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The Other Side of the Bush


By Patience Nitumwesiga

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013-14), pp. 55-64].

I want to start with a quotation from a lecture given in 1989 by Chinua Achebe:

In 1962 we saw the gathering together of a remarkable generation of young African men and women who were to create within the next decade a corpus of writing which is today seriously read and critically valued in many parts of the world. It was an enormously important moment, and year, in the history of modern African literature. The gathering took place at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

Getting out of the comfort zone; development work sometimes requires going to the bush to realise that’s where the biggest developments are needed. I have used the word ‘bush’ many times. And many times have I heard it being used (I would be wrong to use ‘remote’, because ‘remote’ does not really explain this kind of bush). So let’s just say it is a place that is not as developed as a town. Which still does not really explain what I mean, but ‘developed’ is a fair word. The irony is that contrary to the usual bushes being contaminated (unkempt, dirty, filled with decaying material, un-swept) and all, this is the clean (unpolluted, fresh, green), pure place. Which is why ‘developed’ is still a poor choice of a word.  And I have been to the bush. In fact, I have been to many places you could call ‘bush’. But none of those bushes prepared me for the bush I came face to face with, deep in the corners of South Sudan. By the time we went I had already resigned from Rafiki, the organisation and theatre group that had been invited from Uganda to carry out training in South Sudan, at a peace village, but I agreed to go because I wanted to write about the trip. When I came back, I wanted to do more than write; I wanted to do a documentary because no amount of words could explain what I had seen.

As part of preparation, Claus Schrowange, the organiser of this trip, photocopied some pages about the village, and its founder, Bishop Paride Taban. Claus was working with the EAIGCM (East African Institute of Governance and Conflict Management) at the time Rafiki Theatre[1] was founded. In the first months, before it grew and became autonomous, Rafiki was owned by EAIGCM and Claus being a project advisor from the funding partners (AGEH), and because he had experience with theatre and had suggested its use, became the group’s first director. But Claus was just a creative director for Rafiki and was going to make the journey for the first time himself.  He had been contacted by a colleague he met in Nigeria, Ulrich Thum, who had recently been employed by the village. Mr Schrowange told Mr Thum how he had used theatre in his development work and it was working wonders. The two therefore sealed a deal for the former to pay the latter a visit with his theatre experts and train a group that would create similar magic in his work. The host organisations were contacted and the deal was officially stamped. On a Sunday evening, somewhere in May 2012, six members from Rafiki including Claus Schrowange, Hussein Maddan Muwereza, Swizen Atwine, Ibrahim Tamale, Phiona Katushabe and myself, set out on a road trip to the village. We were met in Juba by Mr Thum, where we stayed one night and the next day the seven of us set out in a Land Cruiser driven by our host, on the road to Narus. We would then take a more rugged vehicle to connect to Kuron from Narus.

Holy Trinity Peace Village (HTPVK) – the peace village we were visiting, is situated in Kauto Payam, Kapoeta East County, Eastern Equatoria State in the Republic of South Sudan. It lies along the road from Narus to Boma. The village was started in 1999 as a demonstration farm by Bishop Paride Taban, the first Bishop of the diocese of Torit.  Bishop Paride Taban is one of those heroes you never hear about in the news, because he is not a politician. But he is a shepherd, like his biographer, Alberto J Eisman called him in the book PEACE DESERVES A CHANCE. He is famously known for not only spearheading prosperous yields of agricultural projects in his diocese but also for his active role in the peace talks between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)  and the Sudan government during the second period of the Sudan civil war. Although he was born and grew up in the war, he reminisces a lot about the village he lived in as a child, which had so many different peoples that lived quite harmoniously. In February, 2004, when he retired from administrative duties and became Bishop Emeritus, he established HTPVK as an exemplary Village where people from different tribes, nations and religions live and work together to promote peace and development in their surroundings. Today people of various nationalities and of many ethnic groups live and work together under the patronage of Bishop Taban in the HTPVK. The area around Kuron is one of the most neglected and underdeveloped regions in South Sudan: the area has no road system and no connection to the telephone network. Communication with Kuron is currently only possible via Internet or satellite telephone.

