This is a piece I wrote for Chime for Change after leaving South Sudan, and it encompasses so much of what was my life there. So many things have happened since my last post, that I do not know where to start from. Therefore, I decided to start from here.
Mar 28, 2014
Kick-boxing in South Sudan
Source: Chime Original
Juba – No ropes here, no proper ring, just a rocky playground at the heart of the capital of conflict-torn South Sudan. Jab-right, hook, uppercut, round-kick. A tall, slender girl with piercing eyes is fighting with a muscular boy. Their legs cross mid-air; their punches are loaded with suppressed strength. “Stop!”, a strapping man in red-and-white trousers calls for time-out.
It was a warm evening in early December 2012; dry season had just begun. The boy and the girl smiled and kept throwing mock jabs at each other. Under the shadow of an imposing mango tree, children of all ages and gender stared wide-eyed at the two fighters.
That month, 21-year-old Winnie Natasha became the first female kick-boxer in the world’s youngest nation. “I immediately felt welcome. They really wanted to have girls in the team”, she recalls. South Sudan is a place where 4 girls out of 10 marry before turning 18, and maternal mortality rate at birth is the highest on the planet. Education is far from a right.
One October afternoon, Winnie and I had spent some lazy hours chatting at the tiny stationery shop – 3 metres by 4– where she worked, saving money to go back to University. “I came here from Khartoum in 2010. I have always been into sports: up there I played football – my team was composed by girls of the Nuba Mountains, or from Southern Sudan”, she recalled.
The training centre, with its scrubby patio in a pre civil war building is located in a neighbourhood called Hai Neem’s. The team is composed of Winnie and young guys in their twenties, most of them with scant education and no jobs. A few months after Winnie another young woman, 27-year-old Adut, joined the club. A genuine camaraderie came to life in the way boys and girls shared training spaces and tools. They joked with each other, took care of those who got hurt, worried about the sick, walked home together in the dusk.
At the Independence Anniversary Challenge, on July 5th, 2013, Adut and Winnie –with her “nom de guerre” Black Queen – stepped on the ring for the first time. The crowd welcomed them with a roar. The following week, two more girls showed up at the training centre. And two more came along later. Adut and Winnie started on the newcomers’ training.
Puro Okello Obo, the man in red-and-white trousers, saw a dream come true, “Women need to know that they are entitled to equality”, he says. In Canada, Puro, 45, was a martial arts coach and former professional wrestler. He came back to his home country in 2008, when the future capital city, Juba, was still paved with piles of hamlets. He’s been living off his savings ever since, sleeping in the classrooms of the centre and knocking on doors at ministries and private companies to get funding.
Mr Okello Obo’s dream was that martial arts could overcome tribalism. Martial arts could give the youth an alternative to the boredom of Juba streets and create a sense of national pride. But in the night of December 15th,2013, everything fell apart. War came back to South Sudan. A full-blown conflict. On one side, were President Salva Kiir and his allies. On the other, former vice president Riek Machar and a transversal group of political opponents turned into rebels. During the first weeks of conflict crisis, Juba was the epicentre of all violence and hatred. Those who had means left the city. Civilians took shelter – in tens of thousands – inside the two main UN compounds. Today, more than three months afterwards, they are still there, frightened and powerless, clueless about their future. Entire neighbourhoods have become ghost towns.
On December 19th 2013, after four days and nights spent reporting in the streets of Juba and trying to get my partner (a journalist working for Reuters) out of detention, I was evacuated from South Sudan on a military plane. I was 4 months pregnant. Keeping in touch with friends and colleagues during the first weeks of violence was very difficult: with little (if any) access to electricity to recharge their phones and with the constantly overloaded networks, many South Sudanese were cut off from the world. I could only sit at my desk and wait for a sign.
A few days ago, a message came through Facebook. “Hey, long time, miss you.” It was Winnie. She is in Juba, and nobody in her close family was hurt. “We are all doing well, dear, thanks.” End of communications. But Winnie was never much of a talker; she’s taking care of herself and her beloved ones.
Not long afterwards, another message pops up. This time, it was Puro he first left, then flew back to Juba on the first week of March to resumed his training sessions. “The situation,” he says, “is far from settled. Koul, Joseph and Doul are missing.” James Koul, the rising star of African kickboxing said to be spectacular between the ropes. “But I am determined to get the team ready for a fight in Kenya”, added Puro. Hopefully, the funds raised while abroad will cover travel expenses, and maybe get the fighters new gloves and bandages – theirs are crumbling.
Now more than ever, South Sudan and its people need a dream to believe in. Even a small one, like Winnie’s kickboxing team. Something to prove that not everything is lost, and that violence and hatred, tribalism and political revenge can be defeated. A first step might be taken quite figuratively by a 21-year-old girl stepping into a ring.
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