The weak made strong – girls as agents of peace in South Sudan

By Candacia Greeman of South Sudan who is working as a teacher/teacher mentor with MCC at the Loreto Girls Secondary School. Candacia shares a powerful story of hope in advance of Africa Day on Thursday, May 25.  She also supplied the photographs.

It can be hard to have hope for South Sudan, and even harder to have hope in South Sudan. Daily news reports featuring the world’s newest country are filled with words like famine, civil war, rape and genocide. But that is not the whole story. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil facing the country, pockets of hope exist.

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School (LGSS) in Rumbek, a rural region in South Sudan, MCC is helping young women to promote peace in their communities through the Loreto Peace Club.  This is one of many peace clubs across Africa supported by MCC, and is based on the girls’ experience with the Peace Club Handbook produced by MCC Zambia.

These girls represent one of the most vulnerable populations in South Sudan. They are at-risk for early/forced marriage and pregnancy in a country where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school. As the situation in the country deteriorates, these girls are more likely to be forced into marriage to improve the family’s economic condition through their dowries. In spite of these daunting odds, they are actively working for peace while pursuing a secondary education.

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Some sources of conflict/trauma in my community are misunderstanding, revenge [killings], elopement of girls and tribalism. [Through peace club activities] I have learned about how to stay together, how to be generous, forgiveness and reconciliation. During this term, my brother and sister [who are older than me] quarreled at home and they even swore not to forgive each other. My sister decided to run away so I started with her, telling her the importance of forgiveness. Then I did the same with my brother. They listened and now they have forgiven each other. –  Elizabeth, LGSS student

While at school, the girls receive training in peace building, conflict resolution and trauma healing. Using this knowledge, they facilitate outreach events to the local community with a focus on women and children, groups that are usually excluded from decision-making during conflict. The peace club hosts an annual Peace Day celebration for local primary school children, an event filled with sports, dancing and music. For older students and adults, a solemn evening Peace Concert is held to reflect on the lives of those lost to conflict and to encourage discussions on peace in the community. The club also facilitates cultural presentations for the community that use drama, poetry, song and dance to explore topics such as revenge killings and blood feuds and forgiveness.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

When someone was killed and it was not we who were responsible but our houses were burnt, I was there all alone. I am the only person in my family, everyone is dead except for my brother who takes care of me. [Through Listening Circles] I have learned how to open up. If you have stress, whatever has happened to you will not go away. Now that I have come here, for a while, the stress has gone away. It is forgotten. I also learned how to approach someone if I have stress, how to share. It [Listening Circles] has given me hope that somebody somewhere cares for me to invite me to come to this. It will help me to survive. After it [the burning of the homes] happened, the school gave us food but now they also give us help for our heads. – Mary, local woman from Rumbek

After a workshop on trauma healing in 2016, the Loreto Peace Club members were inspired to share the strategies they had learned with other members of the community. In response to an incident of inter-communal conflict, the club started Listening Circles,a rapid response trauma support resource. Listening Circles were held to help local women who had been forced to burn their own homes by armed groups, and to provide grief support for primary school children after the loss of their schoolmates. They comprise groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants form a circle or semi-circle and are guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students_2

With the knowledge I gained in the [trauma healing] training, I was able to help in conflict resolutions. For example, during my holidays, I was assigned as peace mobilizer in which I approached and talked to some elders about the long conflict between two clans of Pan-aguong and Pan-awur in Cueibet. With the knowledge I have gained I was able to convince the elders and the youth and now they are living in peace. What I was telling them were the dangers of revenge killing and dangers of conflict .I detailed to them until they all understood the fruit of living in peace. This was in January 2017.  – Jennifer, Loreto Peace Club member

The Loreto Peace Club members are selected for membership based on an interest in peace making or prior involvement in conflict at the school. During their participation in the club, many girls report on their personal growth and their efforts at peace building not only at school but in their home communities as well. Driven by the credo, Peace begins with me, the Loreto Peace Club members exemplify the strength and resilience of the South Sudanese people.

They are a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.

