Juba Theatre - Big Dreams, Rocky Road

16th February 2015

Beyond Pan

South Sudan is the world’s newest nation, still only four years old. It gained independence from Sudan after decades of war and, as an oil-rich country, seemed to have the elements in place for a bright new future.

Alas, it is not a place I am going to recommend that you visit, it is no holiday destination, and probably will not be for many, many years.

I have, however, developed a real warmth towards South Sudan and its people but that is because there is so much work to do to help this country achieve its potential. The country seems to be in a mess of its own making and there are very few people prepared to take on the task of bringing about the change which is needed. Fortunately I have had the privilege of working with some who do.

 Juba is the country’s capital but it doesn’t feel like a capital city. In my two visits I have found very few places where the sense of fragility and imminent disintegration are not ever-present. The calmest place is watching the strong waters of the Nile surge past; the river is wide here and there is only countryside on the opposite bank. But in places you can see wrecked ships midstream which, I am told, carry sinister memories from the long war.

 Turn away from the river and you walk along dusty, dirty, often un-metalled roads through a visible layer of pollution into the city. The roads are strewn with millions of empty plastic bottles, often crushed into the roads’ very structure.

 Why? Because there is no established water supply infrastructure and no refuse disposal service, just as there is minimal waste disposal and only intermittent electricity, roaring generators often kicking in and drowning out everything else. The air is often full of wisps of delicate black, floating down to smudge the city. Someone is burning another mound of plastic bottles, even in schoolyards the toxic smell pervades.

 In so many ways it is a mess and in so many ways questions leap up about why people put up with it and why there is little sense of civic responsibility. What is going on?

I apologise to my South Sudanese friends for painting this picture, but this is how it looks to me. It is also what motivates me to give all possible support to those few people who have dedicated themselves to making a difference, to accepting the Sisyphus-like challenge of finding the best in people and really building a positive new society.

 The first barrier to break through is an overwhelming sense of apathy in the population. This is well documented as a case of ‘national post traumatic stress disorder’. As one of my local colleagues put it  “Everyone here, even the children born this year, are affected by the war”. This has not been helped by the last two years’ ongoing internal conflict between massively armed groups and shooting can still be heard on the streets of Juba at night between members of different tribes.

 One of the few beacons of hope in this difficult landscape is the South Sudan Theatre Organisation (SSTO).  I had first met their hugely impressive artistic director, Joseph Abuk – an encyclopaedia of knowledge of performance traditions and history of the region – during a British Council visit in 2012. He had successfully directed South Sudan’s first ever international cultural event, a production of Cymbeline in Juba Arabic for London’s Globe Theatre

 But this visit in 2015 was with the next generation of SSTO members, a team of around 14 very committed actors and teachers who see theatre as a very practical tool to start a debate and a discussion about solving the burning social issues which people can be empowered to engage with. Examples? Their first two were “Early Marriage of Girls”  - leading to deaths in childbirth, and “Tribalism” which leads to segregation and violence. There were many more.

 The SSTO has a plan to set up 24 drama groups in 24 secondary schools across the country. This is ambitious in a country with poor infrastructure and very poor transport links (the UN flights are the only option for reliable intercity travel, but few seats are available) and even more ambitious considering the type of drama groups they envisage.

 I was invited to deliver workshops to train this great team as trainers for the schools projects and to guide them towards a sustainable future.

 The time available was short but the need to establish the skills base was urgent and so we worked hard in high temperatures in a dirty hall, with participants struggling to cross the city, struggling with malaria, and with a totally new way of using theatre.

 Only three of the participants had any knowledge of forum theatre but most of them had worked in street theatre so the biggest challenge was to train the participants to train others in such a way it would survive after their leaving.

 We trained, we talked, we set up situations where participants could train others, we talked of leadership and feedback, of trust and responsibility, we considered our target audiences of secondary students and we thought around what they might bring as their experiences and their issues.

 It progressed well, but I was always aware that this group still carried some of the effects of war. While the senior and more experienced group members had a resilience and thoughtful interest in these new ideas, the younger members were often listless, judgmental, easily seeing the negative if an exercise did not go well. Then they might leap up, put tremendous energy into a scene before flopping into an apathetic slump.

 With the heat and the urgency this did not make work always easy and the distractions of lateness, absence, illness and news of deaths or shootings threatened our tight schedule.

 Working through an interpreter gives time to watch how ideas are being received and I often doubted that they were really making an impression on everyone. But as we worked through the phases of the workshop there was a growing sense that they were grasping a methodology which could work.  On the penultimate day we invited 20 young people who were within our age target to attend a workshop and performance. Many were street children and victims of sexual crimes but they came with excitement and, to my surprise, became immersed in the work. They followed the exercises, were creative, contributed ideas, laughed and were terrific interventionists in the “scratch” forum play that was presented on the theme of early marriages.

 This session proved that SSTP could make such programmes effective. It also showed where more concentration was needed from the trainers. Now they know it can work and such “proofs” are hugely valuable within a training.

An unexpected element occurred during this session. The first SSTO leaders started speaking in Arabic and the children asked for a translation into English. In this is a cultural story: “Pure” Arabic is spoken by many of the older members, especially those who studied in the former capital, Khartoum.  English is the new country’s official language, spoken by very few people but compulsory in all primary schools and universities. These children had all received their last four years education in English and their only other language is the “street” vernacular – Juba Arabic, which then was taken up by everyone.

 “Can we come again tomorrow?” asked the departing children. Alas no but hopefully there will soon be such gateways to creativity and dialogue in many schools across the country.

 Theatre can make a change, and here it could help a country find a new openness and stability.

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