The journey (no matter how long/short) is part of the process, always

The first time I realised we were going to have a troublesome journey was when we left Juba for Narus. Not that we hadn’t had enough trouble with the journey from Kampala to Juba (with immigration and all), but it occurred to me that trouble was not with the war like my parents had feared, but rather with transport. It had rained heavily, the roads were filled up with water and bridges had been washed away. The surviving Irish bridges were so covered with water that only a very competent driver with a sturdy vehicle would risk the crossing. Lucky for us, we had both. But that didn’t mean we weren’t scared.

We stopped at Torit for a break and went into the town for lunch. We were served Arabic food, very delicious food with lots of spices. The town had Arab architecture and many people had been Muslims until South Sudan got its independence. Through some conversations I learnt that many people had only been Muslims because their bosses, the owners of the property, were Arabs from the north and would only work with Muslims. Many people had converted to Christianity when the northerners were driven out. Even those that were happy being Muslims converted because of the image the oppressive Arabs had left in the south. They spoke mainly Arabic but I had been told there was Khartoum Arabic and Juba Arabic, and the two were quite different. English was, in addition to Arabic, an official language. It reminded me a lot of Rwanda and how the many people I had talked to in Kigali were struggling with English, following the newly changed system that replaced French with English as the official language. The struggle always starts with language rebellion. The southerners create their own Arabic to be different from the oppressive northerners, the Rwandans deserted French in anger against the French who abandoned them at a time when they needed them most, and the Nigerians used Pidgin English to confuse British colonialists and plan behind their backs.

We stopped at Kapoeta for fuel and then arrived in Narus at night only to find we were not expected yet. Having no network reception, there was no way to tell Narus leadership ahead of time when one would be arriving. Then came the bad news. The truck that was supposed to take us to Kuron had got stuck at Lokichoggio, on the Kenyan border, because it had rained too hard and the bridge had been washed away. As the truck was waiting for the bridge to be fixed, we were going to have to wait for nobody knew how many days. We were stuck. No plan, no options. Even the likely chartered plane to Kuron was quickly revealed to be no more than rumour when the organisers could not reveal any information. Apparently everybody was always suspicious and only a word from the Bishop could have helped get us a place on the plane but the Bishop was in Norway and when Ulrich Thum called, he was told the Bishop had left Norway for the USA.

We woke up each morning and had breakfast, went for a walk, or went mountain climbing, ate lunch, had a nap, and waited for evening tea and supper. It was boring but less tiring than working in the fields all day. We told all kinds of stories until our creativity ran out. But we took it as a little vacation since the place had good staff in the kitchen that fed us like royalty. The guest house looked nice compared to the buildings in the town. The bishop had shifted the Torit diocese there when the SPLA soldiers captured it (Torit). He was an influential man, and still is even since retirement. I had the honour of meeting him when I went back to HTPVK recently to do a documentary about the progress of Nyakicha, the theatre group that they formed. He is the most humble person I have ever met, and yet the only person I could compare to Africa’s other hero, Nelson Mandela. In many ways, Bishop Paride Taban is the Desmond Tutu of Sudan. But perhaps even more proactive. The only difference is that he doesn’t get much publicity for what he does, since he believes only “God will reward” him and so there is no need to ‘show off’ what he is doing. It is very inspiring to listen to him. We stayed in Narus for five days. We had even developed a joke, for every morning after we had breakfast someone would say “so, let’s wait for lunch.” If I thought we had had a bad journey and things would get better, I was very wrong!

On the eighth day after we had left Kampala, we left Narus for Kuron. The truck had arrived that very morning and though Okello the driver was very tired, we could not let him rest. We wanted to leave as soon as possible. But that morning the worst possible thing that could happen for anyone wanting to travel to Kuron happened; it rained! And when it had stopped raining, the truck refused to start. By the time it decided it would deign to take us to Kuron the clocks were reading 3:00pm.

After a few hours of driving on the marram (dirt) road, either Okello decided to use shortcuts or the road came to an end. As the sun disappeared behind the beautiful mountains, the truck seemed to be looking for a path amongst shrubs. We were told that there was no definite road beyond this point except that which was being constructed (there had been many sets of tractors somewhere before we branched off) but the road was not yet finished and it got very muddy and impassable. I wonder if it made any difference, since shortly after that information, we got stuck. We had been stuck before but Okello had managed to try and somehow weave the huge tyres of the UNIMOG out of the mud. This time, however, no matter how hard he tried, the vehicle refused to budge.

