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"The whole community sat down, if you can imagine, the whole community…"

South Sudanese community leader Augustino Lucano on grassroots self-governance

by Augustino Lucano

Paramount Chief, Jervasio Amotun Lonyangayee (photo: Augustino Lucano)
Paramount Chief, Jervasio Amotun Lonyangayee (photo: Augustino Lucano)
Paramount Chief Jervasio Amotun Lonyangayee with Augustino Lucano in South Sudan (photo: Augustino Lucano)
Paramount Chief Jervasio Amotun Lonyangayee with Augustino Lucano in South Sudan (photo: Augustino Lucano)

Augustino Lucano - Maaji Podcast (Part 2) 


How does the low literacy rate influence daily life in South Sudan?  How do people get information?


The young people who have been actually educated in Kenya or Uganda or other places are the only people who get education. Most people, who didn't go anywhere, who are in southern Sudan, most of them, you go to the rural areas, they have never seen - if you talk to them even about a cell phone, they don't know what it is. So they are really staying in these remote areas, but they want to go to school, but then there is no way they can do that. Like, I went to one of the schools in the place called Ngauro, and it is a very good school, but then the teachers who are not qualified, they are probably grade 8 or grade 9, or grade 10, so now they are teaching. They haven't really got that skill of teaching, but they are trying their best. 


Then, the kids, they are very very young kids who are going to school, because the families can not provide lunch and the kids have to go, at the lunchtime, I think they take a break and they go back to their homes because the school is very close there. Then, they can come back to school after. Then, most of the time the teachers, they are very - I think they get frustrated, they are frustrated too because they don't really have the skill to teach and then sometimes when I spoke to two of them, I can see their frustration that they are really struggling, and the kids even they complain to me, that, "We have these teachers and they are not really teaching us." They hope they have to go to different places so they can get education. So then you can find that people are struggling, even though the school is there the resources are not there. The books, and all this, they don't have any library, they don't have - they depend on what the teacher is giving them. 


And, then, most people, especially the young women are not going to school at all, they are really discouraged because they have to work to help their families and they don't have the chance to go. Like when I saw this young one, they are trying but as soon as they getting ten years old or twelve years old, then they leave the school because now they are participating in cultivation. Their parents are asking them to help. Because the parents, they don't really see the importance of education. Even though sometimes they think education is a good thing, but then they don't really know. Like, when I talked to this, one of the boy, he just told me: "You know what, sometime we go to school, the teachers they don't come, we stay the whole day. The teachers are not coming, the students are discouraged." 


How have school textbooks been written in South Sudan?


Ya, you know there was some books printed in England. Like, I saw one time on the internet that they printed about one-point-something million books for South Sudan. Then, when I went to these schools, and the teacher gave me the book and said: "Oh, this is a new book. We just got it." And then I said: "Oh, what is it all about?" And then I started flipping the chapters, I see the contents. When I went through, they were talking about the culture, and it was completely - like I said to the teacher, I had to translate in my language, and I say: "It says this, is that related to our culture?" Then, he didn't even know, because they don't really read, they don't really understand. Then he said: "I didn't really know what it meant." And I said: "This is what it says. So, which culture is that?" Then he just said: "I don't know, we just got the books." 


So, if I was to bring the book and read more I could have seen what else is there. It was just completely contradicting to our culture, even though we have different cultures. So, what it says there was completely different. Either somebody who was helping, probably translated the way he understands, but it's not even a reflection of our culture, it's just as if somebody was just talking who just heard about the culture. It was completely different. So that means the kids will be learning something that is completely different. 


Who is the chief, how is he a bright example of leadership in South Sudan and the world?


So, [Paramount Chief] Jervasio [Amotun Lonyangayee] was originally, he was a teacher, at the first in 1970s, he went to Uganda, because they were displaced. People were displaced in 1963, so, when he left, he was a nurse who was helping in the community, and then he went to Uganda, he was a refugee in Uganda for five years, and he started helping people in the hospital. He was just providing, with the UN, the UN was working with him. He started working in Uganda for five years and then he came back in 1972, so the government signed an agreement with the rebels, Joseph Lagu and Nimeiri, who was the president, Jaafar Mohamed Nimeiri, who was the president. So, he signed an agreement with Joseph Lagu in 1972, so then in 1973 all the refugees who are in neighbouring countries, they were coming back to South Sudan. 


