South Sudan’s youth cope with war by partying in the day time
Juba, South Sudan
On Sunday afternoons after church, Wokil Makuei, 21, usually heads to the club. Fueled by soda and dancehall beats, he and his friends will party for the next several hours, grinding with girls they wouldn’t dare hold hands with in public for fear of angering their parents or brothers. He’ll be home no later than 7pm.
“You just party for some hours, come out very excited, and then go home,” says Makuei, seated at a cafe behind Club Signature, a popular dance spot in Juba that is booked for the next two months with these weekend day parties.
South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, was born in 2011 after a decades-long struggle for independence from the north. An estimated 70% of its 12 million people are under the age of 30. They’ve spent more than half of their country’s existence in a state of civil war, watching their home become one of the most dangerous places in the world for young people.
Juba, the capital, is relatively calm, but getting home at night is a risk. Makuei has to get past check points manned by government soldiers known to intimidate residents, in some cases raping women. Armed robberies are common along Juba’s poorly lit roads. His parents prefer that he doesn’t go out after dark.
To get around the insecurity, many in Juba do most of their partying at “day clubs,” as Makuei and his friends call them. The parties started off in the late 2000s as an inexpensive social gathering, like a mixer or school dance, for teenagers and early 20-somethings too young to attend normal night clubs. Now, they are a pasttime for almost all of Juba’s youth, a broad category that can include anyone between the ages of 15 to 35, depending on their economic and marital status.
On any given Sunday in Juba, a day party is being held at one of a dozen clubs in the city, at upscale hotels or bars along bank of the Nile, which cuts through Juba. The events are dimly lit, with multi-colored strobe lights, sound systems, and DJs. The parties start in the afternoon and end before sunset. The dress code is smart and the music choice afrobeat and hip hop. “Physically Fit,” by Konshens, a Jamaican dancehall artist, is a particular favorite of Makuei’s. ”Jamaica has some dirty songs,” he says, by way of explanation.
In a way, the clubs are a form of defiance. William Joseph, 22, and his friends, who call themselves the Dope Boys, had planned a party in mid-December of 2013. The evening before, on Dec 15, fighting broke out between soldiers of president Salva Kiir and those loyal to his deputy Reik Machar. Joseph and his friends, still optimistic, asked the club manager to keep their rental fee.
“To hold it for us for when the war stops,” says Emmanuel Ladu, 21, another Dope Boys member, studying science at Juba University.
The fighting didn’t stop, and instead turned into a civil war that has engulfed much of the country, taking on regional and ethnic rivalries. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese have died, according to some estimates; there is no formal death toll. As much as a third of the country’s population has been displaced. It is the world’s third largest refugee crisis after Syria and Afghanistan, and Africa’s biggest since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Still, the Dope Boys hold their day club parties. In that first year of the civil war they held one in February, in honor of Valentine’s Day, and another on July 9, South Sudan’s independence day. When fighting broke out in Juba last July, ending a fragile peace deal to end the civil war and form a unity government between the opposing sides, the Dope Boys took a two-month break.
“Ever since the conflict broke out, people have been scattered and it’s difficult for young people to come together,” says Joseph, a nursing student in Juba. The Dope Boys is meant to be a play on the word “dove.” “We came up with the name so that we can unite the youth,” says Ladu.
The day clubs do inspire a kind of unity, an example of how some of South Sudan’s youth can forge new identities beyond their tribal ones. Ethnicity is a lighting rod issue in a country with more than 60 tribes, and where much of the fighting has been along ethnic lines.
A group of friends collects about 20,000 South Sudanese pounds ($160) for the club rental, which includes a DJ, security, and the cost of running a generator to power the club for an afternoon. Friends invite other friends. It doesn’t matter what tribe or what neighborhood you come from. So long as you contribute, you can come.
“When you realize that people are coming from different tribes to form a group to do something like day parties, it helps a lot in bringing people together,” Makuei says. “You don’t need someone from your tribe to invite you, you just need a friend.”
The organizers of the day clubs are often neighborhood gangs who take their inspiration from those in the US. They call themselves, “Bad boys’ “G-Unit,” the “Lost boys,” a play on the name given to the thousands of boys orphaned during southern Sudan’s fight against the north, among others.
These groups emerged in the mid-2000s as a wave of Sudanese diaspora returned from the West and elsewhere to southern Sudan. Local officials found the trend so worrying that the Juba county government criminalized “nigga behavior”— wearing low slung jeans and adopting names like Tupac, after the rapper—in 2008.
But many of these neighborhood gangs act more like youth groups than youth militia. Dope Boys, based in the neighborhood of Gudeli, raises funds for neighbors who have fallen sick. If they hear of a conflict brewing in their area they’ll try to mediate. A schedule for the next few weeks of day clubs at Club Signature includes groups named “Friendship boys” or “Friendship life.”
“It’s first and foremost an attempt to rebuild some sort of social structure,” says Marisa Ensor, from the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown, who studied South Sudanese youth culture in South Sudan, as well as in diaspora communities in Africa and the US.
For many young people, tribe has become almost secondary, something that is emphasized when with family or one’s elders, but downplayed while at the club with other young people. ”They are much more fluid in their identity,” Ensor says.
The day clubs are a small place of respite, not just from the conflict, but from the frustrations of being a young person in Juba. Many are in school but with few prospects for jobs after they graduate. Youth unemployment is high, an estimated 40% but likely higher.
Young South Sudanese have had their lives upended not only by the recent civil war, but years of fighting from the late 1980s to 2005 as the south struggled for independence. Many grew up outside of the country in refugee camps or as asylum seekers in Western countries before returning home.
The youth that have remained or returned often feel misrepresented and misunderstood. The government has tried to push development and employment through agriculture. But many young South Sudanese, who grew up in urban settings, would rather work with computers, get into entertainment—Makuei, for instance, wants to be an actor—or almost anything other than “digging,” as young people refer to farming.
Ana Taban, a collective of young creatives whose name means “I am tired” in Arabic, along with the South Sudan Young Leaders Forum, are pushing for a youth representative to join discussions about restarting peace talks and to make youth issues more of a central focus.
“We are trying to encourage the youth to reclaim their space, to speak up because our voice matters. We are the majority in the country,” says Mannasseh Mathiang, a gospel artist and member of Ana Taban. “For quite a long time we have been placed aside, but I believe that we are powerful.”
Day clubbing is one of the many ways young South Sudanese in the capital maintain some normalcy in the face of conflict and economic paralysis. They form basketball teams, play football matches, watch movies at the cinema, go for ice cream, get their photo taken, or hang around the Nyakuron Cultural Center where there is almost always an event. Groups like Ana Taban hold comedy shows, spoken word, and concerts. Others organize film festivals.
As the conflict drags on, morale is taking its toll. More South Sudanese are fleeing the country, and there are fewer people to organize or join the day parties. Joseph and Ladu, sitting on a brick ledge outside of Club Signature where their next party will be held, go over the playlist that they hope will make Dope Boy parties attract more people.
They will start with something romantic, usually by Celine Dion. A preselected group of guys chooses girls from the crowd to bring onto the dance floor. Another ballad is played and more girls are brought to the floor. By the third song, they turn up the tempo. At this point, everyone should be dancing fast and close. “Now everyone is up. It’s no joking now,” Joseph says.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.