The two boys travelling with us (both of them hardly seventeen) were the first ones to start digging out the mud, followed shortly by Okello the driver. For more than four hours, we dug at the mud, first with spades and, when these broke, with our hands. We then cut branches and placed them in the paths we had created to avoid any more sliding. By the crack of dawn we were about half way through the journey and at 10:00am we got stuck again. The problem is we were tired, and hungry, having finished all the snacks we had carried from Kampala. By midday we were all very exhausted and if a group of Toposa men had not passed by and helped us for 50 Sudanese pounds, I wonder how long it would have taken us.

Being ‘part of the process’ is sometimes ‘forced’ on development workers by existing structures, but it is necessary in the initial phase of any project to understand the challenges of a community before judging it. When we heard stories in Narus that journeying Toposas drunk and bathed stagnant in water on the sides of the road, we exclaimed in indignation. But when the mud dried on our bodies, pulling the hair on the skin so painfully every time we moved, we searched everywhere for some stagnant water to wash the dry mud away. Even when we arrived at a camp for road construction labourers, we fetched water from a camp borehole and drank it gratefully, even whilst remembering childhood lessons never to drink unboiled/ untreated water.

We arrived in Kuron at sunset and I was shocked at how beautiful the peace village looked. The guest house had well-built and furnished cottages, the staff quarters were beaming with children and scents of spices. There is an entertainment hut at the centre of the compound, with DSTV. There is an internet café, a large dining room, tents, gardens, offices, and a primary school fenced away after the parking yard. After the school there are homes, and a ‘business centre’ at the extreme right. Each section is fenced and almost independent, with gates joining one compound to another. There is a youth centre across the Kuron River with a large hall and a compound large enough for all kinds of gatherings. There is a health centre about six kilometres away and rumours were that the main compound would soon be shifted in that direction. There is an agricultural centre, with gardens of all kinds of crops that were being introduced from Kenya and Uganda, teaching the Toposas new methods of cultivation. The bishop had hatched his plan very well. Being there was different from being out there in the rest of South Sudan, for even the war in the north of the new state only ever intruded through the village’s single TV screen. It was peaceful and relaxing, and after all the lessons in patience forced upon us by the  journey, we seemed again to have arrived on vacation at the end. But the next day we were to start the training and we prepared ourselves for the long awaited chance to get on with why we were here in the first place. Fifteen students had been chosen from the school (the only in the area) and they had waited since the school had closed, and after almost two weeks, we had finally arrived.

You cannot avoid getting personal if you want to change lives and attitudes, and this is more important in development, especially social development, than simply developing structures. I learnt a lot from the project. In spite of the challenges, I could never find anything as amazing as working with those kids. I learnt all their names by heart and saw them open up a little more each day. Seeing their progress made the whole round trip worthwhile (the journey back was worse), and I found it hard to come back. You cannot avoid getting personally involved in such a project. You can’t tell those people you want them to change something about their real life without getting to know their real lives. When you watch a kid like Emmanuel (he was one of the youngest and most receptive of the experience) engulfed in tears for more than thirty minutes, trying to tell the story of his brother’s death in detail, you have to carefully become part of his healing process. Otherwise you’ll stay on the surface, and won’t influence much. Development work is like making documentaries. You have to be part of the process. When I was at the MAISHA documentary lab, an exceptional Palestinian documentary film maker named Osama Qashoo visited and told us the importance of having a relationship with the subjects whose stories we intend to tell. You have to. You have to know them if you want to know their story. You must learn how they feel and what they have been through, especially if you want to help them change the ending of their story and make it better.

You cannot stand at the side and talk to them, you have to step right in the centre of the circle and dance with them. You have to learn the steps and let them know which steps actually tire them out and then you can suggest to them that it’s okay to leave them out. And it’s up to them to say “well, I’ve always been uncomfortable with that, I guess it’s time I dropped it.” You have to become their friend, who they’re not afraid of confiding in, because they know you’ve seen their strengths and weaknesses, and they are the ones who let you.

