Weeks of anticipation and build up to the first ever Hagana Festival were finally about to be rewarded on May 20th 2017 in Juba. Hagana is derived from Arabic word meaning “it’s ours” encapsulating this was the fact that the festival would be free. The Festival, which was held at Nyakuron Cultural Centre, would start at 11 A.M according to the posters all over Juba town. I woke up relatively early for a Saturday, I caught a glimpse of the beautiful golden sunrise with the sky painted bright blue and not a single cloud in the sky to blemish a promising day. I left the house rushing to the bus stop only to find traffic, it was fast approaching 11 and the queues leading to the petrol stations had bottlenecked the road to only one functional lane. I called a familiar motorcycle rider to take me to Nyakuron, haggling him to lower the fee as I needed to save some money for the festival.
At the gate I had my bag checked by a security guard, as a stern looking police officer looked out onto the road. I was expecting a crowd to have already arrived and taken their seats. The event had been divided into two segments, the indoor stage for the morning entertainment of drama, comedy, dances plus performances from a few musicians. The outdoor stage was for the afternoon segment with popular artists like Crazy Fox, Jungle Preacher and Emmanuel Kembe amongst the performers to grace the stage. At a conference room within the Nyakuron Center, there was an art gallery I was only too eager to visit.
I took a seat at the back of the theatre hall which hosted the Indoor stage. I watched as high school students, some in their uniforms, jostled for seats. Having secured the only seat in the terrace overlooking the entire hall, I was surrounded by young men on one side and the girls on the other. As more seats were being brought from the outside, I decided to move closer to the stage. I was shown to my seat by one of the ushers as the performers prepared backstage. The journalists set up their cameras just in time to start recording the first performance.
The MC took the stage welcoming the jubilant crowd in the hall to the Hagana Festival, he called out, “Junuba Sudan de hag munu?” (who does South Sudan belong to?) the crowd cheerfully responding, “Hagana” (ours). A musician walked on stage with cheers resounding cheers, he started with his song, “Zol Kap”. Feeling left out I asked one of the organisers for the programme schedule so I wouldn’t miss the next act’s name. The Clever Girls, an all girls band, took the stage singing songs to “I wanna be like Nelson Mandela…. I wanna be like Obama,” gaining favor from the young crowd cheering them on. They were followed by a troupe of dancers, South’s Friends Dancers, a group of young boys bringing out their best moves song after song captivating the crowd as young girls joined them on stage dancing to put money in their pockets. Surprisingly unfazed the dancers did not lose their choreography.
The Horiya family, a group of two musicians one of whom is called D.G Samuel Kai Wan, started off with the song “Say no for war”. They had a message for the crowd; “music is beautiful in any language”, proving this when they started rapping in their indigenous Nuer. They were joined on stage by a solitary dancer in her school uniform as they performed. Next on stage was Freedom Boys; an all boys troupe of dancers, dancing first to “Matatizo” (“problems” in Swahili) a slow song with a dramatic skit. The change of songs brought out the vigor of the dancers prompting generous gifts from the crowd as young girls struggled to shove some money in their pockets without ruining the dance.
I had a great view of the stage as people continued to stream in steadily. At this point it was getting hotter in the room. The South Sudan Theatre Organization was next on stage with a drama which started with a woman sewing on a stool and calling out for children and her husband responding from backstage that they hadn’t returned from school. The drama covered several themes such as education, the poor economy and domestic violence. A man came on stage hurtling shoes at his running wife as she fell down, punching and kicking in the air, the crowd watched attentively as silence engulfed the hall. The scene then shifted to the husband getting seduced by another woman while his old man (presumably his father) was present and made humorous comments forcing uproars of laughter.
The Hagana Festival, which was funded by USAID and the Vistas program USA, had drawn in a huge crowd and the theatre hall was fully packed with barely any space to sit as audiences sat on the halls pavement overlooking the outside stage. The Heaven Stars dancers were next on stage wearing white T-Shirts. The mix of Primary school students and secondary school students was noticeable, with the youngest wearing an oversized Hagana Festival T-shirt. The choreography and their theatrical performance left the crowd cheering. A man walked up to the young girl waiting for an opportune moment in their choreography to place some money into her hands. Others followed suit as they shoved South Sudanese Pounds into the pockets of the dancers at the back of the group, some notes ending up on the floor. After the second drama by Juba University students discussing drug abuse, I felt compelled to leave the room. It had become unbearably hot and I needed to cool off.
