For much of its five-year existence, South Sudan has been torn apart by conflict and civil war. A group of young artists and creatives are tired of the situation. They’ve banded together to spread grassroots messages of peace, often in artistic ways.
Last summer, a group of South Sudanese people who work in creative fields planned a collaborative workshop to be held in July. Their country had achieved a fragile peace under a deal signed in August 2015 after three years of civil war between forces loyal to current President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president, Riek Machar, whom Kiir accused of plotting a coup. The artists were full of hope and eager to both exchange and create. However, to their horror, as the date grew closer, the situation in the country began to deteriorate. In July, violence between forces loyal to Machar and those loyal to the president broke out across the capital, Juba.
The artists had to move their workshop to Kenya, where they were welcomed by the Pawa 254, a hub for artists and activists.
“'Ana Taban' means 'I’m tired': tired of war, tired of conflict'”
“Ana Taban”, the name of our campaign, is a phrase in Arabic that people use often in South Sudan. It means “I’m tired”: tired of war, tired of conflict situation. Our idea was to host arts-based community events-- including performances and street art-- to spread messages of peace and reconciliation. No one refuses to be entertained so, if you put message in it, people will listen.
We settled on the theme of reconciliation and, as soon as we got back to Juba, we started training other artists. Now, there are 47 of us: artists, musicians, spoken word artists and painters.
“In our song, we say sorry for the loss of life”
We recently put on a show in Jebel Suk [“market” in Arabic], an area where fighting was really intense in July. A lot of the houses were burned down and the market was looted: many people lost everything. We set up in an open space and put on a show including comedy, music and drama. Slowly by slowly [A local way of saying bit by bit], more and more people came to watch what we were doing. I would guess we had almost 1,000 spectators [Editor's note: The Ana Taban Facebook page claimed that 700 people gathered].
People gather in Jebel Market to watch the performance by members of the Ana Taban movement in September 2016.
A member of the movement performs at Jebel Market.
Members of Ana Taban consult with each other during a performance in Jaban Suk.
We performed a song that we wrote called “Malesh,” which means “sorry”. It’s not in our culture to apologize, but, to move forward, we South Sudanese need to accept the fact that we have done a lot of bad things to each other. So we said sorry for the loss of life, for the children sleeping under trees, for the women who’ve been raped and for the babies born in the PoC [Editor’s note: Protection of Civilian sites, refugee camps on UN premises where an estimated 200,000 people are living]. The country doesn’t deserve this. When people listened to that song, I saw smiles on their faces. The healing process starts with moments like this.
After each performance, we hold an interactive session. We talk to people about who we are and what we want to do. Sometimes, in our skits, we leave the ending open and then ask the audience how we can build a solution. Ultimately, our idea is to get ideas from the grassroots and give them a platform. Recently, students at an event at the University of Juba told us that we should focus more on reaching communities outside of Juba and we are working on raising the funds to do so.
“If you speak up in a calm way, you can make change happen”
Another of our projects involves a series of murals across Juba. People stop to see what we are doing and it gives us an opportunity to talk. These conversations plant seeds for people to think differently about our country and each other.
Recently, my friend and I were stopped at a checkpoint. A soldier immediately asked what tribe we were from [Editor’s note: South Sudan’s civil war has divided the country along ethnic lines. Kiir is an ethnic Dinka, while Machar is from a minority group, the Nuer]. I said, “You are in uniform, you are carrying out your national duty, you represent all South Sudanese. Why would you ask us our tribe?” He threatened to shoot me until one of his fellow soldiers intervened. We all started talking about the situation. By the end of the conversation, the soldier had apologized to me.
If you speak up in a calm way, you can make change happen.
“If we could unite the youth, we’d have enough will to restore the country”
Our particular aim is to change the minds of young people. In South Sudan, the youth represent 70 percent of the population. Such a small number of people are messing everything up. If we could unite that 70 percent and get them to take responsibility, we’d have enough will to restore the country. In our performances and on social media, we ask hard questions like: why are you letting certain interests use you as tools? Why not think of anything innovative and positive that could help your country and focus on that instead?
Former vice president Machar fled to South Africa when fighting broke out in South Sudan in July. It’s not clear if he will return, though the August 2015 peace deal names him as vice president. In the meantime, South Sudanese civilians are left waiting, warily, to see what happens next.