Loreto Peace Club members

Loreto Peace Club members

Building peace and hope one girl at a time

After being engulfed in over 20 years of bloody civil war between the north and the south, South Sudan gained independence in 2011, only for brutal and complex internal conflict to erupt again in late 2013. Often portrayed by the media as an “ethnic conflict,” South Sudan’s civil war connects acutely to politics and power issues and the constant shifting of alliances between groups, all coupled with a very heavily armed civilian population.

So far, an estimated two million people have been internally displaced by conflict, while all sides have been accused of gross human rights violations and attacks against civilians across the country. Reports from the United Nations  and other groups  describe the horrific sexual violence committed specifically against women and girls.

S Sudan1 ONAD

Bekah (bottom R) poses with other MCC staff and members of Organization of Non-Violence and Development (ONAD) in Juba, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Even beyond armed conflict and sexual violence, the challenges for girls at the community level are many. Recently, as part of a small delegation from MCC offices in North America, I was able to visit programs and partners in South Sudan. In the town of Rumbek, northwest of Juba, we talked extensively about these challenges..

One of the biggest challenges facing girls, in addition to armed conflict, is early and forced marriage. Girls as young as 12 or 13 are forced into marriages often with pressure from family members, especially uncles and other male relatives. In this region of South Sudan, cattle farming is central to the local economy and practice, including marriage dowries. When a young man wants to get married he often has to borrow cattle from his older brothers and uncles to pay the bride price. Once this young man and his wife begin to have daughters of their own, his older brothers may apply intense pressure and even physical force – kidnapping girls from their parents’ houses – to have the daughters marry as soon as possible, in order to regain the cattle price.

In addition, for most families, education for boys is highly favoured over that of girls. The girls who actually start primary school are much less likely to finish, let alone start secondary school. Many are forced to drop out due to early marriage, or their brothers are given preference over the cost of school fees in secondary school. In a context where education as a whole makes up less than 1% of the national budget, these factors only further hinder girls from shaping their own lives and futures.

In a bold move ten years ago, the council of chiefs and leaders in the Rumbek area expressed a strong desire to develop a secondary school for girls. An Irish organization, Loreto, was invited to begin working with community leaders to help develop the Loreto Girls Secondary School. MCC has since joined to support this initiative.

S Sudan 3 Loreto girls

Students take a break from their classes at Loreto Girls Secondary School, Rumbek, South Sudan.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Starting off small, Loreto has quickly become a highly sought-after program for girls from around the country. This year, over 200 girls have applied for the 65-70 open spaces, which are awarded based on academic ability, regional diversity, and level of risk facing applicants. The school also serves as a safe space for girls and young women. Girls who feel they are in danger of a forced marriage, or their home region is caught up in violence, are permitted to remain on campus year round rather than return home for three months when school is not in session.

The school also emphasizes opportunity – encouraging students to dream big and think about their future. MCC supports after-school clubs in science, engineering and technology, where students experiment with various technologies, such as computer tablets, while working to improve math and science skills.

In addition, peace clubs are a key element of the school curriculum, providing a safe place for students to deal with personal issues, as well as learn conflict resolution skills that can be applied in their relationships with other students as well as with their families and communities.  Participation in peace clubs also gives the students, and anyone interacting with them, be it teachers or their friends and family, a vision for achieving peace in their country.

S Sudan 2 Loreto debate cropped

Students prepare to participate in a debate.  Photo/Bekah Sears

Loreto monitors its alumni and has seen impressive results. In recent years over 40% of graduates have gone directly on to university, in South Sudan and other countries throughout the region. Many others continue into other training or transition into work.

A major highlight for our group was a drama and poetry performance. Here the students expressed their hopes for peace in South Sudan, and also their hopes to be valued for who they are – young women who are proud of themselves and their heritage. With smiles and laughter they demonstrated a keen knowledge of the unique challenges they face, but also the determination to press on.

One can easily get lost in the complexities of conflict in South Sudan, especially the challenges faced by women and girls. But hope and peace often emerge from the ground up, one girl at a time.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office of MCC.

Blessed are the peacemakers: celebrating life and light

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9

This scripture verse was constantly on my mind and in my heart during a recent MCC advocacy visit to Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and South Sudan. Despite intense challenges within each country context, our delegation was inspired by the courage and dedication of the many peacemakers we met along the way—people motivated by Christ’s calling for peace, justice and hope and those working to build bridges across religious and ethnic divides.

