The capital of the world's soon-to-be newest country is a dusty city where herds of goats roam the roads, few paved streets exist, no students attend the university and a baby has stronger chance of dying than living until age five.
For all of its challenges, the mood in Juba, which I recently visited as a member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, had a fairly strong, upbeat feel to it, as the citizens of South Sudan prepare to realize their inherent right -- freedom.
On July 9, after decades of civil war and an uneasy five-year truce with their northern neighbors, the South Sudanese will become masters of their own destiny.
As I observed our Independence Day this week in New York -- marking America's 235th birthday -- I thought of the people I met in South Sudan the week before.
Take Chol Makur, a tall, serious young man who doesn't know how old he is, but says he's probably in his late twenties. Raised to take care of cattle, Chol was recruited as a child soldier during South Sudan's civil war. He was finally rescued and started at a missionary school at around 12 years of age. He excelled and is now studying medicine under challenging conditions, to say the least. He lives in a tent and most days doesn't have enough food to eat. But his mentor, Dr. Thomas Burke, Director of the Division of Global Health and Human Rights of the Massachusetts General Hospital, says he's the equal of top American medical students.
Burke, whose goal is to help create a private medical school in South Sudan, is working with students like Chol, teaching them biochemistry and other medical subjects.
"There is virtually no health system in South Sudan," said Dr. Margaret Itto, Director General for Training and Professional Development Ministry of Health for South Sudan. In fact, a few years back South Sudan had a total of 20 doctors for a population of nearly nine million.
When I visited the Juba Diocesan Episcopal Secondary School, principal Philip Logun made an appeal for books -- his library has virtually none. But that didn't stop the students -- girls and boys. "What do you want to be?," I asked the students. "A doctor! An engineer! A pilot!" came the responses.
The Voice of America, which is part of U.S. International Broadcasting overseen by the BBG, held a Town Hall meeting, American-style, at which many young people posed questions to Information Minister Barnaba Benjamin Mariel.
"Our challenges are enormous, but they're not insurmountable," said Mariel, echoing what many people seem to think. South Sudan may not have much infrastructure these days, but it certainly has natural resources, tourism potential -- and a resolute people who have fought long and hard for the right to determine their own destiny.
Sitting on the banks of the beautiful Nile River that runs through Juba, I was reminded of what's really important in life: Freedom.