JUBA, South Sudan — Majok’s massive hands wrap around his opponents neck and pull him toward the dust. But not before the other wrestler swings a hand free and they lock heads, each man over 6 feet tall and heavy from a diet of cow fat and milk. Just three minutes into the wrestling match police and officials pull them apart.
The result is a draw between Majok, a Dinka nicknamed “The Commander,” and his opponent, a Mundari called “The Governor.”
The next bout is won handily by a young man from Majok’s Dinka tribe who throws his opponent into the dust, spraining his leg in the process. His effort wins ululations and cheers from the massive crowd who came to Juba’s crumbing soccer stadium to watch the final wrestling match of South Sudan’s first commercial wrestling league.
Traditional wrestling in South Sudan may appear brutal, but according the organizer of the match, Peter Biar Ajak, 27, one of the "Lost Boys" who found his way out of refugee camps in Ethiopia to a public school in Philadelphia. Ajak says that wrestling is a powerful way to bring peace to his shattered country.
South Sudan is about to vote on whether to become independent from the North, or not. Tensions are high in the country, not just between the North and the South, but also among the several different tribal groups in the South.
“This time is very sensitive and we thought that we needed a way that tensions could be released. The idea is that when you bring these people together they develop relationships," said Ajak.
Ajak returned to South Sudan from Philadelphia in 2005 shortly after the North and South signed a peace agreement that ended one of the world’s longest and most bloody civil wars. He returned to the United States to finish graduate school at Harvard and he interned in organizations around the world from Afghanistan to Ecuador. He always knew he would return home, and in 2007 he took a job as a World Bank consultant in Juba the capital of the South. But the comfortable desk job was a means to his real passion: wrestling.
“Going to high school in Philadelphia with another friend who was from Sudan, we would always talk about wrestling. We looked at the NBA and thought we could do that in Sudan,” said Ajak.
But he quickly learned that making this particular high-school dream a reality in a post-conflict country is harder than he could have imagined.
“People here are afraid of taking risks, and trying new things,” he said. After the first match powerful politicians tried to shut him down, disturbed by the large crowds that gathered, and afraid that the wrestling would provoke tribal conflict. But Peter convinced enough people that it would do the exact opposite, and the matches continued.
Peter found most of the wrestlers in the country's cattle camps where youths spend much of the year guarding cattle and adding to their herds through raids if possible. Majok, the captain of the Dinka team and one of South Sudan’s best wrestlers, grew up in cattle camps but today works as a mechanic. He is also, he says with clear pride, “a professional, wrestler."
Like most of the cattle-herding communities around South Sudan, Majok grew up in violence.
“All I have known in my life is conflict, when others come to our cattle you have to do something,” he said.
Since the Sudan peace agreement was signed, inter-tribal conflict in South Sudan has exploded. In 2009 alone, thousands were killed in cattle raids and inter-tribal clashes. Some of this violence is caused by struggles over scarce resources, but much of it is caused by manipulating politicians flexing their muscles, or trying to consolidate power.
Since the elections earlier this year South Sudan’s army has managed to keep a lid on the violence using force and coercion.
On Jan. 9, the people of South Sudan will vote for independence or unity with the North. The South's leaders are focusing all their energy on keeping the peace and making sure the South peacefully separates from North, if indeed that is what transpires. But without this focus in the coming year, many observers worry tribal violence will explode as different groups battle for power in what could be a new country.
Majok thinks sports can stop this from happening. “Wrestling brings unity,” he said.
Ajak is also optimistic. “Over the last six years in Lake State there has been no wrestling, because there is so much fighting,” he said. “But after we put together a team of men from three warring groups to represent their region in Juba, the fighting stopped. Women who had lost their husbands in the fighting were cooking for the men who had killed them. No amount of NGO projects and conferences were able to achieve this. And wrestling did it immediately.”
Back on the wrestling field the latest match has devolved into an argument after a disputed call by the referee. Ajak, tall even by Sudan standards, wades into the fray in a tan suit. The Mundari side want a rematch, but Ajak refuses citing a traditional rule preventing wrestlers from fighting more than once as they could cause fights.
Ajak wants both sides to annul the bout and send fresh wrestlers to compete. When the Mundari team refuses to back down, Ajak calls the Dinka side the winners. It’s an anti-climactic conclusion, but peacefully won.
The Dinka fans erupt with cheers waving flags, and carrying wrestlers on their shoulders. But they leave quickly. The Mundari stay behind, a dancing group of women sing, and the wrestlers and their fans swirl in a circle of dust. Their faces sweaty and smiling in the white hot sun of midday.
Later Ajak says the problem was not between the wrestlers, since both sides wanted to fight. It was the local politicians who refused to back down. He says much of the recent tribal conflict has been about politicians vying for position, even when their people just want peace. To them, wrestling is about power, and not sport.
But Ajak is convinced they will learn and that wrestling can help forge a new, peaceful South Sudan.
“Next I’m going to the U.S. to fund raise to make the competition even bigger next year," said Ajak. "We hope to have leagues in each state, just like the NBA.”