Cultural Festival To Bridge Divided City Of Malakal

"A city and people in despair, yet memories of the past are fresh – a prosperous center of trade, culture and education many locals asserted".

By Patrick Godi

For almost 6 years, the people of Malakal lived under a dark cloud of division and isolation. That is, until Upper Nile Youth Development Association (UNYDA) instigated a cultural reunion movement that would completely reshape social interaction since the town descended into conflict in 2013.

On 16th November at the Football Stadium, tens of thousands from all walks of life convened for a cultural arts festival, now in its second year since inception in 2018.

Over 5,000 people from the city’s dilapidated lonely neighborhoods, and the sprawling UNMISS Protection of Civilian site (PoC) thronged the stadium; some stepping their feet for the very first time in Malakal town after almost 6 years under the confines, care and protection of the UN in a site north-east of the city.

What makes this gathering unique is its drawing not to a political rally, which is synonymous with most large gatherings in South Sudan’s Squares, but rather to join culture and arts celebrations by multi ethnic and diverse groups in Central Upper Nile.

Most of the state’s population currently lives in a UN camp, a significant number fled to Sudan and a handful scattered in the city and the periphery. This would noticeably leave its mark on the demographic set up in Malakal.

A city and people in despair, yet memories of the past are fresh – a prosperous center of trade, culture and education many locals asserted. High hopes for the future also remain a comforting therapy for former city dwellers, clearly drawing a silver lining in the aspirations of its people.

In a bid to turn these wishes into something tangible, UNYDA, a national youth organization, organized a cultural festival exploiting the power of arts and culture to reunite this divided city under the theme Beledna Awel, an Arabic word for “Our Country First” with advocacy messages underlying the importance of patriotism and unity amongst citizens.

Cultural dance groups including Collo Nyikang (Shilluk), Mal traditional (Nuer), Dongjol, Bor (Dinka), Atar, Khorfalus, Ngok (Abyei) and Burmet reflecting the regions rich ethnic diversity performed famous electrifying traditional dances, attracting the participation of high level dignitaries in attendance, including the Government delegation led by Acting Governor H.E Andreas Mayom, UN & Humanitarian aid officials off from their seats to join the dancers and revelers in the fun.

Executive Director of UNYDA, Charles Onak speaking at the event identified key campaign messages including “Let us promote peaceful co-existence through arts and culture”, perhaps alluding to the subtle power it wields in advancing social cohesion in previously broken communities.

He reiterated other messages like “Say no to hate speech and extreme violence, reconciliation and healing in Central Upper Nile State.

He further enumerated activities being carried out by the organization in the region contributing to peace such as livelihood projects to empower the community as an incentive to sustain peace; giving specific figures on their achievements they have trained 1200 youth on life skills, distributed 1600 goats to 800 households, trained 170 youth on conflict resolution and non-violence, 300 households agricultural farming, 2143 households on fisheries, 327 in brick making, soap making, black smith, grinding mills, vegetable sellers and youth livelihood projects.

Reflecting on the resilience in the communities, Mr. Charles noted they have formed County, Payam resilience committees, youth peace committees, Peace Council of Elders and community action groups in Malakal, PoC, Akoka, Baliet and Renk areas to strengthen commitment to peace.

He thanked NPA and development partners for supporting the organization respond to the needs of the community given its fragility emphasizing Arts for Peace are effective both for psycho-social healing after violence and trauma, and for building trust, developing respect, and ensuring inclusion across previously divided ethnic groups.

Lastly he mentioned Upper Nile was great and it’s the collective responsibility of all its inhabitants and the state government to revive its lost glory.

Echoing the spirit of the festival; youth and women’s leaders from Malakal town welcomed community members from the PoC to expressing their gratitude to activities that continually break down politico social barriers that have been pronounced since the deadly conflict erupted.
Addressing the thousands of attendees, the City Mayor reiterated “let us promote peace and development instead promoting hate speech through social media, noting youth are becoming tools of war”. He added “I am very excited to see all major tribes are coming together dancing in different variety of culture, let us accept each other as brothers and sisters, and as family”.

This kind of collaboration and cooperation will ultimately reunite them enabling the rebuilding of the city to its glorious past.

Other musical performers like; Hope Music and Martha Akol extended a call of action through their songs that pleaded with the crowds to embrace each other and lay foundation for a new beginning based on tolerance, love and respect for all.

Speaking at the end of the event; Acting Governor of Central Upper Nile and Minister of Local Government and Law Enforcement H.E Andrea Mayom expressed his joy in seeing ordinary citizens in the state coming together in solidarity.

He further thanked UNYDA and international organizations who are supporting the civilians with humanitarian aid, announcing “new developments are happening in the state such as resumption of Badr Airlines, renovation of public buildings including the regions only University; Upper Nile University have all been possible due to the holding peace agreement which is valuable for the return of life to normalcy in Malakal.

For now the critical needs of the citizens is food and shelter which is urgently needed following weeks of unprecedented floods in parts of Malakal, Maban among others however peace, justice, and security to guarantee the safety of all citizens to return home and rebuild their beloved city remain a priority in their wish list.

The Government, Civil Society and the humanitarian agencies have a responsibility ahead of them to channel this euphoria expressed by the masses into momentum that supports peace, security and shared prosperity in the state while meaningfully addressing underlying causes of conflict in this volatile region.

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