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Empowering Readers and Writers in Sudan and South Sudan

All photos by IWP Program Officer Kelly Bedeian.

[Click to Enlarge] Ghada's 10 year old brother addresses the writers.
[Click to Enlarge] Ghada's 10 year old brother addresses the writers.
November 30-December 8, 2013 an International Writing Program (IWP) reading tour visited Sudan and its southern neighbour, South Sudan (which gained independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011), to give readings, lead writing workshops, and mentor and engage students of all ages.  The group’s visit came just one week before violent clashes broke out in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, underscoring the many challenges facing the young land-bound nation, which is roughly the size of Texas, but has little infrastructure and a literacy rate of only 27%. Playwright and human rights and social justice advocate Catherine Filloux traveled with poet and IWP director Christopher Merrill for events in Sudan; the two were joined by poet and cultural anthropologist  Adrie Kusserow  and photographer and photojournalist Thomas Langdon in Juba, South Sudan. The tour, organized by the IWP in partnership with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, was designed to foster greater understanding and stronger creative ties—including opportunities for artistic collaboration. 
[Click to Enlarge] Catherine Filloux with students at Ahfad University in Sudan.
[Click to Enlarge] Catherine Filloux with students at Ahfad University in Sudan.

 In Sudan, where the trip began, Filloux and Merrill led creative writing workshops for students at Omdurman Islamic University (greater Khartoum), Ahfad University for Women, the oldest and largest private university in Sudan (in Arabic, "Ahfad" means “for our grandchildren"), and Ahlia University, and gave a reading at the University of Medical Sciences and Technology where they met with faculty, students, and founding members of the Sudan Book Club. One of the highlights of the trip was an event hosted by the Ghada Young Writers Society, an organization devoted to fostering the talent of young writers through workshops, contests, and other events. IWP writers met with family members of Ghada Mujtaba Mahasi, the 16-year-old aspiring writer whose tragic death inspired the society’s founding.

[Click to Enlarge] University of Juba campus, South Sudan.
[Click to Enlarge] University of Juba campus, South Sudan.

The writers also had a chance to visit the Sudan National Museum, which overlooks the confluence of the Blue and White Niles at Al-Mugran, and houses relics dating from the First Stone Age to the era of the Al Saltana Al-Zarqa' "black sultanate”.

The writers transited through Ethiopia to reach South Sudan, since the two hour direct flight from Khartoum to Juba has been suspended due to political tensions between the two nations. Upon arrival in Juba, the IWP writers spoke with Radio Miraya, a 24-hour radio station operated by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in partnership with a Swiss NGO and practical way to reach out to citizens of South Sudan, where communication infrastructure is limited, though there are 2 million cellphone users, about one fifth of the total population.

[Click to Enlarge] Chris Merrill, Adrie Kusserow, and Catherine Filloux with students and professors at the University of Juba.
[Click to Enlarge] Chris Merrill, Adrie Kusserow, and Catherine Filloux with students and professors at the University of Juba.

The night of their arrival, the IWP delegation met with journalists and writers and caught up with IWP alumnus Taban Lo Liyong (IWP ’88). The next day, they headed for the University of Juba where Thomas Langdon led a Photojournalism 101 workshop on combining photography and storytelling while Kusserow, Filloux, and Merrill led a Master Class for professional writers and later an introductory workshop for about thirty students interested in writing.

[Click to Enlarge] Everyone quiet and enjoying the stories at the Confident the Children out of Conflict (CCOC) Orphanage.
[Click to Enlarge] Everyone quiet and enjoying the stories at the Confident the Children out of Conflict (CCOC) Orphanage.

The next day, while Merrill gave an introductory talk on reading poetry to students at the University of Juba and Langdon presented his photography, Filloux and Kusserow, the two female writers in the group, headed to Comboni Secondary School where they led a session on empowering girls through writing for a group of fifty female students. Among the day-to-day concerns the girls raised was the difficulty of finding time to do their homework with all the household chores that awaited them at home (the average woman in South Sudan has five children; only 16% of women can read and write).

[Click to Enlarge] Questions from secondary school girls written during a session on empowering girls in South Sudan.
[Click to Enlarge] Questions from secondary school girls written during a session on empowering girls in South Sudan.
Filloux and Kusserow brainstormed solutions with the girls, then, along with Langdon and Merrill, paid a visit to the Confident Children out of Conflict (CCOC) Orphanage, where they were joined by U.S. Ambassador Susan Page. They spent the afternoon at the orphanage reading to the children and encouraging them to read.

Before leaving South Sudan, IWP writers met with aspiring writers who had signed up to receive one-on-one feedback on their work during thirty minute individual sessions. The writers selected for these sessions will have their work posted on a workshop blog

[Click to Enlarge] Adrie Kusserow looks over writing during a one-on-one workshop session in South Sudan.
[Click to Enlarge] Adrie Kusserow looks over writing during a one-on-one workshop session in South Sudan.
The writers made a number of creative contacts during the tour. Filloux, a cofounder of Theatre Without Borders, added to her roster of Sudanese and South Sudanese playwrights with an eye toward future collaborations. With tensions still running high in South Sudan, the staff at CCOC Orphanage are keeping the children indoors. They have enough food for a week, though they are concerned about oil and water supplies. As the IWP writers learned from the photojournalism and creative writing workshops they facilitated, South Sudan has many talented writers and photographers prepared to observe and document their young country’s growing pains.
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