Updated: Jul 23, 2022
The story of “I am My Mother’s Wildest Dream” finally gets to the Senate Hall at the University of Juba, the nation's most prestigious knowledge hub. Organized by the Center for Strategic and Policy Studies, a Juba-based national thinktank, the event took place at 2:00pm local time on July 1st 2022 with an impressive panel drawing from academia, government and policy research arenas.
It was moderated by Prof. Milton Malingasuk of the University with opening remarks from the Center of Strategic and Policy Studies and the University’s National Transformational Leadership Institute. I once again had an opportunity to share my story with the South Sudanese audience for whom this story belongs. The University said I was the first South Sudanese African woman to launch her book at its most prestigious hall and the first memorist to ever tackle a topic of this magnitude.
The day began with opening remarks from the Center’s representative and the University represented by Prof. Milton who also doubles as the Moderator. My opening address included, among others, my motivation to write the story behind this story as well as sharing my gratitude to both the Center and the University for having organized such a colorful event. I truly felt at home. The hall was full to capacity with a very fascinating audience.
My remarks were followed by an incredibly and well-versed panelists consisting of Prof. Dr. Julia Aker Duany, Emeritus Vice Chancellor of Dr. John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology, and the current Undersecretary of the Ministry of Public Service and Human Resource Development, Dr. Mario Areng Awet and Ms. Kamille Thomas, my beloved editor and a friend.
Prof. Duany began by saying that cultural issues in Africa are challenging. Quoting Evan Pritchards, one of the most celebrated anthropological scholars amongst the Nuer, Prof. Duany described the living conditions of African women as “pathetic.” She went on to add that “I found the book detailed and factful.” In her critique, Prof. Duany said that the subtitle of the book “fighting cultural norms' ' was misplaced and depicted the author as a victim and an outsider who was committed to fighting the culture in its entirety.
The Professor went on to add that African women go through hard life as a way of preparing them for the future, a comment that aroused a lot of criticism from both the youth and the well-versed elders, questioning the Professor’s thinking on the topic. She even suggested that marriage needed to be approached from a mission-driven perspective as opposed to partnership-based approach as popularized in the western world. Her idea on dowry which she described as a “token of appreciation” to me fell short of answering the big question: what role does dowry play in modern African society?
Despite her critical opinion to the book, the good Professor applauded me for my courage to stand up and write. In her concluding remarks, she ended by agreeing that indeed, “women are productive, strong and the poles of our society.” She also stressed that there was a need to write more materials about mental ill for which I devoted a whole chapter, revealing that she was now inspired to consider writing the book on the same topic in the future. The Professor’s analysis of my story depicted the generational indifference with which the audience approaches my story. The age divide was apparent in the room especially during the Open Discussion.
Dr. Mario on his part described the book as “simple, articulate and an easy read.” He also made the appeal that this book needed to be in every public library across the country, a position I deeply share. Kamille Thomas wowed the audience with her “There is Power in One” opening panel remarks. She moved the audience using her gifted oration and her ability to keep pace despite the diverse environments she oftens finds herself during this tour. “We are not lesser species. We were simply made differently,” she educated the audience, amidst applause. Kamille noted that the progress so far from the book has been “tremendous” and that lives “were being changed and hidden stories exposed.”
The panel discussion was then followed by a patiently waiting audience who made comments, asked questions and thought clarifications from myself and the panelists. The Open Discussion was serious, hot and deeply engaging. It made the underlying issues clear and the age divide obvious and the generational issue open to debate.
Young people were furious, some of whom took their spaces by force. Nyachangkuoth Tai, one of the most celebrated gender activists took the podium by force as the moderator made suggestions that elders be allowed to make their voices heard first. “I am sorry but thanks. I have to take this up,” she told the moderator amidst the young audience roaring with pride. “Sorry Prof, I have to disrespectfully disagree with you; let’s not westernize this conversation,” she said, unapologetically. She added that women and girls needed safer spaces to have their voices heard in this male-dominated world.
Several people agreed that I spoke to their experiences; that my story provoked discussion and made people come out of their shells. Some speakers from the audience were wondering about the origin of this so-called culture which tends to disrespect our women and girls.
Honorable Yar Telar Deng, the outspoken youth Member of Parliament wondered aloud: “Our traditional culture doesn't allow women battering. Where do we get this thing from?” She remarked that there was a need to translate Nyajuok’s story into a policy framework, adding that "our country still lacks a coherent legal policy on the reasonable age of marriage" and that to her still made things more complicated and difficult for young women her age.
Kuach Tutkuay, a Policy Advisor to the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and a gender and development researcher asked about what needed to change to save our dowry from its continued inflation. Kuach also wanted to let the audience know that debating various scholarships on the issue of gender-based violence would not help the youth. He wanted real, calibrated solutions out of this mess.
In his audience remarks, Hon. Husien Mar Nyuot, former Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management agreed that the issue of child, forced and arranged marriages was real and cut across the cultural divides in most parts of South Sudan. “Arranged marriages are destructive,” he remarked.
Amb. Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, the former Minister of Petroleum stressed that these arranged marriages were “bad and often short lived” and urged the audience that they needed to stop. He also retorted that “we must have a reasonable age for marriage.” The vocal politician warned that “ you cannot marry my 15-years old daughter and get away with it.”
Prof. Adwok Nyaba in his audience remarks applauded me for having produced knowledge and urged the audience to read and write about their experiences and that they also needed to learn how to learn and unlearn. “Culture is a product of human action and can be changed. Push forward where there is resistance,” said the vocal Professor and the renowned scholar.
In my closing remarks, I stressed that I was not by any means against the culture wholly. I am against the part of culture that is demeaning and backward. I have issues with child, forced and arranged marriages which I strongly believe need to change for our society to progress. I also made it clear that for these issues to be resolved, a collective approach was required to set the stage straight; we need everyone to play their part in enabling solutions for girl child education and women emancipation.
In his closing remarks, the Deputy Vice Chancellor urged women to stay out of abusive relationships. “Get out of it,” he urged with emphasis.