by Michelle Munro

Juba is like a frontier town during a gold rush – red dust in the air and everywhere else, 40 degrees in the shade, African vultures circling overhead, rapidly erected shops with facades last seen in a Western, violent, but still a respite from more volatile parts of South Sudan, lots of money (development dollars), people from throughout the region (and globe) flooding in to cash in on the bonanza and lots of drinking.  So after a rather trying few days, I wandered up the road to the beauty saloon (what they call a hairdresser/esthetician here).

During my pedicure I learned the stories of the staff and other clients. Nora* is from near Mombasa.  She looks no more than 18 but is probably older. She is making more money as a manicurist here than at home, but it’s a rough place, very expensive, and when she goes home her family members all demand their share. As she orders me to move this foot or that one in her abrupt Kenyan way, I can’t imagine her not being able to say “no,” but what she says rings true.  She says she won’t stay.  Florence is a rather jolly nurse-midwife from Uganda and has more than a few years on Nora.  South Sudan’s 50-year war left behind a dearth of trained health workers, teachers or anyone else with the skills needed to build a country.  Florence works in a donor-funded clinic in one of the more difficult parts of country – where it is hotter than here.  Six weeks in, five days in Juba, six more weeks and then a ten-day break back in Kampala.  Her last-born daughter’s university in the UK will benefit from her mom’s 12-hour days delivering babies and treating just about everything.  Mary is one of many noticeably hard-working Eritreans in Juba and runs a restaurant. Indeed, all restaurants and most hotels seem to be Eritrean enterprises. Her pedicure break was between meal times – Mary’s days begin at 6 in the morning and end at about midnight. “There are ways,” she says, when I ask how she managed an exit visa from that notoriously closed country.  She needs the US dollars she earns here – the Eritrean Nakfa is collapsing and her parent’s monthly pensions only pay for two days of food – but when she sends money home the government takes a 10% cut.

The saloon had its own culture.  As well as our histories, we talked about cracked heels, nail colours, eye-brow styles and children.  We all luxuriated in the air conditioning and foot baths. We escaped Juba for a little while in a “pedicure culture” that crosses borders.

*All names have been changed.