And then Jervasio came back to the village, and when he got there he found there was no school. And then he started teaching. He taught for a few years, and within our community we had only one chief who was running, which is now - now we have seven payams, they are dividing the county into small areas so that they can manage people - but then that time we had only two chiefs in the entire community. And then, the chief who was helping the community, he was not really feeling the condition the people were feeling. He sent the people to go and work, they would come and harass people to pay the taxation that was applied in the community, and every year everybody in the community, in their home - life if you have five brothers or six brother, everybody would pay their tax to that general chief - and then after some time the people who come and collect the tax were harassing people every year. Some people would run, and it became a concern to the community. 


So, it happens that my father and other community leaders sat down and said: "How long are we going to do this? We have been harassed. We need to get somebody to represent us." Then they sat down, and there was nobody who was educated in the entire village. They found that Jervasio Amotun had a knowledge. The whole community sat down, if you can imagine, the whole community came. It was the normal people who just came and sat down and said: We need to have our own chief. It was not allowed. People, they protest. They had to go to the headquarter, and the government was not listening. At that time it was Nimeiri who was the president. So, he did not even listen. He did not even know about our community. He just sent people to collect the money. And then now, the people they went to the school and called Jervasio Amotun, and it is very emotional. 


So, they called him and said: "We would like a leader. We don't have a leader who is helping us. We need you as a teacher to be our leader." And then Jervasio went like: "What are you talking about, I'm teaching. I'm a teacher. I don't think I can be a chief." The people they just said: "We are tired. We need you." And he said, okay, just give me time to go and think about it, because I really love to teach and I don't want to abandon my teaching." And then after a while people came back and the whole community came. Imagine, people contribute food so that they can eat when they protest. They want back to Chukudum, which is the headquarter, they talked to the chief there and said: "We need to have our chief." He said: "No, no. If you continue, I'm going to arrest you individually." The chief who was the head was threatening the people. 


Then people came back and Jervasio said: "Well, since you elected me to be leader, I accept that." He went with the people and he said: "Here, I am, on behalf of the community, I am taking leadership." It was really brutal, people were harassed, people were displaced. Just because of fifty - it was not even fifty dollars. It was like maybe, it was Sudanese pounds, that time it was about fifty Sudanese pounds, I don't know how much equivalent to Canadian or American. Jervasio now went to the head chief and said: "People are tired, now I have to come and work with the government." So, he decided that, then he came back and there was a big celebration. People they slaughtered the bulls. People were celebrating. 


So, then Jervasio, since 1978, he became the chief, and then with his background in education, so he has that vision. Even he was telling people that time, that: "You know I did ask to be connected to other communities, like, we need a road." And he will just talk to people, and people will, you know, listen. And then what he did was, he was a good friend of my father, and then the other people who are working with him. He will come and tell my father: "You know, I'm going to stay in the forest because I need to make the road, you go tell the people that I'm going." And he went, and started working on the road. Then the community went: "Woah, we can not allow the chief to go alone." 


So then now people are collecting themselves, and collecting food, and they just go and join him. And then he will tell them to sit and say: "You know, I see that you don't really see that it is important for us to have the road, because if we don't have the road, then we will be isolated forever." But, you know, people are not really educated, they don't understand. They think: "What is the road really going to do?" But then he insisted, he made the road to another main road, but then there was no vehicle coming to the area. People were not using, and the road will be - now the forest will come again and then in 2004, that was after a long, long period of time. 


And then he came and called the people and said: "Now, I think we are going to get our own government. So, we better do something." And then he mobilized the people again, and then they made the road again. So, he doesn't get tired. Even though people, they don't listen to him, he just says: "They don't understand." If they understand what it means, then they will support him. And he's not, he doesn't tell them, like: "Why you people you don't listen to me?" He will just say: "This is what I see, because in the future we will need the road to be connected. If we don't, then we don't have the services." 


Then, he did that, and then because then he joined the movement, when he became a chief. I mean, during the wartime he was a chief already, and then because the whole community knows him and he was supporting the movement, but he said he has to be with the people. He can not just be a leader who will just go and lead, or go in front to fight, he said: "No, no, I have to be with the people, because I had been chosen to work with the people. I have to listen to what they ask me to do, I have to work with them." 


