By Sandra Tombe
Tombe is doctoral candidate at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. She studies political organization, mobilization and network theory.
For my country of South Sudan, the newest nation on earth, peace is not readily available. Rather, peace must be built into a larger process of listening to outstanding grievances and fears. These grievances must be addressed and alleviated with careful intentionality.
Such a peacebuilding process is bringing up to 100 South Sudanese of various backgrounds to Lexington, Virginia, this Labor Day weekend. The conference is organized by the South Sudanese Diaspora Network for Reconciliation and Peace (SSDNRP) in collaboration with the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of the Sudans (AFRECS) and with the generosity of Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington.
The conference can be traced to a gathering in Denver in May 2018. That’s when a group of religious and community leaders exiled from their South Sudan homeland came together to discuss the hurdles this East African community faces on the road to reconciliation and peace. It was out of this gathering that the SSDNRP came to be.
The conference is structured with small and large group discussions facilitated by researchers and practitioners who have experience working with South Sudan and facilitating South Sudanese dialogues and conversations. The Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, Justin Badi Arama, will be one of the main speakers. The conference will end on Sunday with a celebration of the Feast Day of Marc Nikkel, an American Episcopal priest, artist, author, teacher and missionary to the Sudan who died in 2000.
Fostering dialogue is a key part of the peace-building process. Framing the conference in such terms is deliberate, as the gathering aims to respond to a fragile situation in South Sudan and among the South Sudanese diaspora. Since the outbreak of the conflict in South Sudan in 2013, various communities have become antagonistic and violent toward one another. These divisions, unfortunately, have been reflected across diaspora communities on the African continent and beyond.
Of course, it is important to recognize and acknowledge the important reality of the differences that exist between South Sudanese communities. Whether real or perceived, those differences are a political reality. But beyond the politics, one can see instances in which a segment of the community disengages with another by the churches they choose to frequent, the events they choose to attend, and the nature and quality of interactions they choose to have with one another. While isolating oneself may be due to existing grievances and fears — admittedly real and grave — such isolation only justifies and reinforces the sense of hostility that tends to blanket entire communities. Dialogue among the South Sudanese who will be meeting in Lexington is extremely important for continuing to chip away at the barriers that separate them from one another on an individual and community level.
As South Sudanese myself and a member of the SSDNRP, I believe this gathering is critical and I hope that it will trigger honesty and community-building among participants that will extend beyond Lexington and Virginia in the coming weeks and months. The conference is bound in time and place, as it has to be. But its message is not and should not be.
Representing Canada and various states within the United States — people of different social and cultural backgrounds that claim South Sudan as home — attendants of the conference will be uniquely positioned to have a space for conversations with those they many not normally have the opportunity to engage. These interactions, I hope, will be shared with those who were not able to come to Lexington.
How this sharing is done can take many forms: speaking to the friend who was not able to come but wanted to, calling the friend who was (and perhaps still is) skeptical and cynical of what gatherings like Lexington’s can do, or carving a time at church a few Sundays from now to relay to the community what had happened.
What I believe is more critical is being intentional about this sharing and taking the conversation forward to local communities, engaging women, men, and youths, especially when they see the conflict and the solution to it differently. Achieving peace will take all of us. It will depend on all of us, in the diaspora and at home in South Sudan.