There was one exercise to which their response shocked me. We went to the field and asked everybody to choose a partner. One was to close their eyes, and the other was to lead them to a certain point. The one with open eyes was supposed to take care of the partner and after gaining their trust could even make them run. The first time I did this exercise, I couldn’t move. I thought I would bump into whatever obstacles were there in the darkness when I closed my eyes. But these kids, they practically ran faster than the people leading them. At first I was thinking “slow down! Take care of your partners, dodge each stone and blade of grass…” but both the leaders and the ones being led didn’t care. They looked like all they cared about was getting where they were headed. Even later on when we asked them what they felt, I remember one pretty shy girl called Irene saying “I felt like I was going to bump into a wall, or a stone, or a tree.” And I almost asked her “why didn’t you try to be careful then? You were running!” but it was evident the amount of courage these young people had. Their community had shaped them that way. They knew there were obstacles, and that they could fall. But they didn’t care. Because they knew that’s exactly what they are; obstacles. And they’re meant to be overcome. So they just went on ahead, because that’s what everybody expected them to do. And that’s why they began the journey in the first place. Otherwise what’s the point? If they began something, they finished it. They knew they had to.

Witnessing the challenges the participants would face once the community visits started

We headed out in the UNIMOG, one night, and it was beautiful seeing the star filled sky above us. We could not see where we were going. There was no road, not even tyre marks like the ones we had followed while coming to Kuron. It was just a vast plain of grassland and Okello would pick a path through with the help of a few kids we met on the way. Some low areas would be flooded and we would turn and try somewhere else. When we were almost there, we found a road and we were told not to use it because it’s too far and was unusable in the rainy season (yeah, the same old story). Immediately after we found the road we came to a river and the truck got stuck. After trying for some minutes, the people from the village came down to meet us with flaming torches. We had been told that the group itself would only be able to perform during the night after people came back from kraals and from grazing the cattle, or very early in the morning before they left. There were women, men, children of all ages. When we failed to make way for the truck, we decided to leave Okello and the boys clearing the mud, while we began the performance.

The performance worked out a lot better than I expected, played out in that circular sacred arena where they had their prayers on Sundays. There was a row of benches surrounding the stage but most people sat on the floor in front of them, especially the women and their children. The women were only covered with wrappers around their waists but their chests were bare, like most of the women we had met. Their beads sparkled in the moonlight, as stars floated up high, like a thousand diamonds smashed and spread across the sky. The children were mostly naked, with a few wearing just t-shirts. At the centre of the stage was a fire, lit by many pieces of wood. To create more light, we had carried four solar lamps, which we hung on sticks around the stage. The group was allowed to keep these lamps which had been bought to aid future community work. We divided the play into five parts, and after each part a translator described to the audience what had happened. They all clapped. Each time. They had some organised clapping that I had not met anywhere else. But even before the translation, I could see they were following the play (especially the nonspeaking emotional parts), sometimes a few of them who knew English responded to actors who said provocative things. It was Rafiki’s famous Nyumbani play about gender based violence and the frustration of gender inequalities.

I moderated with a translator. The discussion went quite well, and it was evident the women were greatly oppressed and many of them, as we found in many societies, believed they deserved to be oppressed as part of the natural order of things. It was a strained discussion, made even longer by the language and translation gaps. But it felt good to talk about these things, as it obviously was the first time they ever confronted the issue and questioned the authority of their men. As always, when I’m a moderator, standing in between so many barriers, even if I get the information second hand from a translator, I always feel quite delighted, scared, powerful, uncertain and humbled at the same time. Even the men were challenged, at least some of them, and they questioned the way they treated their women, who undertook all the labour for the community (except herding cattle and raiding).  The thing about a play like this is that it always applies in every society even if the causes of battles between sexes are different. We had four sessions like these in total, just to give the new group an idea of how things happened in the field. And to show them how to explore new ways, just in case one way is not working well for a given audience.

At the end of the session they escorted us back to the river and helped carry stones to sink in the sand and help our truck cross over. But after about six rounds of carrying stones, we realised that Okello had left and there was no one to drive us back. Perhaps we could have camped there but we had nothing, not even food. So we decided to walk back, and the kids said they knew a short cut we could follow. We branched through mountains, and Francis, one of the development workers leading the kids told us any mistake would be a risk for us to find ourselves in Ethiopia. To this his colleague made a joke that having me on the team might help; finally something good about being short. For the Ethiopians might think I am one of them and help us, their own women being not so tall or so dark (at least compared to the Sudanese).

