April 9, 2010 / 5:58 AM / 9 years ago

In southern Sudan, for the money

JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - The only thing that’s cheap in southern Sudan is life.

An Ugandan trader (R) sells onions to a customer at a vegetable market in southern Sudan's capital Juba in this September 21, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Skye Wheeler/Files

One of the world’s poorest regions, where four out of five people are illiterate and one in five children fails to make it to their fifth birthday, the south’s economy has been turned on its head since the end of a 22-year civil war in 2005.

A flood of foreign aid workers and more than $2 billion a year in oil revenues under a peace deal with the central government in Khartoum has transformed the south into one of the most expensive corners of Africa.

As homeless children sift through piles of garbage lining the streets of the south’s scruffy capital, Juba, a single supermarket caters to the tastes of its new elite, most of them former guerrillas from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

With everything trucked in from neighboring Kenya on shattering dirt roads, or floated down the Nile from Uganda, these tastes come at a price. Southern Sudan, a region the size of Texas, has just 50 km of paved roads.

A box of Kelloggs Rice Krispies costs 24 Sudanese pounds ($9.20). A liter bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label is nearly

$300.

Nobody knows how many people live in the city, although some say its population has trebled in the last five years under the weight of tens of thousands Kenyans and Ugandans out to make a quick buck.

“Earning $100 is difficult in Kenya. Here it’s easy,” said Amos Njay, a Nairobi taxi driver hoping a year in Juba will set him up in a trucking business.

Africans are not the only ones with an eye on the cash.

Foreign aid workers, holed up behind barbed-wire fences and armed guards in semi-permanent tented camps on the banks of the Nile, boast of earning $10,000 a month tax-free and with all their living expenses taken care of.

“You know what they say: in places like this you only get missionaries, mercenaries and misfits. Me? Sure, I’m just here for the money,” said one U.S. aid contractor knocking back a cold beer in a bar on the banks of the Nile.

Other drinkers ranged from dapper pro-democracy activists from the U.S. International Republican Institute to former soldiers whose lives are spent treading in the heels of conflict across the globe, cleaning up mines and unexploded bombs.

Even for the most battle-hardened, the legacy of a conflict that claimed 2 million lives can be depressing.

“I don’t drink the local beer. It’s just not strong enough. It doesn’t have the effect,” said one veteran of de-mining operations in Laos and Afghanistan, quaffing a bottle of imported Kenyan lager.

“I really want to get back to Afghanistan. It’s a beautiful place.”

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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