Canadians are regularly bombarded with images, articles and stories about the violence, despair and hopelessness in parts of Africa.  In many ways, these stories are representative of a harsh and truthful reality, and we should not dismiss the pain of this reality. But they do not convey the complete picture.  It is arguably even more important that we attend to the stories of those working for peace and justice, despite the obstacles and harsh realities.

DRC 4

A community garden run by people who have been internally displaced (IDPs) and are living with host families in North Kivu province of DRC. The IDP families and host families work in the fields together, despite ethnic differences.  Photo/Bekah Sears

As our small MCC delegation visited partners in Nigeria, DRC and South Sudan, I was reading The Road to Peace by Henri Nouwen. I want to highlight two chapters, “Resisting the Forces of Death” and “Celebrating Life.”

Nouwen opens his chapter on resisting death by recounting some of the great horrors of our recent history: the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War and poverty and injustice in Central America. For Nouwen, these examples of death and violence illustrate the profound necessity for peacemaking. “Peacemaking is not an option any longer. It is a holy obligation for all people whatever their professional or family situation. Peacemaking is a way of living that involves our whole being all the time.”

DRC 3

MCC partner Project for Peace and Reconciliation in DRC. Photo/Bekah Sears

However, Nouwen says our call to peacemaking does not end there. He warns that a sole focus on the darkness has the danger of making us into hard, bitter people who will eventually lose sight of the peace and justice that inspired us in the first place. In this dark place, Nouwen argues, we risk becoming the very forces that we are fighting against. As someone working in advocacy to government, I personally struggle with feelings of darkness and despair.

Instead, Nouwen claims, “[T]he first and foremost task of the peacemaker is not to fight death but to call forth, affirm and nurture the signs of life wherever they become manifest.”

Nouwen describes a peacemaking founded in humility, in that we are all made in the image of God; therefore, the posture of peacemaking must be compassionate, walking and standing alongside those who are suffering, and must embody as a deep sense of joy only found through the celebration of light.

Our recent partner visits were enriching, challenging and inspiring as they focused on the desperate yet hopeful cry for peace to spread across all areas of conflict, where there is hurt, despair and violence.

Nigeria 1

The delegation and MCC Nigeria staff meet with the Plateau Peace Practitioners Network (PPPN) in Jos, Nigeria. This group includes Christians and Muslims working together in peacebuilding in Plateau State.  Photo/Ben Weisbrod

In Jos, a region of Nigeria with a history of significant inter-religious tensions and violence, we saw Christian and Muslim peacemakers and organizations united together to talk about their hopes and dreams for the establishment of the Jos Peace Institute in the coming months. Together they hope this institute will be a light for the people of Jos and the world in the study and promotion of sustainable peace.

We saw light in the compassion of families and communities in the Eastern DRC who were hosting people internally displaced by ongoing conflict in their homes, even those of different ethnicities. We also saw the dedication and courage of organizations to address the root causes of conflict, leading them to teach the principles of peacemaking even to the various armed groups in the area.

Finally, in South Sudan, we were moved by the staff and volunteers of the Organization for Non Violence and Development (ONAD) and their commitment to carve out alternatives to violence and to always seek peace. ONAD was formed by the desire to go against the grain of violence; it works with countless organizations and projects to support peace, starting with the government right to the community level.

These are the stories and images that stay with me. Of course the contexts are incredibly hard, and at times the work may feel like a drop in the bucket. But the witness of African peacebuilders serves as an inspiration to our delegation as well as others in the region, offering light and hope  in the persistent pursuit of peace. These  beacons of light, though sometimes small, shine powerfully in the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office.

In the face of fear, choose joy

This Christmas greeting to MCC’s supporters, constituents and friends was prepared by Don Peters, executive director of MCC Canada. 

During this season of Advent, we wait expectantly for the coming of Christ. We long for God’s justice, peace and mercy to be fully revealed on earth.

Today, it is easy to be consumed by fear. Fear is all pervasive. Fear of terrorism. Fear for the economy. Fear of people who are different from us. Fear can entangle and paralyze us.

