Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a reporter for The Post and served as the paper’s Africa bureau chief from 2002 to 2006.
With his soulful songs about injustice, his work as an activist and his penchant for wrap-around sunglasses, Lam Tungwar is South Sudan’s homespun blend of Bono and Bob Marley.
Tungwar was a child soldier before he became a hip-hop star, and his lyrics chronicle the despair of his country’s decades of violence but also the determination of South Sudan’s triumphant birth 21 / 2 years ago, when the largely Christian and African South split from the Muslim and Arab North, ending Africa’s longest civil war.
In “Call the President,” he urges young South Sudanese to embrace the possibilities of their new nation: “One day, you can be the new president. Show all the youth what our future can represent.”
Though he could have fled to an easier life in the United States or Europe, Tungwar committed himself to the gritty and deeply impoverished capital of Juba, opening a community center for artists and launching a televised talent competition in the style of “American Idol.” The show promoted the idea that talent, merit and hard work were what it took to build a new life in the new country — that it was no longer a place where religion, tribe or inherited privilege determined success or failure. Thousands of young people came to try out, often traveling for days from rural villages, sometimes causing stampedes — all for a brief shot at something more.
But those ideals have been upended, even for the hopelessly hopeful Tungwar.
His three brothers were killed last month in the renewed violence that is threatening the future of South Sudan. According to the United Nations, more than 1,000 lives have been taken, and 180,000 villagers have been forced to flee their homes.
Tungwar, who in my mind symbolized everything that was promising about South Sudan, has been emotionally gutted — both by his personal losses and by the prospect of his country coming apart.
“How are we back here again? We are a generation that grew up with independence and hope in our hearts,” Tungwar told me over a scratchy Skype line this past week. “Now we are all messed up again. We feel a government we had really trusted has just betrayed us. And it’s worse than Khartoum because it’s our own people.”
His devastation won’t quickly dissipate, even if ongoing peace talks in Ethiopia yield an agreement between President Salva Kiir and his ousted vice president, Riek Machar, whom Kiir accused of attempting a coup. Their rivalry has touched off widespread fighting between their supporters, largely divided along ethnic lines. Kiir is from the majority Dinka group. Machar is Nuer.
I first met Tungwar and his cousin Emmanuel Jal when I was based in Nairobi, and they were among the coolest people in Kenya. Part of East Africa’s growing hip-hop scene, they often played at clubs and at the sprawling Kakuma Refugee Camp, home to thousands of “lost boys” and other young South Sudanese who had escaped by walking for days, arriving barely alive, just as Tungwar and Jal had.
“Voices in my brain of friends that were slain,” Jal raps on his album “War Child.” “Left home at the age of 7. One year later live with an AK-47. . . . When the rest of the children were learning how to read and write, I was learning how to fight.”
The cousins’ work became popular with DJs spinning in London and Paris, and one of their songs — “Baai,” meaning “my home” — was featured in the film “Blood Diamond.”
When Jal performed for classrooms at Kakuma, some of the young students cried — huge tears that started slowly and turned into bawling as they listened to his poetry in the form of rap.
After an interview in Nairobi once, Jal gave me a copy of his CD and a bright yellow T-shirt with a slogan written in magic marker: “Somebody ♥’s me in new Sudan.” I thanked him and said I would add it to my collection of ironic African T-shirts of conflict. I also had a Chadian dictator shirt and another from Liberia with childlike drawings of guns and grenades and the endearing misspelling: “the Librators.” Jal laughed. We both knew how much pain was behind those shirts. But they were signs of coping. The people who created them seemed to be saying: We know things are bad, but it will be okay.
Humor was one way I tried to cope with the painful and seemingly intractable realities around me. The truth was, despite my idealistic nature, I wasn’t sure how hopeful to be on a continent where a cease-fire was often just a chance to rearm, as my husband once observed during a reporting trip to cover Ivory Coast’s on-again, off-again civil war.
Certainly it was often difficult to find signs of hope during the nearly 20 reporting trips I made to Sudan.
In South Sudanese culture — a macho, cattle-raising society where it’s highly taboo for men to cry — female mourners are called in to articulate pain through singing, wailing, fainting and guttural sounds. They were there during that steaming summer of 2005 when South Sudanese leader John Garang, one of Africa’s most revered icons, was killed in a helicopter crash. “Oh my people, oh my country,” they sang for hours, with such anguish that nearly a decade later I still think about it often.
I was covering Garang’s funeral and asked the women afterward if they were hopeful without their leader. They were tough farming women, without much education. But they knew. They listed all the problems that exist today: oil money that would inevitably spark corruption and greed in a destitute country, aging rebel leaders more concerned with getting rich than with being public servants, and politicians willing to exploit underlying tribal tensions for their own power.
I heard similar warnings from Jal when he came to Washington for the opening of South Sudan’s Embassy in 2011. He looked skeptical, his eyes sad, his body language suggesting that he was hesitant to join in the revelry at a huge party at a five-star Washington hotel. Kiir was there, in his signature cowboy hat, as were civil-society leaders, who danced for hours. In a cab on the way to a second round of parties, I asked Jal if he was okay. “It could all fall apart if oil resources aren’t shared, if there’s no real development,” he told me .
There were warnings from Americans immersed in the complexities of Sudan’s conflict, too.
A group of South Sudan advocates accused Juba security forces of conducting “a campaign of violence against civilians simply because they belonged to a different ethnic group or they are viewed as opponents of the current government ” in a July 2013 letter signed by Roger Winter, a former U.S. State Department special envoy; Sudan expert Eric Reeves ; Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast; and Ted Dagne, who had been the lead Africa analyst with the Congressional Research Service before serving for a time as an adviser to Kiir.
Dagne also pointed out widespread graft in a recent memo to the Sudanese president obtained by The Washington Post.
“Over the years, your patience to abuses by some in the leadership has been taken as weakness, and may have opened the door to undermine your leadership by the same people who were appointed to govern,” Dagne wrote. “Unless this trend is reversed quickly, these people will likely succeed in creating a state of chaos in the country.”
Dagne recommended a restructuring and reshuffle that was not rushed or political but designed to lay the foundation for the next generation, root out corruption and make the cabinet more effective and reform-minded.
“There are a lot of people in South Sudan and in the government who are committed to seeing their country strong, united, democratic and prosperous,” Dagne told me. “Unfortunately, these leaders have been sidelined or ignored by the same obstructionists who are determined to die in office for the sake of power and money. The Mobutus of South Sudan do not understand or wish to learn what it means to be a public servant.”
When I asked Tungwar this past week how much hope he has left, Jal jumped on the phone and offered a haunting answer.
“When a baby is born, they have diseases and are very sick, and their mother thinks they are going to die,” he said. “But somehow they make it.”
His ability to assume there is sickness and suffering, but still be hopeful no matter what, is why, despite it all, I am still optimistic about South Sudan.