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South Sudan: wrestling for peace

Traditional wrestling matches can reduce tribal conflict and forge national unity.

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.”