Christmas Iraq

The grounds of Mar Elia Church in Ankawa, Iraq, are a makeshift home to many people who fled violence elsewhere in Iraq. Last Christmas, this life-size nativity was set up in a canvas tent that housed displaced Iraqi families before the sturdier tents in the background were constructed. “Jesus’ tent” is written in Arabic on the tent flap. Placing the nativity in the tent was a powerful symbol linking families’ suffering with the suffering of Christ. (MCC photo)

But our faith encourages us to embrace an impassioned, joyful and trusting response to life. Isaiah 12:2 says: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” And in the first two chapters of Luke, there are four references to fear and three references to joy, often only a verse or two apart. Fear and joy are not incompatible ideas. From my work with MCC, I see daily that this is true. 

Despite the fear of terrorism, we’ve witnessed your deep desire to welcome refugees. The MCC offices have been inundated with calls from churches, families, neighbourhood associations and community groups who want to bring refugees to safety and welcome them to a new life in Canada. In her poem “Home,” Warsan Shire writes:

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

We are thankful for all of you who have heard the call to walk with refugees on their journey and welcome them warmly into your congregations, homes and communities.

Despite fears of scarcity and a bad economy, we’ve seen you give generously to help those in need. Thanks to your support, we’re able to provide relief to people affected by violence or disaster around the world. Our partners are distributing winter supplies to families in countries from Syria to Nepal. With your help, we’re providing education in places like Lebanon, South Sudan and here in Canada. And because of your generosity, we support courageous peacebuilders in places like Afghanistan and Honduras. We are thankful to all of you who have chosen generosity in the face of scarcity.

When faced with fear of the other, we’ve seen you choose friendship. In the media, it’s easy to see prejudice and fear of people who are different from ourselves. But time and time again, we’ve seen you choose friendship. Christian churches have partnered with Muslim groups to sponsor refugees. Churches have spoken out in support of reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous peoples. And volunteers have helped people reintegrate in their community after serving time in prison. When presented with the choice to fear the unknown, we’ve seen you build bridges and love your neighbour, no matter who that neighbour might be.

In this season of Advent, we bring our fears to God. We long to be released from the power of fear over our lives. As you’ve shown us repeatedly, fear cannot stop us from reaching out with compassion to help those in need. Thank you for the many ways you have helped us share relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.

Sincerely,

Don Peters
Executive Director, MCC Canada

How long do we wait? Advent, advocacy and the message of Habbakuk

Based on the readings of the Narrative Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:2-4, 3:17-19; Matthew 26:36-38.

As Advent approaches this year, I’ve been spending some time with the prophet Habakkuk, crying out to God about the violence and injustice that fills the news and threaten to overwhelm.

Even when I’m not directly affected, there are times when I find it difficult to live in a world that feels so far removed from all that Advent promises. Where is the hope for South Sudan, the peace for those living in the Middle East, the joy for those living in grinding poverty, or the love for those isolated by physical illness or mental health concerns? With Habakkuk I want to know how long the suffering will continue and why God doesn’t intervene to set things right.

My soul yearns for a world of justice and peace.

CandleFortunately, Habakkuk is not just about complaints and despair. God does respond and as befits this season of Advent, the response is to wait. Habakkuk is given a vision of justice that he is told to make “plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it,” but he’s also told, “the revelation waits for an appointed time.”

Justice will come in God’s time, so for now just wait.

But what does it mean to wait? Are we just to sit and watch? Do we simply accept the established norms of society and the injustices around us? We have a hope for the future, both in Habakkuk’s vision and the coming of Christ, but many are desperate for that future now.  So we continue the cry of “how long?”

While Habakkuk begins with an anguished cry and complaint, he concludes with a prayer, the end of which is a call to faith. “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-19).

No matter the dire circumstances, rejoice in the Lord. For Habakkuk the answer to “how long” was to have faith in God. Not an easy answer for those suffering injustice.

The last passage of the narrative Lectionary for this first Sunday of Advent is Matthew 26:36-38 in which Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. It feels more like a passage for Lent than Advent, but the theme of waiting appears here, too. There is no mention of rejoicing in these few verses, though. In fact, we are told Jesus is grieved and agitated as he waits to be arrested and to be killed. Yet Jesus chooses to spend this time of waiting in prayer with his disciples close by.

