun starts to set on the river and Queen Juba 001 docks at the pier and its relaxed and upbeat passengers disembark. Winnie Godi, from WinnyG fashions and co-organiser of the cruise, reflects that the Nile trip revealed natural beauty to young people, and could encourage peace by providing work for the unemployed and disenchanted.
By introducing and promoting leisure activities, beaches and water games along the world famous water way, South Sudan could generate revenue for government, create employment and also open up markets for locally produced goods such as handcrafts, she says.
“Youths can have fun and avoid engaging in war here. They learn they have a life to enjoy and they can earn a living from working as guides to visitors or working on cruise boats... No water, no peace. This river unites us all.”