South Sudan's Journey to Nationhood: The ROOTS Project: Preserving Cultural Diversity
Our Diverse Cultural Resources
By Anyieth D'Awol
Founder and Director of the ROOTS Project
South Sudan is a unique and special country, the newest nation in the world, born on 9 July, 2011. Within its borders, its most important asset is its peoples and their diverse and rich cultures. Economic marginalization and lack of development (one of its core disputes with the old Sudan), has left South Sudan looking almost like a blank canvas. Underneath though, South Sudan is a detailed tapestry of cultural groups, a country with vast natural resources like arable land, livestock, oil and magnificent landscapes. South Sudan has approximately ten million people - from some seventy different tribal groups - living spread out across the highlands, plains and swamplands, the White Nile River and its tributaries sustaining their agriculture and animals.
Currently, rather than being its strength, South Sudan’s diversity is a source of conflict manifesting itself along tribal lines. Through respect and appreciation for cultural and tribal diversity, South Sudan can harness the strength it possesses in all its tribal groupings: this is where a positive future lies. To rid the nation of inter-tribal violence, we need to develop respect for cultural identity and learn to co-exist.
South Sudan united to fight decades-long wars and gain its independence through the joining of hands and heart against northern Sudan, both through rebellion and through the vote. But what can unite South Sudanese of all tribes today?
The first part of this answer lies in the people consenting to live together and share the nation with respect and appreciation for all South Sudan’s cultures. The tribes are culturally different, but all people from all the tribes within the geographical south have more in common than not: the need to live peaceful lives, to see their children go to school, to be safe and able to develop and contribute. Through culture, South Sudan has the opportunity to develop into a stable and productive nation.
Culture is not stagnant and changes with the times. Through sports, music, art, fashion and theatre, many South Sudanese are already prominent ambassadors of the nation’s cultural richness; with mutual cooperation and support, South Sudanese can foster unity amongst themselves.
The ROOTS Project is one of several ways an environment for cooperation and respect for tribal diversity can be created; a respect that in turn promotes unity. The organization was initiated by, and is run by women, and was created with diversity in mind. Central to this is the value and importance given to the individual identity of each tribe through making traditional beadwork and crafts, which provide the women income. The production of traditional and creative arts and crafts by the members representing nineteen different tribes helps make sure that South Sudanese cultural artefacts are available to buy, whilst economically empowering the artists who make them.
The ROOTS is unique because - under one roof - members of various tribes work in unison. By sitting together, the women involved realize their similarities rather than their differences. Women from various tribes, backgrounds and age groups, provide each other with valuable social and emotional support as they all share a similar standard of living. The Centre provides women with limited educational backgrounds and skills with a positive way to contribute and participate in their new nation. In less than three years of operation, its members have developed an understanding and appreciation of each other’s tribes and work. The marketing, promotion and sale of items, pays, feeds and educates everyone who works at the Centre equally. All the women promote the products with pride. Their vested interest in the Centre’s success helps them continue to work and deal better with their lives. Through working together, and sharing resources, they all stand to gain, instilling the sense of unity needed in the whole of South Sudan.
In July 2012, the women gathered to celebrate the completion of traditional beadwork. The products were to be presented and sold at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in New Mexico, USA. South Sudan has many unique traditional beading styles and techniques. Adornment plays an important role in the culture of many of the country’s tribes: cultural events and celebrations call for full, traditional, beaded attire. Beadwork helps accentuate beauty, drawing attention to the back and hips to create an impact during dancing. Designs and colours carry meaning signifying status, age and occasion.
Mary Padar, a mother of eleven children, was sponsored by the Market to showcase her beaded Dinka corset, as well as ornate work by the Lotuka, Mundari and Toposa tribes. She had joined the ROOTS Project in 2010 following her demobilization from the SPLA, where she had spent twenty years of her life cooking for the soldiers as a woman associated with armed forces.
During the celebrations, another woman, Tabitha Nyakedi, stood up and said, “I am a Murle woman, you are a Dinka woman. Historically, our tribes have been at war. In this place we are all women of ROOTS. When you travel … you go not as a Dinka, but as a woman of South Sudan. You represent all of us and introduce to the world the work of South Sudanese women. We send you with our thanks and our blessing.”
Music, sports, theatre, fashion and arts are a cornerstone for the future of South Sudan, precisely because they bring its people together. Focusing on culture also has an impact on the next generation, empowering women and helping them create the best environment they can for their children.