I went to the art gallery to see the creative pieces the artists had to offer. The gallery was a breath-taking sight, several artists had contributed to the collection on display and everywhere I turned the talent amazed me. The paintings were both surreal and abstract, covering themes from war, love, peace, emancipation of women and Africa to even the use of condom in lovemaking. The gallery was picturesque to say the least, as the art lovers took turns looking at each painting before moving to the next. Standing next to a painting of a man aiming a gun at his own shadow with its hands raised was Adija Achuil, an artist and a cartoonist for local the newspapers; This Day newspaper, Juba Monitor and some Arabic newspapers. He contributed 3 pieces of art to the entire collection and wanted the people to see the problems we have in the country and seek solutions. “We don’t have enemies from anywhere, we are the enemies of ourselves,” he said.
Curating the event was James Aguer Garang, a painter, who believes that painting is a form of visual communication. “I believe that what you see sticks in your mind more than what you read,” he said. I was curious to know what inspired his paintings. I learnt of the great optimism with which he hopes to transform this country. One of his paintings was abstract and required a keen eye to note the message etched into the fabric, “I’m a Peace Maker”. The other painting shows his vision for a new South Sudan; a man, a woman and a soldier roll away the decadence of war and poverty, replacing it with a prosperous future with lush green grass, paved roads and a father taking his children to school. It captured the hopes of many South Sudanese with several people taking photos in front of this painting. He felt proud as an artist for the appreciation artists got at the Hagana festival.
A fire had just started near the theatre hall as I left the gallery. An eager fan had climbed the power outlet while trying to reach the pavements where several people were sitting, causing the wires to short circuit and start a fire. The fire cut off the power supply for an hour disrupting the events ongoing at the indoor stage; the security guards ran around shouting fire to warn the participants of the impending danger. The fire delayed the schedule as the crowd moved to the open field where the outdoor stage was set up along with many tents for the Hagana Village. I met up with a friend and went to inspect the Hagana Village.
The Hagana Village boasted a collection of South Sudanese products ranging from clothes to books; the Aggrey Jaden Cultural Centre was selling beaded handbags. I first went to the Leaves bookshop stand, which had attracted a huge crowd of readers, yearning to see what collections they had. Having quenched my thirst for knowledge, I found a stall that had what I desired the most, a beaded necklace. Sitting at the counter was an old woman who was knitting a hat as we looked around. Her gentle smile and fair prices convinced me that it was a worthy purchase; but I’m probably a sucker for smiling old women.
The performances were about to start on the stage on the other side of the field as I moved to the shade behind the stage. I wanted to cool off from an hour in the sun and quench my thirst as the live band played welcoming back the crowd’s attention. Everyone was sheltering in the tents eagerly awaiting the resumption of the festivities.
The wait was rewarded as Kiden Lulu, the MC, took to the stage thanking the Lion Band and kick-starting the afternoon session. Some of the events slated for the disrupted morning session were reintegrated into the program. Verna Joseph graced the stage with a beautiful rendition of her RnB song “More than a Friend” followed by Ani Shi. Next on the stage was South Sudanese comedian Ziko cracking up the crowd with jokes in Arabic. He lightened the mood for the afternoon session. Calling for the crowd sheltering from the hot afternoon sun to move closer, Kiden Lulu welcomed other artists to the stage including Jungle Preacher to perform his hit songs. Jungle Preacher is a singer of “Galu Galu”, telling people to stop spreading rumors.
