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

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.