“It’s All on Us”: Young Artists Work for Peace in South Sudan
Jacob Bul Bior was a young boy when he joined a club that defended children’s rights in the refugee camp where he lived, in Kenya. Now 33 years old, Jacob has returned home to South Sudan, a young country that gained independence in 2011 and remains ravaged by civil war, ethnic conflict, crumbling infrastructure, and a failing economy. This month, the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide published a report on the risk of new mass atrocities being committed there.
Jacob lives in Juba, and is a founding member of Ana Taban (“I Am Tired” in Juba Arabic), an artist collective working to build peace and mobilize activism among young people. He spoke with Memory & Action about the challenges facing South Sudan, what it will take to overcome them, and the roles young people can play in shaping the future.
How did Ana Taban begin and how many young people are involved now?
Jacob Bul Bior: I came back to Juba in 2008, after graduating high school in Kenya, and joined a drama club. We tried to disseminate information around the census, the election, around independence and self-determination. In 2015 there was a peace agreement, and then by 2016 there was another conflict and we were frustrated — which is when we started Ana Taban.
We thought, “we have some influence, but here we’re just living to have our fate decided by politicians and generals,” so we decided to form this initiative and flew 20 people to Kenya to form this movement. We had musicians, photographers, spoken word artists, fashion designers, theater and film people. We came up with principles to recruit, make it a membership-based movement, so it won’t be owned or private.
We launched in Nairobi, Kenya, but we were viewed as a threat. So when we launched in Juba, people were curious and wanted to see if we’d get busted. We stuck to our launch date and were clear: we weren’t anti-anyone, but just against anyone against peace in Juba. A lot of people came, a massive turnout. Now we have active membership in chapters in Uganda, Kenya, all over South Sudan — over 800 active members and thousands of followers.
What is the traditional role of young people in South Sudan and is it changing?
Jacob Bul Bior: We have these roles that are instilled in us: we can’t speak back to an elder, we have to listen, what they do is always right … . But the current young generation is breaking through these barriers. They know elders can also make mistakes. [Our country’s leaders] recruited the young people to join the liberation struggle, said they’d build roads, schools, but now they’re not being delivered. What can we do? Sit back and watch? We must pick up where that got stopped and take over.
What path must young South Sudanese people take toward strengthening the nation?
Jacob Bul Bior: It’s okay to be an activist and talk but there’s also the activism of starting a business, employing people, and empowering the economy. Right now no one provides for anyone, we just have young people on the streets, graduates who are just playing cards and dominoes. We need to find ways to grow, as a young people, because the country relies on us.
What are the biggest obstacles standing in their way?
Jacob Bul Bior: The environment and leadership are the obstacles. People are displaced, not just because of violence, but flooding. Right now the entire region of Upper Nile is under water. The natural calamities are destroying young people’s livelihoods, they’re using all their resources to leave.
The other issue is about intertribal conflicts. The latest was in Baidit, where up to 32 [Dinka Bor] people were killed including children, women, elderly, and this will probably lead to a revenge attack. Who was doing this attack? Young people. Young people are being used to fight wars that have no meaning.
The literacy rate is only about 27 percent, the majority is uneducated, and I see not much being done to educate the masses in the interior of the country. Some of this youth, their only source of income is to fight. Where do they get the gun? It’s coming from the government.
Is there any effort to coordinate among the different chapters of Ana Taban?
Jacob Bul Bior: Most chapters are established in major cities. With regards to the national idea of bringing people together, that’s what the people in Juba try to achieve. You need permissions, and with COVID 19 the program has been really lagging. We had a lot of major plans to bring people art and interact with youth outside the [United Nation’s Protection of Civilian sites].
We need to build confidence and reconciliation, which has to come from acceptance, which first has to come from top leadership — but today leadership makes it sound like they’ll go to war any time. Now with the vaccination happening, we’re hoping to hold concerts, have conversations — otherwise how would anyone know to let bygones be bygones?
Does Ana Taban reach youths who may be engaging in criminal activities?
Jacob Bul Bior: A lot of boys are into drugs and messed up, but they like artists and musicians, so we hold a workshop in their neighborhood to get them interested. These boys, you know some are really talented, so we’d come up with an idea as a group, and be each other’s keeper. We’re still trying to find ways to reconvene these meetings.
What do you want the world to know about South Sudan?
Jacob Bul Bior: It’s a crazy environment, but South Sudan has a generation of people fighting for it, so the world should not give up on South Sudan. We’re trying to use the time we have to fix the country. It’s all on us. I don’t understand the people in positions of power and leadership, they’re the ones messing the country up, but we have a vibrancy and energy — and one day it will explode and wash away the mess of South Sudan.
Learn more about the work of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and the situation in South Sudan.