Manasseh Mathiang, the initiative coordinator of AnaTaban, came on stage to thank all the attendants of the Hagana Festival. In a speech, he thanked the audience for the overwhelming attendance especially in trying times. He was excited that the youth joined the AnaTaban group to declare “Junub de Hagana” (South Sudan is ours). He stated that the AnaTaban group strongly believes that the youth have what it takes to decide what direction the country should go. The youth are the majority in South Sudan and AnaTaban is a platform for the youth to play a role in the country. He thanked the artists for joining the Hagana Festival and making the day a success. In 2017, the AnaTaban group launched the campaign “Bloodshed Free 2017” which focused on advocacy for a permanent ceasefire, security for all citizens and the immediate end to the ethnic conflict. Manasseh Mathiang insisted that there must be justice and accountability. Towards the end of his speech he thanked President Kiir for calling for a national dialogue and insisted that it must be inclusive.
Following the powerful Speech by Manasseh, Spoken word poets took over the stage to move the crowd with their lyrical rhymes. Monde Lual, one of the poets, started with, “As I stand before you today, you will die as victims. That child is innocent, why teach him how to shoot a gun instead of how to write his name.” He recounted the liberation struggle for which his father died for, only to realize that he had created his own prison, “perhaps the world is blinded to the truth, if you want to speak it they only ask for the proof.” Poet Deng Forbes only had his wishes of what he wants South Sudan to be, “I wish we’d all just put down the guns and pick up the shovels to build the country we’ve all wanted.” Other poets joined him on stage, each taking turns to spread their vision for South Sudan, MC Kiden Lulu, evidently moved called on the youth to take charge and save the country.
The dancers were once again called upon to entertain the crowd; they took to the grass showcasing their moves with Soul Dance Crew performing acrobatic moves. The Acholi Dancers, Mega Independent Association led by David Otim, came next with their own drums and traditional wear. Breaking out into song and dance, the cameramen were only too eager to capture it all on film as each took turns recording the cultural dance. I got to speak to David Otim after his performance. He is an orphan who was raised by his grandmother. As a child, he learned how to use his talents and formed the group, consisting of orphans as well, before South Sudan attained independence in 2011. According to David, the name of the group “Mega” derives from English and his native Acholi where it means “Mine or ours.” He chose to participate in the Hagana Festival because his team’s motto is “Culture for Peace.” He reiterated the importance of culture in the search for peace, stating “if you don’t have a culture you can’t have a nation.”
The backstage where I had previously stood to watch the performances away from the hot afternoon sun had been taken over. The security detail for the American Ambassador watched keenly as the crowd inched closer. The Canadian Ambassador, on the other hand, had been roaming the field unaccompanied. The MC urged the crowd to move away from the speakers so that they won’t be deafened by the loud sounds. I left to search for a suitable shade to rest under and headed to the conference hall to find James Aguer was still curating the gallery. The room had become unbearably stuffy, but he watched keenly as more people took pictures near his painting while others chatted away in the corner near the fan.
Outside the conference hall I met with Deng Forbes who had taken a break from his duties back stage, I asked him about how it felt to perform at the Hagana Festival. He said it was both exciting and nerve wracking. He used the platform given by AnaTaban to call for security and prosperity on behalf of the youth. We spoke at length about his poetry and how the people around him in the AnaTaban group, who are courageous and bold enough to speak up, inspire him. He wants to inspire other people too and hence his choice to participate in the Hagana Festival. He was called away by Manasseh Mathiang so that he could help in managing the crowd. There were 8 performances that were still pending and they were running short of time as it was already 6 in the evening.
Chatting with Manasseh Mathiang, one of the organizers for the Hagana Festival and initiative coordinator of AnaTaban, he remarked that it was a great success. As the initiative coordinator, he leads the team of creative people in AnaTaban; they all share a love for the country and wanted to do something for it. The Hagana Festival has been in the works for over a year, since the inception of AnaTaban they have been urging citizens to take ownership of the country. I was curious, why did the organizers make the festival free, Manasseh answered simply, “peace is not for sale and we are not a profit-making organization. All we want is the South Sudanese at large to get involved in their nation.” After the brief chat, I left the festival proud to have taken part in the day’s festivities, donning my beaded necklace; I felt a part of this wonderful nation on my way back home.
This post is also available in: Arabic