What I Learned From Walking: South Sudan, Cultural Sensitivity, and the Search for Wild Coffea arabica

By Emma Sage, Coffee Science Manager, Specialty Coffee Association of America

Disclaimer: I went to Africa with no idea what to expect. I could not imagine the right way to ready myself for my trip with World Coffee Research (WCR) to South Sudan. In the end, I prepared only in the most silly and superficial ways. I read the one highly publicized research paper about coffee of the region. I got a prescription for anti-malaria drugs. I read about snakes online. I knew it would be a frontier, but I did not understand how to possibly prepare. I thought I was equipped to be overwhelmed.

Why did I not think of researching the political and cultural history of South Sudan for my trip? I suppose I had a variety of reasons. I would be with a small group of WCR backers and scientists. I would not need to make any of the local arrangements. We would be in the forest looking for coffee. I am a botanist, not an anthropologist. I now realize that not doing the research was my downfall. I didn’t know it when I first arrived, but cultural sensitivity was an area where I was lacking. I consider myself an observant person, but in my total-overload Africa haze, I very nearly lost a large opportunity due to my own ignorance.

My strategy for this trip was to allow myself to be culturally flexible. I was aware that I had no context or history with which to inform my experiences. I suppose I thought I would just go with the flow. Before I arrived, I somehow thought this was appropriate. However, on our first day of hiking I realized that I was missing some key information with which to understand my situation. Differences were vast. My own privileged American context was really not enough in war-torn South Sudan. When you travel, you cannot always predict the circumstances you will encounter. Luckily for me, on this coffee hunting expedition I learned a valuable lesson in sensitivity and flexibility, and was able to turn my experience into one of surprising value.

The Trip

When I exited the plane in Juba, South Sudan, the heat hit me like a hot, dry wall. In the airport a mass of people crowd the visa “office”. Hundred dollar bills were pushed at the window and one woman collected passports in a massive pile. She wrote each visa by hand, one by one. We waited. We had no choice. You could get your yellow fever card (or not), your exit visa (or not), but you must hand over your $100. Also, bills were required to be newer than 2006, or you would be rejected and have to leave the country (or just walk out of the airport). Perhaps the following week the requirements were different.

I only knew what I heard from my more experienced travel companions. For me, the trip was breathtaking, heartbreaking, endurance testing, and exhilarating all at once. Even Dr. Tim Schilling, who has lived on the continent for over 30 years cumulatively, was taken aback by the state of the Juba hotel. Tim said that the country was changing rapidly and we were here at the beginning of something large. He laughed as he surveyed our cabana-style hotel cantina/lobby/bar/business center/disco and exclaimed, “This is it, man!” Although I had been naively charmed by the hotel accommodations, it had not occurred to me that it was four stars, ‘Juba style’. Kittens slept in piles and chickens frequented the dirt floor. A nasty smell that you should hope to never encounter wafted through the open-air dining from the neighboring slaughterhouse.

All supplies, food, and any other goods needed in South Sudan are imported. The country has been landlocked since the Port of Sudan was lost when they gained their country status. This makes everything insanely and unreasonably expensive. Also contributing to this, it seems almost every aid agency in the world is there setting up shop, bringing in Westerners who can spend money on rice, or ugali (tasteless corn paste), or other simple food. There was fruit for sale on the street: mangos were in season. I wondered how the Sudanese could afford their food, let alone much else. Most families seemed to live off of small-scale subsistence agriculture. Currently the country doesn’t produce anything commercially other than oil, and at the time of our trip even that was on hold as South Sudan has no way of exporting goods.

Apparently at the time of our arrival, it hadn’t rained for months in Juba. We were beginning the ‘transition season’ between dry and wet. Everything was dusty. Flying over a vast desert and hiking through hot dusty sun made the Upper Boma forest seem lush in comparison, despite the fact that the vegetation was plainly stressed and in the midst of a change to a more heat-tolerant ecosystem. The good thing about the rain is that it cooled things off; the bad thing is that we were about to start a weeklong hiking trip into the forest. Lucky for us, the rain usually waited until we had returned from our day-trips, and we had come prepared with plenty of tarps.

