Author: Grant McDonald, in-country Project Manager, South Sudan
My long journey back across the Atlantic to South Sudan began with a flight from Toronto’s Pearson Airport to a connecting flight in Washington D.C.
I was met by a friendly American customs agent inquiring about my reason for entering the U.S. of A. It was a simple stop over before heading to Addis Ababa onwards to South Sudan.
“Why are you going there?”
The inflection in his voice suggested this was not a formal security-check question, it was asked out of curiosity with a hint of concern.
This is a response I have become accustomed to while traveling to the world’s newest nation; a response I believe the work of Journalists for Human Rights can one day help change.
I had been away from South Sudan for about two months, after spending one year based in the capital city of Juba with JHR. The JHR team had trained hundreds of journalists, journalism students and media managers during the first 12 months. It was time to get an on-the-ground update on the project.
JHR’s Executive Director Rachel Pulfer, who holds unwavering passion in the fight for human rights, a passion I believe is helping to reshape the zeitgeist of our time from indifference to compassion, was also part of the site visit. She was there to evaluate progress to date, while laying the groundwork for the next chapter of JHR’s work in South Sudan.
The 20+ hours of travel didn’t mean it was time to rest when we arrived. A few hours after the wheels touched down, we were meeting with various media partners to discuss what the first 12 months accomplished, the challenges and the collaborative plan to expand the project’s reach.
Within South Sudan’s media sector there is a true desire to inform, inspire and create change in a country at war. There is also (not surprisingly) embedded fear.
Oppression comes in many forms, and in South Sudan, freedom of information and freedom of speech have been strangled by those in power. Media houses have been shut down, journalists murdered and many more threatened; leading to a dangerous residual effect of self-censorship.
The week visit consisted of non-stop meetings with local partners. Not to tell them what JHR was planning to implement, but figuring out solutions as to what they needed and how we could work together towards a common goal of strengthening the media across the board.
One of my favourite people to sit down with in South Sudan is Canada’s very own Ambassador Nicholas Coghlan. His knowledge, intuition and support of the work of JHR is second to none. Having the pleasure of introducing Rachel to Nick and Nick to Rachel was very enjoyable; these are the standout Canadians of our time.
Deliverables, action plans and other development buzzwords aside, the best moments of this work are not found in a graph. They come through personal relationships with people such as JHR trainer Onen Walter Solomon (who has been working with JHR for about a year in South Sudan).
Walter invited Rachel and I to his humble home on the outskirts of Juba in an area known as Rock City to have lunch with himself and his wonderful wife Lucy.
However, a few hours before we were supposed to meet he called to say he had just returned home from the clinic where he was diagnosed with malaria and typhoid (an unfortunately all too common issue). Obviously I told Walter to rest and that we would reschedule our lunch.
Within a few minutes Walter called back and promptly put Lucy on the phone.
“Walter told me you are no longer coming? I’ve prepared food, why would you cancel?”
I have no issue standing my ground with National Security or soldiers with AK’s…but a strong-willed South Sudanese woman who has cooked for me? I know my limits.
When Rachel and I arrived we were greeted by both Walter and Lucy, and conversation flowed. Discussions were not only focused on work, nor about the ongoing war; but discussions that would take place between any colleagues around the world. What Lucy was studying and why. Job opportunities in Juba. What it’s like to live right next to your mother in law, two huts over.
This is the important lesson here. As we sat around enjoying Lucy’s delicious pasta and beef I thought to myself, if this level of normality can occur during war, imagine what peace would bring.
It is the work of those such as Walter and JHR’s local partners which will slowly help reshape South Sudan using the power of media.
For me, I can’t wait for the day when I go through airport security and the destination of South Sudan doesn’t raise any eyebrows or concerns; it only brings the sound of an immigration officer stamping my passport.