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Adopting hope, orphaned by war

Posted by on November 12, 2014 at 2:05 AM

Having just returned to my base in the UK from Yei, South Sudan, after spending a month with 70 participants from across the country for a shared journey of listening and dialogue, I’m full of hope for South Sudan, at the same time conscious of how little hope many have.

When I return to my home in Australia, friends inevitably question – with the best of intentions – my reasons for getting involved. For a country that, from one reading (often proliferated by media), seems to have regressed from the hope of Africa to a basket-case, it could easily seem like a hopeless cause. For all the richness of the culture, the beauty of the landscape and the people, there remains the undebatable reality of brutal, widespread violence and pervasive corruption.

During the month-long training program, however, there were striking examples from participants and facilitators of what is possible. Even honouring small stories of what people have done to foster reconciliation can encourage the shift towards a narrative of reconciliation and healing and away from a cycle of endless revenge.

On the final day of the training, we did two appreciation exercises, where participants acknowledged the best of what they had seen in their fellow participants. I was struck by how deeply moved many participants seemed to be by what their new friends saw in them. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps one is the dearth of affirmation and appreciation in the approach to the peace process. It’s a flaw I know something about, because as an individual I’m often hopeless at it myself.

During the training, Joseph Karanja, a lawyer from Kenya, shared with the participants three principles for a peace process:


  • It must be wholly positive in its approach. This campaign should not seek to criticise any individual or party. Give an equal challenge to everyone to take responsibility for South Sudan.
  • Whatever you do, this process that you have started is ongoing. You must not seek to benefit personally. Of course you benefit when there is peace but do not expect any material or political benefits. It must be for the good of the country.
  • Sometimes in society you find people who have very strong inclinations towards a particular party or school of thought. Find a balance in including them and see, in your own wisdom, what role they can play. Include them in a creative way. Let them be part of the process.


At times all three of these precepts seem to be ignored. There can be a negativity and scepticism that becomes a self-affirming distrust. Prejudgment based on rumours and supposition. In early December 2013, before the violence broke out, I made a suggestion to someone working on a reconciliation initiative of an exceptional young South Sudanese to join the preparation team. It was rejected, at least in the short term, because of that person’s association with an organisation perceived as being politically aligned. Ironically, the same person who rejected this suggestion was subsequently the subject of accusations that their organisation was also politically aligned (in the other direction). Though in fact neither had any political agenda, the standard of proof was hearsay. What way forward, in such an environment where one is presumed to be wrongly motivated, or just plain wrong, until proven otherwise?

Australia, my home country, whether it’s an accurate generalisation or not, is renowned for the so-called ‘tall poppy syndrome’, whereby our reflex is to cut down any person, idea or concept that we perceive as rising above the common throng. It is an attitude based in fear and insecurity, and I find myself doing exactly the same thing at times – seeing someone doing something good, and immediately looking for the flaws, the reasons why they don’t deserve the credit. It’s a poisonous attitude at the best of times, and perhaps all the more so for a country so desperately in need of its reconcilers working together.

I asked one young participant at the recent training, who is currently working in relief services: ‘When South Sudan is finally in peace, what do you dream of doing?’ Her response was to work with orphans; an orphan herself and wanting to offer the love and security to the children in the same situation. South Sudan’s hope of peace and unity appears to have been orphaned by the recent violence. The hope is there, but not fully formed and still vulnerable. Who will offer the maturity and integrity of perspective and leadership that the situation demands? Who will reject the appellation of cowardice culturally attributed to anyone who acknowledges wrong-doing? As one South Sudanese friend put it, who will ‘be the coward’ that the country needs to move forward?

At one point in the training, a young woman spoke, in a beautifully generous but honest way, of all that British colonialism had given and taken from South Sudan. I’m half-British, half-Australian; half oppressor of a good portion of the world, half oppressor of the Indigenous population in Australia. That’s a reality that we kawajas have to take with us wherever we go; not to be pitied, because it is a challenge that pales against the challenges our heritage has bestowed on people across the world, but a reality nonetheless.

In Australia, though only a step, our former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology on behalf of the parliament to the Indigenous peoples. It was a step that restored some of a younger generation’s hope in politics and leadership. It came on the back of decades’ work by individuals responding to the call of conscience for a country burdened with the weight of historic injustice.

Nothing is all darkness, and why I continue with my commitment to South Sudan is because local friends – with a depth of integrity and commitment that humbles me – recognise that for all our faults, some outsiders may have important pieces of the puzzle to support the process. Exactly in the same way that my country Australia is built on 60,000 years of indigenous tradition followed by 230 years of immigration from across the world; including, more recently, some 20,000 South Sudanese. And the so-called father of Australian multi-culturalism is a Polish man!

While I was working on this latest training initiative in Yei, I often thought of one South Sudanese friend in Australia continuing his work through-out the community there – him supporting what I’m doing in ‘his’ country; me appreciating what he is doing for ‘my’ country (which is also ‘his’, now that he’s a citizen). But the reality is that the nationalism discourse implied by ‘my country’ and ‘your country’ is a fiction in the 21st century, if ever it wasn’t. Bloodshed in any country is our common concern – and this isn’t just high-minded idealism; this is the reality of displaced communities across the world and the ripple effects of one country’s fracturing within diaspora communities in other countries, and so it goes on.

The title of the recent Yei training was ‘A step together: shared journeys of listening and dialogue’. How can we move together if the reconcilers are not reconciled? How can we journey if we bicker over inconsequential aspects of the destination? And how can we listen and dialogue if we’ve shut our ears? It is not for me to say that this is truly possible in South Sudan, as someone who can’t begin to fathom the pain and suffering of a nation that has lived and breathed so much war in recent decades. So I don’t base my hope in it on any more than the observation of South Sudanese, from different backgrounds, including many at this latest training, who are dealing with their past, their prejudices, who are listening… and who soldier on – in peace – as those around them try to cut them down.

I returned again in this latest training to a question that has consistently struck me: what would my next step be, as a reconciler, if I had ‘nothing to prove, nothing to justify, and nothing to gain for myself’? And as another maxim puts it: ‘as I am, so is my nation’.


Rob Lancaster was a facilitator of the recent CNHPR Training Program in Yei, South Sudan. He works with Inside Change, a partner of the training, supported by the international network of Initiatives of Change.



Categories: Trust-building, South Sudan, Australia

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