I have written the details of the coffee-hunting part of this trip previously in the Chronicle, so I thought I would share some thoughts on the emotional and cultural part of the trip. Let’s begin with some much-needed context: history.

The History

The conflict in Sudan is considered one of the most significant clashes of the twentieth century, compared to those in Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine and the Republic of Cyprus, as it combines the unfortunate trifecta of religious, ethnic, and geographic differences. Before South Sudan became its own country in the summer of 2011, it had been in a civil war with the north off and on since 19551, a period of over fifty years. Yes, there was an official break in the wars between 1972 and 1983, but similar to what is going on now between the regions, there was much to work out during this period of ‘peace’, and small skirmishes continued. The conflict is rooted in cultural and religious differences between the north, which are culturally more Arab and religiously Islamic, and the south, which are culturally more African and religiously more Christian. Before the first civil war the north was developed by the British while the south was largely left to the control of indigenous tribal leaders. This discrepancy did not help the already polarized cultures of these two regions.

These wars killed and displaced millions of people, the exact number is impossible to quantify2,3. During the wars, families would often be separated when fleeing attacks on their villages. Children would return home after a day of tending cattle to find their villages burned and their parents murdered. Many of you have probably heard of the ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan, and this is how many of them were orphaned. Families would risk it all to flee Sudan, a long and treacherous journey through harrowing desert conditions, and sometimes travel hundreds of miles to Ethiopia, Kenya, or another neighboring country. Many died on the journey. Since the peace agreement in 2005, many South Sudanese refugees have returned home, and many more will follow4,5. One of the country’s largest challenges will be the development of core public services and the management of returning refugees. This would be difficult for any new nation, but South Sudan also faces many additional challenges, including a food crisis, a stalled economy, and internal tribal conflict.

My Lesson

On our trip we brought along a lecturer and two students from John Garang Memorial University for Science and Technology (JG MUST) located in Bor, South Sudan.  On the first day of our trip to Boma, I developed an interesting dynamic with one of these students, a young man named Majok. During the first hot day we hiked up to our base camp, and he had obviously been stuck with the job of ‘taking care’ of those of us who were too wrapped up in the scenery to notice that we had ended up stragglers. He was fairly blunt in telling us that we should go faster, that our pace was lazy and that we should worry about ‘eye-eating flies’ and ‘wicked poachers’ that would steal from us if he left us to our own defenses. On that day I was put off by his attitude, but over the course of the trip I grew to understand that our ‘conflict’ around walking paces stemmed from deep-seated cultural differences. I tried to explain to him that we had all day for this two to three hour hike, that I had never been to Africa before, and that when I hike I get rather distracted by the view as well as local vegetation (I am, after all, a botanist). It seemed to annoy him as much as it bothered me (a self-described feminist), that he felt that he had to babysit us ‘straggler women’ on our hike up a mountain in a safe, rural, peaceful area of South Sudan.

I do not know the whole story, but while on the WCR trip I learned that Majok was one of millions that fled South Sudan on foot during the second civil war and traveled to a refugee camp. I do not know how his family fared. I do know that he is now attending JG MUST University, and has a wife and a young daughter. His life has improved so much since that time, but the experience is undoubtedly still with him. He learned to walk to escape. He grew up in an era where the purpose of walking was to save ones’ own life. I did not realize it at the time, but my slow pace and insistence that hiking was a pleasurable experience may have been inconceivable to Majok.

I grew up in the woods of New England, privileged with such things as hippie parents who took me on hikes up blueberry-covered mountains. I learned that walks meant exploring under rocks, spotting wildlife, hiding in ferns and stopping to climb trees. How could I understand Majok and his frustration with my flippant view of hiking? How could he ever recover enough from his harrowing wartime journey to realize that this red-faced white lady wasn’t going to get into trouble if she stopped to gaze at the amazing view? The divide was so huge that it was incomprehensible. I still struggle to communicate how terribly humbling it was for me to realize this mid-way through my physically grueling and mentally overwhelming coffee-hunting excursion.

