Displaced by conflict and living in camps divided along ethnic lines, project members are making and sharing songs, dances and stories with each other as a way to (re)build relations between communities.
Only, because they can’t physically meet, they do so through recording and exchanging films with each other.
“This project has personally changed me because whenever I watch the videos that the group from Mangateen send to us, I feel happy. And when we are dancing and making our film, I also feel happy and my troubled heart calms down and I feel free.”
Since the outbreak of conflict in December 2013, inter-ethnic relations in the country have been truly tested. As people continue to be displaced from their homes and find themselves seeking refuge in displacement camps in their own country, inter-communal tensions are only increasing. To date, the conflict has displaced around 3,000,000 South Sudanese. By the start of 2017, 200,000 people were displaced in Central Equatoria, the majority of them living in camps in Juba (UNOCHA update, Jan 2017).
Because the conflict has ethnic implications, the displacement camps are also informed by ethnic identities. Therefore we can presume that the longer the conflict continues and the camps exist, the longer communities remain isolated from each other and the weaker inter communal relations will be. This holds great implications for any future re-integration process.
Through the implementation of the ‘One Rhythm’ project, IDO realised that there is little work being done at the grassroots level in Juba to encourage relationships that extend beyond the camp walls. Our experience therefore is that the camps walls, especially the UNMISS PoC walls, are actually becoming increasingly solid, more permanent and less permeable.
One Rhythm attempts to find creative and sensitive ways to build bridges over the camp walls.
IDO facilitated around 50 individuals, from across three different displacement camps in Juba, to build friendships through a cultural exchange initiative. Project groups shared local folk stories, performed songs and dances for each other, asked each other to guess riddles and created narrated dramas about cultural ceremonies that exist within their community. However, because they were unable to physically meet, they did so through recording and exchanging films with each other. Each group was provided with a tablet and sim card and trained how to make their own films. Focal points assigned to each group would meet up on a weekly basis to exchange sim cards with each other to take back and share with their group.
What IDO hoped for, and indeed what happened, was that as the film exchanges were shared, the groups began to get to know each other and form friendships.
- Group members began sharing personal greetings and messages with each other.
- We saw groups recognising and exchanging similar songs and dances, despite coming from very different communities.
- Groups challenged each other to decipher riddles and enjoyed watching their partner group’s attempt at answering.
- They shared narrated dramas about how marriage is conducted in their different communities. Storytelling sessions were recorded and shared between groups.
- Group members would even attempt to imitate each others’ dances and incorporate it into their own.
A Participatory Process
All decisions on what to record and share were made by the group members themselves. This meant that groups were able to express and share their own culture in the way they wished for it to be presented. The project included members of the Acholi, Anuyak Dinka, Murle, Nuer, Peri and Shilluk communities.
For some group members, this project was the very first opportunity they had to interact with people from outside of their camp (since the camps were formed in late 2013, early 2014). For others, it was their first ever contact with certain ethnic groups; and for others, it was an opportunity to see and hear from old friends for the first time in three years.
One participant shared that they were surprised to see X community singing and dancing together because all they had been told about this particular community was that they were violent and were “only preparing for war”. Another project member reported that they were surprised to see multi-ethnic groups (one project group represented five different ethnic communities) being able to work, sing and dance together, despite speaking different languages. Others were surprised to see people living in conditions similar to their own- some were unaware that other camps existed in Juba. Others again expressed surprise to see communities being able to continue to sing and dance, despite such terrible suffering.
Thus, the project allowed for myths to be dispelled,
mis information to be corrected, and experiences to be shared.
Co-creating Songs Through Film
As the groups got used to producing and sharing their films, IDO teamed up with professors from the College of Art, Music and Drama, from the University of Juba, to train select members of each group on how to co-create songs together. Through the same process of recording and exchanging films with each other, the groups worked to co-create a joint song, without ever physically meeting. Although the song was a shared piece of work, each group found ways to incorporate their own cultural heritage – using local language and traditional dance styles to accompany the song. Thus the song was able to embrace distinct cultural differences whilst still being representative of a unity between the two groups.
Each recording was a direct response to the previous shared film, and thus a conversation developed through the film exchanges. The series of film exchanges therefore not only documented the sharing of cultural expression and the creation of a shared song, but also the development of relationships between the two groups.
Community Role Models– Sharing Project Stories
The participatory film exchanges were edited into two 30 minute film pieces. The project then shared these films with the wider communities as an example of how friendships are still possible between individuals, despite ethnic relationships being manipulated within the conflict. IDO wanted to show that individual relationships that cross ethnic-conflict lines can still exist, that they are still valuable and can help with local level peacebuilding, regardless of dividing camp walls. We wanted to de-politicise communities; to enable people to see each other as individuals, beyond being representatives of certain ethnic groups.
During one screening, we saw audience members pointing to the screen and calling out the names of friends they recognised. They were seeing the faces and hearing the voices of friends they had not seen for three years. Community members were up on their feet, ululating and dancing with their old friends in the films.
Why can Arts and Culture be Effective for Peacebuilding in South Sudan?
The project is based around the understanding that the arts (in all its forms, including cultural expression) has the power to transform people’s perceptions of their own identity, the world around them and their relationships with others1; and thus can be a powerful tool for transforming conflicts and building peace.
Scholars in this field of work suggest that art can create “opportunities for building bridges across differences, addressing legacies of past violence and imaging a new future”2 Art can “create a frame around an issue or relationship that offers new perspectives and the possibility of transformation”3. This project sought to bring divided, conflict affected communities (back) together through the process of working creatively together.
‘Dear Wel, Thank you for being a part of us in this project. I did really know that we became a friend. And thank you so much for this project, it really makes us to be friends. My message to you is: let us keep connecting. Even if this project end, our friendship will not end. Our parents and communities, let them know we are a friend. Thank you very much. My name is Rebecca.’
This note was written at the end of the project, from one friend to another. (From different camps)
For further reading on arts-based peacebuilding:
- Cohen and Yalen, Recasting Reconciliation through Culture and the Arts, Brandeis University
- Schirch and Shank, Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding, Escola de Cultura de pau
1 Cohen and Yalen, Recasting Reconciliation through Culture and the Arts, Brandeis University; and Schirch and Shank, Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding, Escola de Cultura de pau, 2012.
2 Cohen and Yalen, 2012.
3 Schirch and Shank, Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding, Escola de Cultura de pau, 2012.