Working with the girls to move beyond the culture of silence

The most significant process for me was working with the girls. Having been so shy at the beginning, Claus asked me to help them develop a song to sing at the end of the play (only one of the girls had a speaking role). It was so hard at the beginning. They didn’t look at me in the eye and didn’t answer me directly. The gap seemed expanded by the presence of Al-shabab (only a nickname, his real name is Phillip), another development worker with the peace programme, who was helping me with translation. If I asked anything, they would just shout amongst themselves until he pressed hard and they talked to him in Toposa. I had the feeling they understood every word I said. So I asked Al-shabab to leave me alone with them and by that afternoon we were already making progress. I asked them to write the things they couldn’t say, and we all read what they had written and used them as ideas for the song. We started from scratch, but it was great seeing them quietly sitting, writing their stories, thinking, concentrating, translating for each other where they had problems. By the end, those who hadn’t said a word before were speaking. It was amazing witnessing them gain confidence. At the end of the day all of them were wrapped around me, resting on my lap, consulting with each other about the right words to use. I saw them dig for English words in their brains and translate them to Toposa! I cannot explain how I felt. Many great things happened on that journey, but this may have been one of the greatest moments. Recently when I visited I learnt that Hannah, one of the girls in the group had been taken out of school by her brother to get married. But because of the confidence she had gained during the time she worked with the group, and the change people had seen in her as she participated in community projects with the theatre group, the Bishop was informed and he came to Kuron and persuaded her mother and brothers to bring her back to school. One of her brothers is said to have been against the move as well, having seen so much potential in Hannah since she joined the theatre group. He is the one who sent word to Bishop Taban. Hannah is in standard five.

By the time we had the first run-through of the play, the girls and I were friends. They could talk to me instead of screaming at each other when they wanted to know something. The next time they shouted, when I asked they stopped and told me “we’re just preparing ourselves to begin.” This made a lot of sense, and I realised even at the beginning what had just seemed like noise to me could have been them mobilizing themselves as I didn’t understand their language. Although I tried to learn a few phrases, the only thing that stuck to my head was “Acamit ayong nyakumuj” (I want food).

Generally it was hard to tell how far these kids would go that very first time. True we were impressed by their first performance but we couldn’t know how much they would remember of what we taught them. Recently when I went back to do a documentary about them, I realised how important those few days had been. We spent eight days with the group on that first visit. Of course their enthusiasm was kept hot by a few subsequent training sessions from Rafiki and a few other individuals who have helped refresh their minds and show them new techniques, but everything began in those first intense, intimate days we spent together. Nyakicha has grown. The theatre project has been conducted across the rural areas of Toposa land. The leadership of HTPVK say that students have embraced the method and showed real motivation, way beyond what was expected by their trainers, the peace facilitators, and their teachers. The theatre group has participated in writing three different plays, two in Toposa and one in English, which have addressed issues including cattle raiding, gender violence, early forced marriage, excessive drinking, the resistance to education and rape. Everyone I talked to who has worked with the group mentions the transformation undergone by participants as a result of their training, the peace education and their exposure to places outside of their home villages like Moroto, where Rafiki has trained sister groups for other organisations.

The group members themselves were different when I saw them again, about a year and a half since the first time. Four members had finished primary education and had left for secondary school but four more had taken their place. Two girls were stopped by their families from working with Nyakicha but the group had likewise found two new recruits. The group has fifteen members, six girls and nine boys. Being the first school in the area, the students have a wide range of ages from six to twenty one. Since girls are usually married off early, the girls in the group are between thirteen and sixteen. It is probably new for some parents, but many of them are happy to see the change in their kids’ lives. Within a short 18 months the group members have developed into very confident young adults with big ambitions. During the over 40 performances, the project advisor, Ulrich Thum, reckons that the reaction of the local population and other audiences of the theatre group were throughout positive and sparked lively discussions on the topics performed. It is very hard for me to forget, having been there at the very beginning, the journey these young people have been through, as they struggle to make what Bishop Taban once envisioned become reality. The documentary, Small Things Are Beautiful will be released in the year 2014 and hopefully will keep these transformation stories alive. I don’t want to forget what I have seen over there. Again and again, I find myself thinking ‘I love that side of the bush’.

Patience Nitumwesiga is a Ugandan filmmaker, poet and theatre artist. She is also a development worker who has worked with various international theatre and development organisations.

[1] Rafiki is a participatory theatre troupe acting for development and nonviolence.

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