After it became apparent to me that there was more to Majok than I initially judged, I was able to gain his help understanding our experience in the Upper Boma forest. During the week we collected wild coffee samples I often went to him with questions regarding language and cultural translations. I found his point of view very helpful. I was hesitant to interact with him originally because of our hiking experience, but I am thankful I was able to turn my opinion around and benefit from what he had to offer. Because I was culturally flexible, I was able to learn a lot from Majok. I grew to respect his opinions and still have a laugh about how I continued to be the ‘slow’ hiker. I hope that he found the experience mutually beneficial, and saw how I valued his insights. I learned an important lesson from meeting Majok and because of it I hope to be a more informed traveler in the future.

Current Events

After our journey to find wild coffee, we arrived back in Lower Boma to find an uncomfortable political situation. While we were nicely buffered by the Upper Boma forest dealing with one-on-one cultural differences, the South Sudanese Liberation Party Army (SLPA) had taken control of a town at the border between Sudan and South Sudan. This area had been a scene of conflict since the agreement, since it was viewed as unfair by the south and included a much-needed oil refinery. The south has most of the country’s oil, but currently has few refineries and no port, which the north has in abundance. All oil had stopped moving between the two countries about three months before my trip. After this newest violence, the United Nations called for an immediate withdrawal of the SLPA from the north. The president refused. Things had apparently looked very bad for a few days while we were hidden in the forest. I am sure that there was concern for us, but we were far from the border and nicely hidden in a missionary camp in the mountains. By the time we got back to ‘civilization’, the conflict had been diffused. We were glad to be leaving Juba soon. Recently, the countries agreed to share resources so that oil can once again be exported. Who knows what time will bring for these two conflicting countries so dependent on each others’ resources. I can only hope for peace and prosperity for the people of South Sudan. They deserve to receive as much happiness as they have endured suffering.

These countries have a long way to go in understanding their own cultural, religious, and regional differences. I am not suggesting that the whole world can be neutralized by knowledge alone, but I will put my personal experience on the line as a small example of how international travelers can learn from their time abroad. If we each take on the responsibility of recognizing that we are in a foreign culture and environment, we are more likely to benefit. Be culturally flexible, and remember that those around you have a different context to color their experiences. If you hear something that might be offensive at home, remember that you are in an unfamiliar culture, and that you don’t know what motivates the sentiment. We should all keep this in mind when traveling to a new place. If we are respectful and keep an open mind, we are likely to achieve a higher level of experience though the people we meet and interact with. Through our coffee-related travels we have the opportunity to learn and grow. Perhaps we will even have the opportunity to enrich or change our view of life at home.


1 Deng, Francis M. “Sudan – Civil War and Genocide” Middle East Forum. Winter 2001, #1. August 15, 2012. <http://www.meforum.org/22/sudan-civil-war-and-genocide>.

2 BBC Research. “Sudan: A Political and Military History” BBC News. Feb 21, 1999. August 14, 2012. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/84927.stm>.

3 Jones, Shar. “Fleeing the Homeland” NSW Migration Heritage Center. 2011. August 14, 2012. <http://www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/exhibition/sudanesestories/fleeing-the-homeland/>.

4 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “2012 UNHR Country Operations Profile – South Sudan” UN Refugee Agency. 2012. August 15, 2012. <http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4e43cb466.html>.

5 Bohnett, Thomas. “Refugees No More – South Sudanese Return to their Homes” International Rescue Committee. April 14, 2008. August 15, 2012. <http://www.rescue.org/news/refugees-no-more-south-sudanese-return-their-homes-4353>.

Emma Sage is the SCAA Coffee Science Manager. Before moving into the coffee industry, she completed degrees in ecology and botany, and dabbled in the wine industry. She enjoys learning all there is to know about the science of coffee (and more importantly, sharing it with you).