By Rebecca Fordham
‘I’m an Acholi, a Dinka, a Nuer. I am South Sudanese,’ singer and writer, Mer Ayong, 29, told me during a break at the inaugural TEDxJUBA in South Sudan where she was performing. ‘We are a new nation, but we are not a new tribe. It’s our turn as young people to carry the flag but many young people don’t understand their roots.’
Mer Ayong, who had recently returned to her homeland after fleeing with her family during the civil conflict, is part of a small but diverse group of women using cultural ties to rebuild the fledgling nation. Together, these women are utilizing traditional and contemporary artistic pursuits, to forge their shared histories into creative expressions of their hopes for the country’s development.
Entitled New Ideas, New Generations, TEDxJUBA was hosted by UNICEF to mark the one year independence anniversary. Cultural heritage and innovation were themes woven throughout the talks and performances, which ranged from incredible personal journeys; to private sector entrepreneurs and leading members of arts.
The energy and belief that creativity can help to overcome some of the enormous challenges faced by the people of South Sudan was repeatedly reinforced throughout the event, echoing the optimism spilling out of communities celebrating the independence. Indeed, it was a thread that bound both the TEDxJUBA participants and many of the women I spoke to in Juba who are involved in a diverse range of activities.
The new nation is grappling with serious challenges, made even more difficult with the government led austerity measures. Starting from a very low base rate it has some of the worst child and maternal indicators in the world: a quarter of all children are underweight and there are only 11 midwives in the whole country. Its population is also one of the youngest amongst all nations, with 50 per cent of its population under 18. The adult literacy rate stands at 27 per cent, and 70 per cent of children aged 6-17 have never set foot inside a classroom. Creative ways of approaching the challenges are vital to build community-led approaches in a country where people have been through years of war and exclusion.
Jok Madut, Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, South Sudan, spoke about the importance of showing the similarities of cultural artefacts and artisanal tools that were previously used against each other. For example, knives and hunting materials have as much similarity in terms of their functionality and need as they do differences. Despite lack of government infrastructure, and dwindling international development funding, he is trying to build a cultural centre so that young people can explore their heritage.
“There is incredible talent and commitment here in South Sudan. It just hasn’t had a platform before, people were fighting to survive in the shadow of war and distrust,” Kad Ali, Deputy Director Roots Project told me, “We are helping to create a sustainable way of living through skills that are already here.”
The Roots Project in Juba a non-profit dedicated to empowering the women and children of South Sudan through skills training and also supporting the work of local artists. The Roots Project was recently invited to showcase their work at the Santa Fe International Craft Market, a huge honour and testament to the beauty and global appeal of the work.
Women-led projects are expanding across the nation, often drawing on traditional roles which were in existence during the conflict but were overtaken by high profile politics. The Women’s Peacekeeping initiatives are an example of this, where women are drawing on their knowledge of communities and relationships to try to negotiate peaceful resolutions to local confrontations before they escalate.
I attended a meeting of the women in Juba who said they really just wanted recognition. Without that they would not be taken seriously and the male led fighting to resolve an issue would continue to destabilize the country. Pulling herself up to her full and stately height, Mama Joy proudly said she felt better able to be a role model for her daughters and granddaughters because she was being given a chance to play a formal role in her society.
This sentiment was echoed by Eunis Koi, Marketing Manager for Lulu Works. The sustainable business she works with provides an income for 400 South Sudanese women, helping them maintain a healthy houseful with money for food, clothing, education and medical care. Sustainable living, coupled with a wide variety of productive investments, is contributing greatly to the development of the local economy.
‘I looked at what we had and realized the soul of the nation is the Lulu – the shea nut – soldiers used it for washing,’ Eunis told me, ‘We have beauty and resilience already within us, we should harness this.’
The spirit of the women was incredible. Against the backdrop of years of neglect, creativity and self-belief were profoundly important to these women, values that colour everything here in NY and so why not in South Sudan. The women and their beliefs were a testament to the power of beauty and the arts to transcend hardship and brutality.
For more information on the Roots Project: http://www.rootsofsouthsudan.org/about-the-roots-project/
For more information on TEDxJUBA: http://www.ted.com/tedx/events/6219