NL: Everyone can just say anything because it is not serious, because there is no agenda, because you do not invite them to come from their political party or because they are an elder from this or that group. They come as an audience, as a citizen of South Sudan.
CM: It seemed to me that the plays were more interested in inequality than ethnicity, is that just because I saw those particular plays or is the problem of ethnicity about resources more than about identity? Anything else about the themes that came up?
NL: Yes, this is because you didn’t see all the ten plays. The ten performances brought out most of the problems we face. This relates to identity, that is who we are. In the plays you can see some South Sudanese costumes – like the lowa – which is worn by every community in different ways but is known to come from the Chollo. So this kind of identity is confused, how do South Sudanese look? When I go outside (the country) for example, how do people know I am south Sudanese? This is a big issue. And the students discussed these things through the festival – really they discussed it.
The issue of corruption came up from two schools. This is one of the bigger things in South Sudan. And tribalism came from three teams.
We didn’t want to tell a school not to bring something because another was doing it. We allowed them to come with their issue and when we saw the theatre we were surprised as they each brought different angles to the topics. For example, I think about tribalism and corruption from my own way, but one group put it from their perspective and another put it in their way, so when we came to discuss there was dialogue.
An interesting example was when one audience member said that the policeman is not corrupt as it is the one who gives the money who is the corrupted one, trying to avoid justice. But the other guy said “No the policeman is just pretending, he wants to ask for money” – so people are seeing corruption in different ways.
It may be that the policeman is corrupt or may be not. But this is where we can now open really a dialogue. It opens a deeper, deeper dialogue so we can know really what is the problem.
CM: My background is what they call a ‘peacebuilding’ background. This normally means you get people from different communities to talk about an issue. “Today we are going to talk about corruption”. Often, these can essentially be political meetings, and little happens. Do you know what I mean?
NL: I think theatre can be more effective because in those meetings when people are talking about reconciliation and healing or anything else, normally you just bring political parties where each party brings his agenda for the reconciliation, you also bring some elders from different communities, and each and every one has their own agenda. Elders are not just “deep in the traditional”.
When we talk about national dialogue you need to really open it up, you don’t just bring elders, communities, chiefs, or whatever. You make it open.
The most important thing is to give the chance for youth to talk. When the youth talk they understand that there is a problem with the traditional. They can say “guys, there are some things in traditional which are really not working for us. You are our elders, but these rules and traditions affect us”.
Theatre can be effective because it is perceived as less serious. Nobody can stand on the stage going on and on that “this reconciliation has to be between you and me and everyone, it has to be national”. No. In African and South Sudanese theatre, a mix of song, dance and dialogue takes place. So some groups may bring the issue in a certain way, perhaps through song.
The audience, whether they are elders or anyone, are all laughing and they don’t think that the same thing they are discussing at the table is just here in a really nice cooking.
So they are just laughing and when the chance comes to speak they will come openly because after laughter they can say the good thing, and the real thing. Elders may say “yes we can see this is one of the problems in our community but also that this is not possible because it is traditional”.
This is where someone else can come in and say, “No we can’t keep such a tradition which is bad with us”. So it is a rare chance to open a discussion that can be safe for everyone.
Everyone can just say anything because it is not serious, because there is no agenda, because you do not invite them to come from their political party or because they are an elder from this or that group. They come as an audience, as a citizen of South Sudan.
CM: Yes, I remember in Torit, some of the students were talking very strongly about corruption in front of the politicians. And it was ok. I’ll never forget that… We have touched a little indirectly on trauma. It is another aspect that has been overlooked in the past, how many people here have really been through really difficult things and need to get that out somehow.
NL: I do agree that there are so many traumas in South Sudan not just a lot. The wars and the recent crisis since 2013 have made people really afraid. They don’t feel safe and up to now there are thousands of South Sudanese in neighboring countries as well as in Sudan.
Peace will come. It will take long or take less, but at the end of the day it will come. But for those people, to really say yes I am free, it cannot happen just like that even if peace came. It cannot happen just like that.
Those people really need healing. Here, as I usually say, theatre has a very powerful and effective role to play. Because in the drama people come from different backgrounds and experiences, you may find your neighbor was your enemy but you will not fight with him. Issues and experiences can come up and be expressed through the theatre, and they can be heard, and immediately discussion can take place.
South Sudanese theatre is mixed. It is tragi-comedy. This is because in our lives in South Sudan there are many bad things that happen.
As you can see from the festival we have this robbery, and robbery in South Sudan is not just people coming and taking your property. They can take your life as well. This thing is really hard and we saw it in the festival performances actually.
In South Sudanese theatre, when they bring this issue and a robber comes to a house and kills somebody, the audience laughs. But they do not just laugh; when they are laughing you can see their eyes is also coming down and bringing water. But they are laughing because this is what they live in, and they want to get out of that but they don’t know how. And that is what discussion opens up for as we are using Citizens Theatre.
CM: We are coming to the end, you will be pleased to hear that because South Sudan won the football today and you need to go and celebrate…
NL I would like to say to the people who really have an interest to support these kinds of activities. Let them support theatre in South Sudan, especially this theatre that can give a forum to people to discuss their ideas, their issues and their problems.
In order to do that, let them understand very well the needs, that is, why are South Sudanese asking for this. We know our problems. When we talk with supporters we need them to understand that this is our issues that we need support with. It’s not your agenda or your ideas that we want to support.
There are often institutions which really have an interest to support, but they will come with something. They will say, “I need to do this project for”, say for, “gender in South Sudan”. Full stop. We will tell them that we would like to discuss the idea but also that we may have ideas. They say no, if you don’t “do gender”. Salaam Aleikum. Bye bye.
In Citizen’s Theatre we really didn’t tell the students we trained what they had to discuss. We just helped them. We told them, guys, we are here to train you how to do forum theatre to discuss our issues and problems.
We just gave them the techniques of how to bring the story, how to act and how to put them together to make the performance. But we told them “the issue is yours”.
Let’s talk about the reconciliation and healing mechanism after the recent agreement. The existing one is trying its best but to me, to my understanding, when the reconciliation committee has been appointed by the government it means no independence. This is the experience of many countries in war and challenge of formal high level commissions.
I want the peace and reconciliation committee and reconciliation work generally to be fully independent so they can be fully free to do their job. Their job can be effective when they are really independent and not interfered with by any political party or even from the religions. Then let them bring South Sudanese together from the roots.
CM: Is there really such a thing as independence in South Sudan?
NL: Independent organisation is possible in South Sudan but this creates a lot of challenges. Some newspapers are independent, like Juba Monitor, but the government can interfere as shown by the current closure of three media houses, the Citizen, Al Aarra Arabic, and Free Voice. These houses are fully independent and can say whatever they want. But even if you are independent the government has long hands and can come to you. Each and any institution appointed is not independent, whatever it is.
CM: I noticed yesterday on your big banner, in partnership with the Ministry, and indeed, the Deputy Minister of Education in the national government was there. How do you square that with independence?
NL: We (SSTO) are fully independent. We are not with the government and we are not with any other political activity in South Sudan. But we invite them to witness and to take the need for student theatre activity as to put it in their plan, so they understand that there is the importance of such activity for the students. We are independent and we are not dealing with their agenda, but we are cooperating together because our beneficiaries are the students.
CM: Ok man, you have to go to the pub!