Can the ‘Cuban-Jubans’ rebuild South Sudan?

 With Cuban pork roast on the menu, Salsa classes on a Thursday and animated Spanish competing with the Latin beat, De Havana club in the South Sudanese capital Juba feels as though it is on the wrong continent.

 With Cuban pork roast on the menu, Salsa classes on a Thursday and animated Spanish competing with the Latin beat, De Havana club in the South Sudanese capital Juba feels as though it is on the wrong continent.

It is here that a group of former Sudanese exiles, known as the “Cuban-Jubans”, gather most nights to share a bottle of whisky and put the world to rights - in Spanish.

Among them are doctors, pharmacists, accountants, engineers and economists.
All were educated in Cuba during Sudan’s 21-year civil war and are now regarded as the intellectual elite of the south - one of the world’s poorest and least developed regions.

“In Juba we have more than 100 Cuban graduates from different fields, all part of the 600-plus students sent to Cuba for education,” says 38-year-old Dr Okony Simon Mori.

He returned to work at Juba’s Teaching Hospital in 2007, two years after a peace deal ended the conflict in which some 1.5 million people died.

‘Pencils for Kalashnikovs’
He was just 13 when chosen by the newly launched southern rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to go to Cuba.

“Our late hero [SPLM leader] Dr John Garang told us: ‘Now the elder people will take the AK-47 and you guys will take the pencil and the pencil will be your Kalashnikov,’” he recalls.

Dr Okony left his family in 1985 at one of the refugee camps in Ethiopia where thousands of Sudanese had fled the fighting between the army of the Muslim-dominated north and Arab militia on the one side and the SPLM on the other.

He travelled to Cuba aboard a Russian ship and did not see his mother and father again for 18 years - and it was not until he graduated and moved to Canada a decade later that he had any direct contact with them.

“We stayed in a boarding school in a small island called Isla de la Juventud [Island of Youth]. There were 25,000 students from different countries - most of them from Africa and Latin America,” Dr Okony says.

“I think Cuba is unique and is a very special place; they believe in what you are - not where you belong or which religion you practise or the colour of your skin.

“The only thing they care about is your well-being and your aptitude. Really, they treated us as their own children.”

Latin lilt
After graduating in the late 1990s and with the civil war still raging, Canada agreed to take about 200 of the students, who had no passports.

Despite their qualifications, most ended up doing menial work to send badly needed cash to their families now mainly based in Kenya.

It was only after the peace deal was signed that the medical graduates sought retraining in order to return to Sudan.

With the help of the Canadian charity Samaritan’s Purse, they studied at the University of Calgary and then in Kenya before relocating to the south.

They not only received training in English and tropical diseases, but also on how to cope with the culture shock of returning to Africa.

“When we were coming back, people were saying: ‘Those guys are crazy.’ But being out for a long time does not stop me to go and adapt my culture,” says Dr Okony.

“I feel like I’m doing something for the people who couldn’t make it to go to educate themselves. They fought this war and some of them died, so I have to fill their shoes now to carry this heavy load.”

And despite his Latin lilt, he says he has not totally forgotten the local languages and is becoming more fluent.

Fellow Cuban-Juban Deng Aleer-Leek says he may not be grammatically correct, but his Dinka is understandable - though when he first spoke to his mother, she needed assurance it was really him.

“She asked: ‘What’s your nickname?” and when I said it she said: ‘Yes, this is my son,’” he recalls.

He is an engineer who built De Havana for his Cuban-educated compatriots - a haven, he says, they need if they are to meet their own expectations and what is expected of them.

He says they have been waiting for so long to fulfil their role of going home and leading the reconstruction efforts in South Sudan that the slow pace of change can be frustrating.

“We feel like we’re not doing our duty,” he says, before recognising that they have to be patient.

“The time will come. You can’t make one o’clock to be three o’clock.”

Dr Okony is much more sanguine about the difficulties facing the south but says foreign investment is what the region really needs.

According to Juba Teaching Hospital’s medical director, the hospital only has 18 doctors but needs 60.

He says it is hard to recruit staff when non-governmental organisations pay so much better.

“I know they’re short of doctors, I know there’s a lack of medicine but we try to do our best because, as JF Kennedy said - do what you can for your country not what your country can do for you,” says Dr Okony.

In the last couple of years, the hospital has improved immeasurably - just as Juba has transformed from “a jungle to a city”, he says with clear pride.

And like his fellow Cuban-Jubans, he says he hopes to one day to visit Cuba again.
“I would like it, when I have time, to thank them not for me but what they did for the people of southern Sudan.”