We hit bumps in the road. Trying to create ownership of a project is a tremendously challenging endeavour, when the ownership is not innate. Working with Dang was difficult too – translator, intermediary, and 6’9” beneficiary at once does not a simple solution make. But in kind and patient form, he was always eager to participate in finding the solutions and helping us move forward with the program.
After negotiating that we would provide new footballs, volleyballs, and netballs, and continuing to stress that this program/project was one for self and community benefit, the kids regrouped. The art projects continued. From our portraits and connect the shapes experiments we moved onto talking about the role of youth/adolescents in community development, how parents can support schools and educational infrastructure, and in which ways the youth participants could best share their findings/images with people in the community.
Introducing new technologies may have sealed the deal as well. While in Uganda someone criticized my work – or rather that of my organization – for focusing on economic development through agrarian policy and practice reform. “How will Africans ever move up the food chain when they’re still ploughing fields instead of entering fields in Excel?” the Manhattan-based photographer-come-philanthropist barked at me via email. He raised a valid and tricky question that still haunts me. It’s obvious that in Sudan there is no way to drop in a computer training facility and see rapid results – most people have never written their name on paper, let alone do they have spreadsheets to tabulate nor emails to send. But I do lean on pro-globalization winds and hope that introducing some bits of the modern world will – if nothing else – inspire these kids to think bigger, brighter thoughts, and aspire to do, see, and live more. Who doesn’t love an ipod or digi-cam? Their pictures were remarkably awesome, for the record.
The kids’ images and messages continued to surprise and impress me. One participant noted the importance of ‘multiculturalism’ that can flourish within schools, depicting me in his image. He told me about the community’s own diversity, between tribes and varied experiences of war.
From my informal research and casual discussions with people here, I’ve uncovered how sensitive the role of returnees in the community is. While refugees in Ethiopia, Kenya, or Uganda, many individuals gained valuable skills and were trained in different areas, such as soap-making, education (as teachers), tailoring, brick-making, etc. Their eyes were opened to new things that the ‘stayees’ have never seen. Tensions exist between those that return to the Sudan that the “stayees, stayed and fought for.” Anyway, an example of this trouble is in the reality that the military mite that stayed and fought the war occupy protective positions (like a guard for a compound) and are unable to offer deference to a person – be it their supervisor or not – who was not in the military, but who may have higher managerial and or technical skills or authority. This of course has come forth through the youth’s art creations and messages, when they tell me that school is for everyone, and that all must be treated equally. We’ve worked together to cultivate and draw forth these messages to generate a final, collective message from the group:
We the adolescents of Pagak Payam would like to share our artwork with
you to spread an important message for our community:
Through education our children and community can see a better future.
Growing peace and the return home of many people provide opportunities for
education and cooperation to create change for all people by working together in
Education improves our community and living standards. Education is
for all people, young and old, boy and girl. Children should go to school
and parents must support their children's education, even from the earliest
ages. Through community education and working collectively we can overcome
harmful practices and move from old traditions, like keeping the girl-child at
home and boys with the cattle, to let the children of our future become educated
participants in our communities and strong society. It is a shared
responsibility, requiring the participation of the community to build, maintain,
support, and improve schools. It depends on all people working
Support children going to school!
Support school development!
Working together as a community is the best step for
We decided that to drive the good message home we would distribute the works of art and have a public function to discuss the matters of serious importance. The artists selected the 10 best, most representative images from the collection of over 100.
I’m hopeful that this work will continue to move forward after my departure this week and that I can count on my colleagues and partners to carry the vision out: we’ve scanned the pictures, translated the above message, and are creating small flashcard-sized, laminated, color cards to distribute throughout the community.
It’s exciting to see such a project come together. I feel like the social-marketing output from this engagement is far more sincere than those of the art-projects with refugee youth I’ve facilitated in the past. This was certainly the most challenging and thought provoking as well. In really seeking to look at the role of returnees in community development, and acknowledging that by community development, I actually mean regenerating social-capital within a system where the political infrastructure and standard government social services are provided by the international aid community, I’ve come to see a mix of bleak prospects as well as striking possibilities. Of course I believe in the power of youth as the strongest agents of change, but here in South Sudan it feels as though they are the most critical actors to seeing any progressive changes for this place at all. I’m honoured to have had the chance to work on this project and see the capacity and insights that these young people have to offer and I have nothing but hope for the changes they can bring about.