We don’t wait alone. We wait together, sharing our grief, agitation, and frustration with each other and with God.

Growing green sprout in asphaltWaiting is definitely a part of advocacy. There is the wait for problems to be recognized, for people to take action, for policies or regulations to change, or sometimes even for governments to change. Sometimes the waiting may be very long and may involve times of just watching and being a witness.  But eventually the opportunity to speak or act does come. We may need to repeat the message many times before key people hear it, and many times more before anything actually changes. But with faith that God is bringing justice — and prayer to sustain that faith — we know the waiting will eventually end.

Whether we are waiting to celebrate the beginning of something wonderful or waiting for something terrible to end, we’ve been given a vision and a promise that a better world is coming. Habakkuk was told to make that vision public by writing it down for others to see.

Perhaps we are called to share that vision as well, by living obedient lives, by following Christ’s example, and being witnesses and advocates, so that — instead of asking “how long?” — we can ask,“what can we do while we wait?”

Monica Scheifele is program assistant for the Ottawa Office.

Seeds of peace in South Sudan

This week’s guest blog is written by Heather Peters, former MCC service worker in South Sudan, currently employed as Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan.

From 2010 to 2012 my partner Joel and I were MCC service workers in South Sudan, seconded to a Catholic Diocese as Peace and Justice Coordinators. In this role we would often travel to different churches and meet with community groups to discuss how peace was practiced in a “post-conflict society.” (Northern and southern Sudan had signed a peace agreement in 2005 ending the 22-year civil war.) For many people peace meant the ability to walk for water without fear, to send their children to school, and have access to a health clinic.

South Sudan 1

A student holds onto hope.

However, this vision of peace was still unattainable for many communities. After the civil war ended, violent conflict between tribal groups in the south increased – due in part to the trauma experienced during the war and by long-held grievances and mistrust of the different tribes. This meant that life was still insecure as people struggled to maintain the basics for survival and feared neighbouring villages which might retaliate for a past wrong. In discussions about peace, many people would advocate the importance of seeking reconciliation within their families; they could not think about reconciliation with an enemy tribal group.

We were deeply saddened to hear about the outbreak of violent armed conflict that began in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, in mid-December 2013. This conflict had been instigated by a political division in the government but was being played out along tribal lines. South Sudan is the world’s newest country, having gained independence in 2011. It has faced  many challenges in its birth – building infrastructure, government, and identity. It has also had much support from international organizations, including MCC, to work at these structures.

South Sudan 2

A women’s group prepares to spread the message of peace and justice through town.

But change comes slowly. We were often asked if we saw success in our peacebuilding work in the country. This was a hard question to answer. In many ways we saw our work as preparing soil for seeds of peace to be planted. It was still much too early in the story of South Sudan to know how and when these seeds would take root.

It is easy to feel discouraged and depressed about what is happening in South Sudan. The violence in Juba has spread throughout the country. Civilians have been killed and displaced. South Sudanese people are again becoming victims in a political struggle over which they have little control. These are people Joel and I know. People we worked beside. We listened to their stories, we held their children, we shared food together.  And together we struggled to prepare the land for peace.

Reconciliation workshop under the trees

Heather Peters leads a reconciliation workshop under the trees.

Despite the years of conflict, we  found people in every community, who had chosen to break free from the cycle of violence and walk a path that shunned revenge and advocated forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope. These people were our teachers in how to live in a “post-conflict society” that was still filled with much conflict.  These people gave us strength in the work of peacebuilding. They are the ones that held the seeds of peace.

South Sudan is a country that is so much more than its wars and conflicts. The work that MCC has done in the past years in South Sudan portrays the richness that the country and its people have to offer. The relationships that have been formed and nourished strengthen our MCC presence, which will continue despite the current conflict.

On Christmas Day, Jok Madut Jok, who lives and works in Juba, wrote on his Facebook wall: “It takes more courage to be a peace messenger than a warrior and you save more lives with a message of peace than wielding a machine gun. It might not appear so in the immediate, but it will prove so in the long run. God bless us all, South Sudan and the world.”

As we remember the people of South Sudan and the current struggles there, we also remember the people who are embodying hope and planting the seeds of peace.