He was very effective in that, collecting the food and helping the rebel leader. Because sometime the rebels can harass people, he will talk to them and say: "No, no, no this is not the mission. Our mission is not to fight to harass our people. We want to fight for freedom, and freedom doesn't mean we have to harass ourselves." And this is his personality, he is just very vocal, and when he speaks you can really feel when he is talking. He is with experience now. He is now 77 years old, and he doesn't' even look like 77 years old. 


What do you see in the future as you connect your life in Calgary with the community in S. Sudan?


I think in Maaji Centre, like what I see is to work with the people in Maaji so that they can, like I'm thinking of if the people in Maaji will get more skills on agriculture, learning how they can improve, even though they have been working for years and years. They have experience. They know how to dig, I'm thinking if there will be a connection to get some skills for them to know so they can grow different crops that are resistant to the drought. Especially drought resistant, I'm thinking about things like cassava that grow underground, like sweet potatoes. If people can grow more of these then they can reduce their hunger. 


Because what they do is they depend only they grow the millet, sorghum, and corn. And then, they don't have other things that can support them. So if they can get that training, especially the young people to be trained so that they know how they can cope with this, because the nature completely changed, environment changed. So, if people can be educated to understand that, then they can grow more crops that are resistant, that can help them to sustain their lives. And they know, they are really good in agriculture, but it is only that they are lacking the new knowledge now where they have to know: "Okay the rain is not coming so what else can we do?" 


Like simple agriculture, where they can irrigate the crops using simple tools so they just need that kind of connection and even to have a school there so that the kids can be going to school. They have to have the clinics, where they have to go when they are sick. And then they have to have a community centre where they can come. Now Maaji is the community centre, but there is no actual building. So, there should be a building where the two communities can come and sit so they don't have to just sit under a tree. They have to have a building where they can share their ideas and with the school. 


Both communities have to use the centre, so that the kids go to school, so they start having that connection. They get to know other tribes instead of, "Oh, that tribe." They have to know who are these people so they can go to school together, they can learn about each other and that way they can have a better life, because they can build the nation. Otherwise if they don't know each other, then we will just call ourselves that tribe, this tribe and it will never happen, the development will never happen.  


Is there anything more you wish to highlight?


So, the music, so we have these young people who play the music. They play the instruments called thumb piano. I have the video that I took in 2011, December. It is amazing how they are so talented how they play. I'm thinking they have so much talent that they can use to, they can perform and people can come and watch them so then that way they can not - because most of the youth what they do they go and steal the cows from other tribes. So if they can use this idea of the music, so then they can entertain themselves and other people. They can go even to different cities and perform and then that way they can have income and it helps them to see that they have a future. 


They have a future, they are connected to other bigger communities. Even just starting in smaller communities like the next neighbours, like the Toposa who are in a place called Kapoeta. If they can just go there and perform, people come and watch. They can go to Torit, people come and watch. Then there mind can switch to see at least they are part of the nation. So they have more they can give to the nation. 


So that is something I'm thinking and I helped one of the boys who is a musician in Uganda, he recorded a song in our dialect. And he is so talented, he sings in English, and Arabic and our language. I was just listening to the song and I said this is brilliant. And I sent him the money and he recorded the song. And everybody in the community loves that song. And I said to him, imagine you guys, you have talent, you can actually advance that knowledge and forget about stealing people's cows and use your talents. You have the talents, use it. That is something that can make community to connect to other communities, when they go and perform. 


Those who are in the village, so they practice. These guys, they have plenty of time, they are just expert. They play, but then during an occasion, like in December, these are the time when the whole community comes together. The whole youth comes together and plays thumb piano. They play like if they start now [afternoon], they play the whole night until tomorrow. And then because they collect themselves, they come. All the villages, they come and they play there. Then, if they were to rotate to go to different villages. Then, that way they make the connection. 


They can build that friendship, but now we have those who have the concept of music, they were either in Kenya or Uganda, so then they are trying to perform. They can go to Juba if somebody can invite them to go and play. So, we have those who are in Uganda and Kenya, so they do that. But the ones who are in the villages, they only perform within their village. I see that if they can connect to other communities, other villages, then they will build strong relations where they will get to know each other better. 


* Maaji is also spelled Magi or Magii 

NOTE: This podcast was produced in partnership with and the Arusha Centre with the Calgary Working Group initiative to establish a new local of The Media Co-op in Calgary
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