South Sudanese Youth Write for Peace
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
'Writing is so powerful it can change the type of human the reader becomes’, writes the co-leader of last week’s online story writing workshops, Alith Cyer Mayar.
From 22 - 26 June, Rights for Peace and the Writers Writing Fellowship (WWF) ran a week of online evening workshops with 48 South Sudanese youth on story writing and countering intercommunal prejudice, stereotyping and hatred. These workshops have accompanied our current story competition, open to South Sudanese youth, aiming for the best short stories that tackle identity and provide counter-narratives to hatred and violence.
Alith Cyer Mayar, a 23-year-old South Sudanese writer, poet and founder of WWF (a youth-led writing collective based in Juba) co-led the workshops, exploring how stories can provide powerful counter-narratives while looking at different writing techniques to achieve this. Participating youth included those living in Protection of Civilian Camps around the country or in refugee camps in neighbouring states.
Due to Covid-19, we re-invented our in situ training in Juba as a week-long online event - 2 hours for 5 evenings. Internet difficulties provided a hurdle but also an opportunity. Leaving Zoom in favour of WhatsApp proved to be much more inclusive, allowing 48 youth to get to know eachother and share experiences and learning through voice and message posts. We have put some of these voice notes and messages together in a short video.
The group explored difficult topics of identity dynamics, narratives and counter-narratives. They made new connections across divides, getting to know each other by describing how they defined themselves - in terms of individual and group identities. Participants discussed where they grew up, where they have lived, communities they had been part of, their interests and hobbies and their inner motivations and goals - all as important parts of their identities.
“There is something that defines me more than just being a South Sudanese,” said one participant, “what defines me more are my personalities, the characters I have, how I use my time”. “I spent my entire childhood in a refugee camp in northern Uganda,” explained another, “I like to have fun, dance and travel to different countries… I love peace, connection, and interaction with people regardless of tribes, religion and political affiliations”. Mabior explained, “I’m a South Sudanese by identity… I grew up in a refugee camp, in Kenya and finally Uganda… I’ve been serving as a community leader in the refugee camp, so I like serving people”.
Whilst coming from diverse communities and locations, they found they had many shared identities, which they agreed made them feel 'connected', 'together', 'excited' and positive. They also shared examples of the opposite - what it felt like to be judged based on assumptions about their identity traits.
“You’re too light and short to be South Sudanese”, “How come your English is so good and you’re South Sudanese?” - these are examples of the judgements some participants experienced. ‘Just because I am South Sudanese, someone judged me to be arrogant’, explained another. ‘Junubin’ means South Sudanese – one participant recalls this word being used as an insult when she has expressed anger in the past; ‘South Sudanese are always mad and angry or? And when I’m courteous and nice and polite I’m not South Sudanese?’ she asks.
The group exchanged on prejudice and mistrust based on tribal identity - a serious issue underlying much inter-communal conflict in South Sudan today. 'Acholi men, are seen to be ‘womanisers’, and this affected my relationship with my girlfriend’s family' explained a participant. ‘Stereotypes that my tribe people like running with kids’ caused another participant’s boyfriend to leave her. Alith recalled being told, “you are too open-minded and patient to be a Dinka”. Mabior, who grew up in refugee camps outside of South Sudan, told a recent story of his visit to a hospital when he reached out to offer support to a Nuer family, also living in the refugee camp, but they refused to speak to him simply because they assumed he was a Dinka - and this in spite of them having much in common as refugees attending a sick family member in a foreign land in the midst of Covid-19.
Most of the participants in this workshop shared a common interest: writing. Most are keen to use their creativity to communicate ideas of peace and unity. These feelings were echoed by Alith, who asked the group prompting questions: What is a story? Why do we write? Who do we write for?
“Writing is a tool which translates untouchable tones into reality”, wrote one participant. Another: “Writers write about what is not spoken about”. One participant suggested writing is putting down “our thoughts, our experiences and everything we feel”. Another indicated “it is one way of storing our thoughts to either reflect on or share with others”. When asked what often prohibits them from writing, many referred to self-doubt – “When you don’t believe in your ideas and thoughts, when you think people may judge that you are not a good writer”.
The Story Competition
“Being the youth of this country, we believe we have the best stories to tell about ourselves and our country” - young participant of the workshops
The story writing competition is open to South Sudanese youth aged 14-35. We are looking for stories that challenge prejudice, bias or hate in the South Sudanese context. There are prizes for the first three places. The winning story will be illustrated, printed and distributed as a children’s resource for countering hate as well as a literacy tool. The deadline for entries is Friday 10th July.
We are thrilled to announce that Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International will part of our judging panel. As well as President of PEN, Jennifer is an award-winning author of both novels and poetry.
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