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Radio soap opera reconnects South Sudan’s youth

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With the ongoing civil war in South Sudan, the team working on the radio soap opera, Sawa Shabab, has a totally different battle on its hands. Under the leadership of Afro‑American Lizzie Lacey, the actors are putting their hearts and souls into building peace in South Sudan. “Everyone loves Sawa Shabab.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

In July 2011, South Sudan gained its independence after decades of civil war with the North. It seemed peace was in sight but in December 2013 new fighting broke out between the two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. The conflict began in Juba and quickly spread into other areas. The Nuer fled from Juba to the nearest UN base camp, one of the country’s so-called Protection of Civilians – or PoC – sites.

Despite a peace agreement, the ‘new war’ continues, but in the meantime, a young generation of South Sudanese is emerging that believes in living together in peace. They are the makers and audience of the radio soap opera, Sawa Shabab, a project initiated by Free Press Unlimited, Free Voice and the US Institute for Peace (USIP). Lizzie Lacey is a manager at Free Voice and tells us about the success of this soap opera.

What does your organisation do?
“Free Voice is an NGO that helps journalists and media companies to develop independent and educational material. Our projects focus on strengthening social cohesion, especially amongst young people, who account for almost three-quarters of the population of South Sudan. Sawa Shabab is the first radio programme aimed at this audience.”

Sawa Shabab means Youth Together. It’s a peacebuilding drama aimed at urban youth. Two seasons, each with twenty episodes, have been produced so far and a third season is being made at the moment. Thirty different radio stations broadcast the soap and it can be heard via Soundcloud in South Sudan, as well as in the neighbouring countries of Uganda and Kenya. In each episode, the characters are faced with dilemmas affecting the lives of Sudanese youth, such as identity and educational issues, equality between men and women and arranged marriages. At the end of each programme, listeners can send an SMS with their opinions or about what they would do.

The soap became a great success in South Sudan as soon as it started in 2014. More than eleven thousand people sent SMS messages after the programme. “It’s a bit like the Friends series that everyone used to watch because it was something new at the time,” an enthusiastic Lizzie explains. “Just mention the name Sawa Shabab and no matter who you are talking to, they will start to sing the theme song. Everyone loves Sawa Shabab.”

And now the soap has become a real movement in itself. Lizzie explains: “Many young listeners also wanted to do something positive to bring a message of peace to their own community. We are supporting these initiatives, together with Cordaid, by providing a small budget for them and guiding them with the content. Through this, a real youth movement has emerged that can help us to work on building peace.”

Why is this project so important?
“There is so much misunderstanding, negativity and distrust around here. Yet, as an outsider, I can see the beauty of this country and its people. But it is very difficult to convey. People here are literally exposed to nothing other than strife; they don’t know another way of life. The guys and the girls in the Sawa Shabab team have a positive image of how South Sudan could be in five years’ time. But the question is how do you get this image into the heads of the people who live here? The Sawa Shabab soap has the power to do so. We don’t dictate what equality between women and men should be, we simply create characters that embody this equality in all that they say and do. This is how young people can see for themselves that there are other ways of living your life.”

Once she’s asked for an example, Lizzy cannot stop talking! When she tells us her favourite example, she gets all choked up with emotion: “We once visited a PoC site where people from the Nuer tribe were living. We had to be very careful because Bul Bior, the actor who plays Captain Richard, was with us and he is from the Dinka tribe. Once he mentioned his name, and it’s a typical Dinka name, you could see everyone’s hair stand on end and they all got up out of their seats. I turned it all around by saying: ‘come on, guys, let’s all sit in a circle and talk.’ And then I played them an episode of Sawa Shabab where Captain Richard has the starring role. At the end, I said: ‘And who do you think that this is sitting next to me? It is none other than Captain Richard!’ And everyone started to cheer and clap and wanted their photo taken with Bul. It was totally amazing because it could have all gone horribly wrong. For me, that is what you call reconciliation.”

What makes this project so unique?
“In South Sudan, there aren’t any – or there are very few – programmes made from a young person’s perspective. No one represents young people and yet they account for three-quarters of the total population. The script is written by people from South Sudan and all the scripts are also checked by a group of young advisors. This is why listeners can relate to the themes and the characters. They listen to the stories and hear their own lives.” As many young people don’t live in big towns, Lizzie wants the storyline in the third season to be more about problems that people encounter who live in the countryside. “Most young people from the country live on cattle camps where there are a lot of conflicts between the different families that these young people belong to. Cattle theft is an example of one of the recurrent issues causing the fights in these camps.”

What obstacles have you come across?
“Sawa Shabab is a peacebuilding project and it, therefore, ought to be broadcast for free. Most radio stations in South Sudan are commercial so they aren’t willing to give away airtime for nothing. We really have no budget for this. We spend all our money on producing the show.” But apart from that there are very few obstacles, according to Lizzie: “Strangely enough, we don’t seem to come across the same problems that so many other media projects are faced with. I mean, there’s a war out there and on social media, such as Facebook, you see a lot of hate speech and people are at each other’s throats. We’ve never had to ban anyone from using our page. That says a lot about the unifying force that the series projects.”

What are you most proud of?
“The fact that Sawa Shabab is more than just a soap and that it has evolved into a peace movement. We get to people via their hearts rather than their heads, as Bul Bior always says.” And then, for the first time, it goes quiet on the other end of the line. “But really, what I’m most proud of is the team that makes Sawa Shabab possible. Everyone here works so hard. People work late into the night and a lot of our actors have full-time jobs so they come to the studio to record their parts in the weekend. I am so very grateful that I have been given the honour of working with all of these talented and passionate people in South Sudan.”

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