In Juba at the Catholic University of South Sudan, a young actor tells the story of walking for months from South Sudan to refuge in Ethiopia. “I remember walking, even when I was asleep. I would close my eyes, and listen to the footsteps ahead and just follow with my ears.”
Behind him, a group of five actors dramatize the tale for the audience. Where he speaks of walking, they stamp their feet. They make animal noises when he speaks of the lions that ate some of the walkers. It’s playback theatre in its leanest form, staged for an audience of fewer than 30, but its director, Alfateh Atem, seems nervous as he watches. To him, playback theatre isn’t just art. It is a channel for South Sudanese to speak about human rights and politics. He founded Likiriri Collective, to which these actors belong, and he hopes to build that out into a movement of artists who use oral history and drama to speak about the political and teach other citizens to do the same.
“I want a South Sudan where I can hold you accountable, but not your whole group,” he explains. With playback theatre, he hopes that South Sudanese can share their individual experiences of the war and its aftermath. Perhaps then, they can see each other’s individual humanity and cost, rather than their ethnicity. Ethnic loyalties make South Sudan quite vulnerable to cyclic violence along tribal lines.
To the east of the Catholic University campus, in the residential neighborhood of Muniki, Thomas Dai, a 35-year old visual artist, hoards no fewer than 200 cartoon drawings in his house. “I am quarreling a bit in my cartoons,” he understates. In one he mocks the peace and reconciliation process that is going on, in parallel to active wars across the country.
In another, he laments the skyrocketing prices in the country. South Sudan’s inflation peaked at 550% in September 2016. The cartoons, some of which get published by The Juba Monitor, are a bold statement given their environment. The South Sudanese government is brutally thin-skinned in the face of criticism or unfavorable portrayals in the media.
In August 2015, president Salva Kiir, threatened to kill journalists “working against the government.” Since then, at least three prominent journalists have been killed in what appear to be targeted extra-judicial executions. Peter Julius Moi, was gunned down just days after the president’s threat. John Gatluk, a reknown radio journalist was the only person killed in the 2016 attack on Terrain Hotel. Isaac Vuni, a correspondent with Sudan Tribune was abducted from his home by men in military uniform. His body was later found in a farm. Bol Deng Meny, press secretary to a figure in opposition was killed last November after a meeting with soldiers the government had released from jail.
“They are all government critics, from Isaiah Deng in December 2012 to the one [Bashir Ahmed] kidnapped in Eastern Equatorial about three weeks ago. It never happened that a pro-government journalist has been killed,” says Tor Madira Machar, a Cairo-based correspondent for Sudan Tribune. Following a November 2017 op-ed in which he blamed the government for these deaths, he says he too received threats from inside South Sudan and has since asked UNHCR to take him into protective care. “The person who claimed he was from the office of the president said he knew where I live in Cairo.”
Fearing they will pay the ultimate price for trying to lead the nation in conversation, many South Sudanese journalists now work “under the cover of anonymity,” preferably for international media outlets, Madir Machar says. Yet, South Sudan badly needs a national conversation, at home, if it’s ever going to break out of the cycle of misrule and violence. The country’s artists are digging into their talents to tactically keep that conversation going, while evading censorship. “If you write something critical of someone, then you face consequences but a cartoon is not as crushing. They acknowledge the message but also like the cartoons,” Dai explains. One of the country’s most renown dramatists, Joseph Abuk, echoes Dai’s observation when speaking of the art form he champions: forum theatre. “It has a message but they can laugh about it or say: this is just a play.”
Abuk runs the South Sudan Theatre Organisation. Artists under this collective stage plays, often on the streets, to prompt discussion on sensitive issues like government corruption, rape, child marriages, war trauma and so on. A “joker” introduces the play, typically a bone bare skit of 20-30 minutes and at the end of it prods the audience into a discussion of the issues raised by the actors. “Everybody will want to come up to the stage and give an opinion. Women, old people, children. Everybody wants to have a voice and that is the most important part. The audience collaborates with the actors in projecting the actual meaning of the play,” Abuk says. With this art form, Abuk’s theatre organization has powered major political campaigns like #DefyHateNow.
Dai is part of Anataban, an art collective that is also one of the most influential civil society groups in the country. The members of the group include painters, rappers, comedians and singers, all brought together by the desire to infuse political messages into their art. On using art as a way to get speak about the political in such a charged environment, Jacob Bul, the media coordinator for Anataban says, “I think it works. None of us in jail, so far.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative, a program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.
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