JUBA, Jul 8 – Strutting on stage to the delight of cheering crowds, the performers in a South Sudan talent show have a bigger dream than entertainment alone – of helping unite their war-ravaged young nation.
Destroyed by one of Africa’s longest civil wars — scattering communities into the bush to fight or sending them abroad to seek refuge — one year on, South Sudan is not only building a state but also a new identity.
“It’s just a dream for me, representing my country and showing the world that… as South Sudanese we have talent”, said Thomas Tombe, a rapper, who spent most of his life in the now rump state of Sudan.
Fans shout support at the finalists of the South Sudan Talent Search — an X Factor style music and dance competition also screened on the fledgling national television station — as soldiers push back the most excited from the stage.
Tombe hopes that the show will tour the South’s 10 states to foster a spirit of national unity, by using culture and entertainment to bring young people together to celebrate their new country.
Shuffling on stage in low-slung jeans to show off the American stars and stripes covering his bottom, Tombe waves as young men in the audience nod sagely and reposition their sunglasses.
The 20-year old rapper performs under the name of Thomas Taban, in memory of his father who disappeared during the war: a decades long fight that ended in a 2005 peace deal which set up the South’s referendum on independence.
“The northerners said he was a guerrilla and arrested and killed him,” Taban said. “I was only two months old, my mummy fled with me to Khartoum. My father, I only see him in pictures.”
Triplex Bol, one of the show’s judges, remembers his mother hiding him under the bed as shots rang out in his hometown of Wau, before the family fled to exile in Egypt and then the United States.
Returning to South Sudan last March, he hoped to put his degree in criminal justice to good use in the legal or security sector.
But when he saw the impact left on the younger generation by a war that killed around two million people, he chose to become a music promoter.
“People here need a lot of help — a lot of them are traumatised — but it will change,” he said.
Bol is one of thousands that saw his first theatre play this year, after South Sudan was chosen as one of 37 nations to perform a work by William Shakespeare at London’s Globe Theatre.
Director Derik Alfred said that South Sudanese packed out the theatre in London to see Shakespeare’s Cymbeline in the local dialect of Arabic – and which was met with rapturous applause and positive reviews.
“Some of them said that this was the first time they felt South Sudanese,” he said.
After so many years of trying to present a united front against Khartoum, ethnic clashes between South Sudanese tribes at the start of 2012 led to fears the new nation could turn on itself.
“A lot of our problems as South Sudanese are because we don’t know each other,” said Akuja de Garang, who is working to promote the country’s arts and handicrafts.
“We were separated by the war and by the huge distances between states for so long,” she added.
Bitter violence remains: in January, the rebel army-turned-government was criticized for failing to stop a marauding militia of some 8,000 youths massacring hundreds of a rival tribe in impoverished Jonglei state.
“Tribalism is there – it’s getting more negative,” said Alfred Lokuji, a social science professor at Juba University.
The university, the country’s only public higher education facility, has been closed since March after a major brawl between ethnic groups during a football match.
“It’s a mini reproduction of the national situation,” Lokuji said.
He hopes that education will undo tribal practices — such as initiation rites, scarification and teeth pulling — that he says foster a violent loyalty to ethnicity above any sense of national identity.
But Alfred fears that South Sudan’s multiple tribes are being increasingly politicized, while education is neglected.
“There is nothing wrong with tribes as a social institution, but we’ve used tribes to political ends and that is dangerous,” Alfred said, adding that where politicians have failed, the arts can create a common vision for the future.
“Art, theatre, writing, singing, that’s where people will discover their differences and their points in common, and start to appreciate each other… all this will help to build the South Sudanese identity,” he said.
Back at the talent show, Tombe squints into the bright lights he says will spread all over South Sudan.
“I see a great future for this country. We have to work hard for it”, he said.