At 2 pm on Monday, May 8th, I sat at Jal Gua Cafe with a hot cup of Moroccan Mint tea. I was deeply engaged in nervous banter in my head: one voice repeating “you can do this, just go spread the word” and the other screaming “how did I get myself into this?”. This passionate argument continued in my head up until shortly after 3 pm, when I finally reached the fairly busy intersection of Yonge & Dundas in Toronto and took off my coat to reveal that I was just wearing a short, traditional South Sudanese beaded skirt, top, headband and sandals made of rubber tires in the bitter cold.
For the next 3 hours, that followed I would stand shaking with a sign that said #peaceforsouthsudan while my friend Cari Flammia, handed out flyers with information on how to help people who are the innocent victims of a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in South Sudan.
The very first question that comes to mind is: WHY? I had been asked this dozens of times from the moment the idea sprung into my mind to the moment that I slid under the warmth of a heated blanket and comforter at home.
South Sudan is the youngest country in the world and is embroiled in a civil war that has spawned unimaginable atrocities. It’s not a country that is new to war, as it was involved in conflict prior to splitting from Sudan. What hits the mainstream public is the political issues – the battles between President Salva Kiir and the ousted Vice President Riek Machar – and there is awareness that a great number of people have been killed in the war, but what isn’t talked about in the mainstream media are the cruelties occurring to the women and children.
Regardless of age or status, women are being raped and/or sexually brutalized. Young boys and men are being tortured and killed to prevent retaliation. Forced cannibalism and mutilation traumatize those that survive. Houses and farmlands are being burned to the ground, causing mass migrations and famine is now a man made epidemic. Every day, more terrifying news reaches the phones of loved ones who have escaped: another person was killed, another woman was raped, another village was burned down. These stories rarely make it to mainstream media.
I was born in Kaya, a city in Yei State that is on the southern tip of the country bordering Uganda. Nearly 25 years ago, my family miraculously escaped the original civil war, fled into Uganda and eventually made it to Canada. The news of destruction and killing in Kaya and Yei was a devastating blow to my family. The helpless feeling you get from knowing that your birthplace is in ruins and that people are dying in horrendous ways each and every day is about the equivalent of getting punched in the stomach numerous times every fifteen minutes.
The more I learned about the politics behind the war and all the corruption that had taken place, the more helpless I felt. Every time I got an update on South Sudan, I felt paralyzed; my mind would go blank. I wanted to cry but what were tears going to do? I wasn’t seeing much of the conflict on the news, and not a lot of information was circulating. The question came to mind: how do I get more people to be aware of what is going on?
That question was answered quickly when a friend of mine commented on how shocking and revealing the traditional clothing of South Sudan were – at least to Western standards. I immediately pictured myself standing in the clothing in downtown Toronto. Everyone would stop if had ever worn that… and the idea was born. Yes, it would be unnecessarily standing half naked in public and being exposed to cold weather and scrutiny, but I could just go back to bed in peace at the end of the day whereas those suffering in the war cannot, so it was worth it.
Fast forward to 6 PM when I finally put my coat back on, went back into the warmth of the Eaton Center and reflected on the 3 hours that I had spent out in the cold. The reactions were outstanding. Nearly every person that saw me stopped. Many men gawked and many women gave dirty looks… all until they read the sign. Dozens stopped to ask questions: “What do you think they are fighting over?”, “Why are they still fighting after separation?”, “Where do we donate?”, “What is the best solution to end the war?”.
A group of boys approached me and one asked for my phone number. I snapped, “I’m standing here in traditional South Sudanese clothing raising awareness for women and children that are being raped and killed and you are asking me for my phone number?” The boys silently walked away after the scolding.
A man walked up to me and told me, “What you’re doing here isn’t going to do anything. The conflict will never end until you guys fix your government. Go and do that instead.”
I explained numerous times to him that it’s not something easy to fix and the very least we can do is help the survivors.
These encounters did dampen my spirits slightly, but mostly because the realization sunk in that some people will never take things seriously and that there really isn’t much that we can do to stop the fighting just like that. If we could, I guarantee that we would have done so years ago.
I spoke to many people from all walks of life who told stories of their countries – from the Caribbean to the Middle East. People stopped to take photos and fellow Africans gave encouraging words of support (3 from North Sudan to my greatest shock). With the help of my friends, 200 flyers with information on how to help South Sudan were distributed within 3 hours.
Emmanuel Jal, a former South Sudanese war child now rapper, dropped by to do a live Facebook video of the event, which reached thousands around the world instantly.
Although it didn’t quite solve the feeling of helplessness, the thought that thousands of people are now aware of the darkest side of South Sudan’s conflict sparked a little bit of hope.
I really have to thank Nadine McNulty, Cari Flammia, Andrew & Judah Ochan, Godfrey, John Goddard, Thierno Soumare, Mario Cufino, Emmanuel Jal, Otimoi, Emmanuel Mabe, Toby Sick’s, Annie and Lynette. The one thing you cannot buy in this world is love and I feel blessed to have their love and their encouragement. Thank you all for standing by my side and supporting this massive cause. ❤