Independence Day 2013. The exuberance of last year’s celebrations has given way to a creeping unease and growing disquiet at the country’s direction of travel.
As we drove back to the Hackney Auditorium, I pondered on the £140 I had just spent. It must have been an incredibly slow day for the Indian shopkeeper. He clearly couldn’t believe his luck that we turned up. “Here, take this”, he whispered to me conspiratorially as he slipped his card into my hand. He’d clearly not missed the fact that I was wearing a well cut savannah suit, “African yes, we have very good quality savannah suits for you sir, come again soon”.
Beside me sat Dynamq, happily chatting away with my sister, Magdalene, who was becoming more and more animated as they discussed our national anthem. It is a difficult song, one that few of us know by heart and fewer still are able to sing with the grace and poise that a national symbol deserves. The issue of course is obvious to all who have heard it. The lyrics do not rhyme neither do they scan. The music was composed without any regard to the rules of composition nor to our African heritage – but the sentiment in those words and the urgency of its music somehow describes our young nation perfectly. Rough and ready, gracelessly doing the job but doing the job nonetheless. And that job is forging nationhood from a diverse melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. We clumsily cling to English as a common language though most of us aren’t comfortable with it, but we are happy enough to use it. English distances us from the recent memory of Arab oppression and precious few remain who remember the hardships of the far older British colonial oppression.
Saturday, 13th July was the day we would be celebrating our second Independence Day anniversary. Save the small national flags with their golden stands glittering in the centre of each and every table, and the fabric draped across the stage, also in the colours of the national flag, there would be no ostentatious displays of patriotism. No dignitaries, luminaries or elders were asked to comment on the state of the nation or of their hopes for the future. No youth would be goaded into speaking on behalf of their peers. No traditional dancers would be asked to stamp their feet and raise their voices in memory of their youth in the old country.
Disappointment hung heavy in the air. After two years, the word from family and friends in the homeland was still bleak. The nation was not crumbling and progress was being made, but the pace did not meet our expectations. There was insurgency in the East, defacto military governorship in the centre, political discord in the capital, widespread dissatisfaction of service delivery and the constant threat from our northern neighbour, continuing to drain what little resource we had. Few chose not to celebrate at all, others thought it a duty and an imperative to celebrate. Most just wanted a chance to gather and enjoy each other’s company.
This was to be a party with a purpose. It was to be a fundraising event. The chosen charity was Jubalink – which supports the collaboration between Juba Teaching Hospital and the Isle of Wight NHS Trust, providing training, volunteers and equipment so as to improve the capacity of the nation’s healthcare system, one hospital at a time. In a break from tradition, the celebration was organised entirely by the younger generation. No request was made for contributions from the community. The event would be financed by ticket sales and corporate sponsorship alone. Retained profit would be given to Jubalink. The headlining performers were Emmanuel Jal and Dynamq, two of South Sudan’s biggest international artists – both performing without charge so as make their contribution to the charity.
The community response was initially underwhelming. Complaints were numerous. Why can’t tickets be cheaper? Why aren’t the embassy paying for it all? Why do I have to pay upfront? Why are there two classes of ticket? Why don’t you get this and that artist involved too? But the organisers knew their community well and held their nerve. As the day drew near, ticket sales suddenly spiked.
The concert had been about to start, the concert goers were turning up in ever increasing numbers. Dynamq had just completed his final sound check only to realise his change of clothes were miles away at the hotel. He wasn’t going to perform in the casual clothes he was wearing and started to make his way back to the hotel to retrieve them. The organisers were in a panic. We could not delay the concert, and traveling across London at that time of day on a Saturday was a risky affair. There was no guarantee he would make it back in time. Grace, one of the organisers, went with him but couldn’t persuade him to come back. Magdalene and I were finally dispatched to resolve the situation. A mad dash to the high street, a visit to a clothes shop, £140 lighter and we were making our way back to the auditorium.
We arrived in time to catch the end of an improvised Q&A session, where the community were asking Jubalink trustees about the charity, its activities, its performance and its impact. For many, this helped to underline a new feeling amongst the community. We no longer consider ourselves refugees, but expatriates living abroad. Though we are so far from home, there will always be new and innovative ways to help in the development of our home nation. It is left to us all to identify and realise them.
Soon enough, the concert began. People rushed to the dance floor and clamoured to show their best moves as our performers artfully worked the crowd. South Sudanese music and song, here inspirational, there whimsical, wildly cheered on by an ecstatic audience, burst out of the auditorium and carried across the Hackney streets.
As the concert wound down, and people started to make their way home or to the raucous after party at the often used Nile Bar, excitement was already building for Independence Day 2014.