Taking tea together: How young South Sudanese build peace
To an outsider, South Sudan almost seems to get sucked deeper and deeper into despair. Conflicts between ethnic groups are ripe, the country’s two leaders Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are in constant battle, and violent gangs roam the streets of Juba. Can tea fix it?
On the outskirts of Juba, hundreds of people come together to have tea in the shade of a big tree locally known as the Gurei Peace Tree. Here they discuss whatever is on their mind. The meetings happen on a regular basis, and very often, what’s on the participants minds are issues related to reconciliation and peacebuilding. Tea has a central place in everyday life in South Sudan. For generations people have come together over tea, to talk, to bond, to share as a way of being together. These tea sessions foster an atmosphere of kindness and generosity where troubles are left out and friendships can be built.
When Bush Buse returned from Unyoke retreats in South Africa that were focused on the importance of dialogue, he started thinking about this precious tea-drinking tradition. Is this something we can build on and make use of? Can drinking tea together be a foundation for promoting trust and building peace? Together with three friends who had also been to South Africa, they started paying attention to the tea sessions in Juba and listening in on what they were talking about. They were surprised to find hate speech and negativity, and people discouraging social relations with people from other ethnic groups. People seemed completely stuck in current and past conflicts. How could the traditional tea-sessions return to its traditional role and how could one use the momentum of people coming together as a possibility to build understanding and new peaceful and amicable relationships? Bush Buse and his young colleagues started the Take Tea Together-initiative, the TTT-initiative.
-Complex problems require time, dialogue and effort. Taking tea together brings people together, and all it entails of time, dialogue and effort, has a potential for people opening up to each other and bonding. Amazing things can happen when people share their experiences, their grudges, their worries and their fear. At one of the meetings, a Nuer woman found the courage to start talking about the conflict between the Nuer and the Dinka, and what the Dinka had done to her and her family. She said that only a few months ago, she would never have pictured herself sitting among Dinkas. Now she has friends that are Dinka, says Buse, TTT-facilitator.
The conflict in South Sudan has for a long time, too long according to a growing number of people, made its mark on its people and on their everyday lives. What makes it even harder to deal with is that the conflict is still ripe on so many levels, and that the memories and traces of the atrocities from the past decades are still so fresh in people’s minds and, sometimes, on their bodies. The woman Buse is talking about in his recount of the Take tea together (TTT) meeting was a Nuer, living in a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Juba. The meeting was the first time she had ventured out of the camp for several years. Since 2013, a large amount of internally displaced people (IDP) have lived in camps like these in and on the outskirts of Juba, and the relationship between the IDPs and the host communities has been characterized by distrust and animosity. The majority of the IDPs, like the Nuer woman participating at the TTT-meeting, have never left the safe confines of their camp.
The conflict in South Sudan has for a long time, too long according to a growing number of people, made its mark on its people and on their everyday lives.
Building trust has been a main goal and effort for Buse and his fellow TTT-organizers. They went to the IDP camps several times to get to know the people living there, their hopes and their worries, before inviting them to participate in the meetings.
Bringing in people from different ethnic groups and from all walks of life, also members of the violent and criminal gangs that are causing anger and fear in the neighbourhoods of Juba, is a prime objective for the small group behind the Take tea together initiative. And there are clear signs of success. Buse is very happy to say that there has been a change in people’s attitudes. People who were afraid of each other have now become friends. People from different ethnic groups and opposite sides of conflict lines talk together and agree on the best approaches to solve issues. And there has developed a self-discipline and a wish to make this work that leads people to discourage anyone who might try to cause trouble or engage in hate speech.
Outgrowing the shade
When Bush Buse and three friends initiated the first Take Tea Together in February 2018, they were the only ones attending. But rumours quickly spread about the people having tea together with anyone interested in joining.
During the meetings, the participants themselves decide which topics should be up for discussion. It could be anything from how to create income generating activities to trauma healing, or how to go about trying to influence the government and policy makers. But the aim is always to keep a dialogue that resolves any issues and that will contribute positively to solve any challenges that are discussed.
And the founders of the TTT-initiative seem to be reaching their goal; to provide a space, a voice and ability for young people and community members to be an influence for positive change. Now the TTT-meetings are organized in an increasing amount of places in the semi-rural areas on the outskirts of Juba, and the goal is to eventually organize meetings in all of the South Sudanese states. The initiative has also evolved into Women TTTs, where women come together in each other’s houses to talk about issues that are still too sensitive to be discussed in public spaces.
And the founders of the TTT-initiative seem to be reaching their goal; to provide a space, a voice and ability for young people and community members to be an influence for positive change.
What started as a meeting with four participants has now grown into such big events that the organizers have to bring tents. The shadows cast from the trees are simply not big enough anymore.
A future in the hands of the youth
Buse puts both his trust and the faith of South Sudan in the young people belonging to his own generation. Youth make up over 70 % of the population in South Sudan. That means that there is a huge potential, but also cause for concern because many of them are unemployed and trapped in poverty. It is an increasingly worried generation, says Buse. But it is also a generation that feels urgency and the weight of responsibility on their shoulders. He has given himself and his fellow citizens 20 years to deal with and solve the problems.
-The opportunity and obligation to build peace and sustainable development lies in our hands. We have the energy, the time and the aspirations to make South Sudan a better place for our children, he says.