Peacemaking has a distinctly African rhythm in the camp for displaced persons in the United Nations base in Malakal, South Sudan. Inside the camp’s crowded Catholic Church, young people are dancing. In a country at war, they say they’re dancing for peace.
“I like to dance,” said Vivian James, a teenager in the sprawling camp of some 35,000 people. “It brings people together and promotes peace. Our dance is for everyone. Even though we are from different tribes, we dance together.”
James is a member of the dance choir that keeps the camp’s Catholic liturgies lively. The group’s director, David Luk, says it’s a very Catholic thing to do.
“The Bible says we are to pray to God with song and dance. We have a lot of tribes in South Sudan, and each tribe has its own dances. But the Catholic Church stands for unity around the world, so here we dance for unity. I am Nuer, but if a Shilluk sees me dancing like a Shilluk, they’ll see that there is no difference between us. So even though we are a lot of tribes, we dance together. I do a Shilluk dance, the Shilluk does a Dinka dance, and so on. That’s what peace is, because it expresses how we are one together,” Luk said.
The church’s pastor, Father Mike Bassano, is a Maryknoll priest from the United States. He ended up in Malakal because he came to the country in 2014 with Solidarity with South Sudan, an international community of Catholic groups supporting the training of teachers, health care workers and pastoral agents in what was then the world’s newest country. Living in Solidarity’s Malakal teacher training college with other members of the group, he was learning Arabic, visiting hospitals and working with pastoral workers in a local parish. Then civil war broke out, and Bassano spent days dodging bullets before being evacuated to Juba. His heart remained in Malakal, however, and after a few more months of vicious fighting, he was able to return.
“All the priests in Malakal had left, so the people felt abandoned and forgotten. I decided to stay with them. My role was to simply be present with them, encouraging them so they would know they weren’t alone,” he said.
Many of those displaced by the fighting ended up in the camp inside the U.N. base, and Bassano helped them organize a Catholic parish. They constructed a simple church structure and began celebrating Mass, which Bassano believed had to include dance.
“In our Catholic Church we incorporate all the aspects of African culture, which include singing, praying with your hands and body, as well as dancing,” Bassano said. “Over the years we established a group of dancers who meet every day to practice for the liturgy on Sunday and special occasions. The idea of the dance is to express our worship to God through our whole body. And to show unity. Our dancers are from different ethnic groups, but since catholic means universal, incorporating everyone, the dancers express that unity that’s needed for peace in South Sudan.”
Promoting unity in the camp has been a tough sell at times. In 2016, soldiers invaded the camp and a group of armed Dinkas set fire to the shelters, burning at least a third of the camp. In a much criticized move, U.N. troops guarding the camp held their fire, awaiting orders to shoot back. At least 30 civilians died.
Following the attack, most Dinka residents of the camp moved back to town. About the same time, the government started flying Dinka families from Juba to Malakal, where they took up residence in what had been homes of the displaced Shilluk and Nuer now in the camp.
According to Rhoda James Tiga, a Dinka woman who still lives in the camp, Bassano helped people understand what it means to be Catholic.
“We are the only church that unites all tribes. There is fighting outside, Dinka against Shilluk, Shilluk against Dinka, and the same with the Nuer, but inside the church we all pray together. Thanks to Father Michael, we were able to unite under the Catholic Church. Outside, people still fight. Outside, we still point fingers at the other tribe. But when Sunday comes we sing together. We pray together. We chat and we laugh, together,” she said.
And they dance together.
Photo caption (top): Solidarity with South Sudan member Father Mike Bassano, a Maryknoll priest from the United States, dances with members of a youth dance group of the Catholic Church inside the Protection of Civilians area in the United Nations base in Malakal, South Sudan.
Story and photos by Paul Jeffrey