The Guardian, 16 October 2015
In July 2011,
South Sudan – in the heart of Africa – became the world’s newest nation. It gained independence from Sudan after years of political conflict and a 22-year civil war that forced thousands of families to flee their homeland. More than 22,000 Sudanese and South Sudanese people were resettled in Australia during the decade up to 2011; many of them were children. Conor Ashleigh’s photo essay chronicles the fortunes of members of the South Sudanese community in Newcastle, where he grew up, and in particular it explores how the younger members of the families he met have forged new lives and new identities in Australia
Growing up in Australia has not been without its difficulties for children from families who fled South Sudan – many of whom spent their earliest years in refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda and Egypt. They’ve had to simultaneously adopt and adapt to Australian culture, while retaining a sense of their collective cultural identity. But, as the photographer Conor Ashleigh points out, this photo (above) is witness to the freedom they enjoy in Australia. The children pictured are from the Dong and Okumu families, who are from the Dinka and Acholi tribes respectively. Living in Newcastle, north of Sydney, they share a back fence and regularly play together; in the background you can even see one of them scrambling over the wooden fence to join their friends on the trampoline. “For me, there’s something quintessentially Australian about this,” says Ashleigh, who also notes the image as evidence that children can flourish despite the circumstances and traumas they and their families have been through.
The teenagers pictured in these photographs have a strong sense of identity: of who they are and of who they want to become. But, says Achingol Mayom (pictured riding the escalator and jumping into the water), it can be tricky to reconcile those feelings with the expectations and traditions of their parents. “When you say, ‘I’m going out with my friends,’ they look at you like, ‘Oh my God, what happened to my daughter?’ They don’t realise that this is just what you’re supposed to do growing up,” she says. Fayrouz Nagath, who was among a group that participated in a round-table discussion with Ashleigh, agrees: “Our parents just want us to stay home, keep our culture, learn our language, go to school, get a great degree, get a good job – whereas we are growing up in a society where everybody else wants to be something different.”
The South Sudanese community in Australia comes predominantly from the two largest Nilotic tribes, the Dinka and Nuer. Both are known for their strikingly tall and slender physiques. This has helped a number of aspiring male basketballers who have gone on to join prestigious US colleges, while modelling has become a common pursuit for many young women in the community. Others have chosen alternatives paths. “When I came to this country I had an opportunity and whenever I have an opportunity, I won’t say no to it,” says Jido Aluel.
Memories of the political and armed struggles in South Sudan may be distant for many youngsters but the community as a whole still actively acknowledges the ongoing turmoil faced by their people in Africa. One of the photographs seen here shows members of the community dressed in army uniforms in support of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Not long after South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the nation was once again plunged into conflict as divisions grew in the SPLA between the Dinka president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and the Nuer former vice-president, Riek Machar Machar. Meanwhile, the threat of famine grew. “My mum sent me photos from South Sudan,” says Jido Aluel. “When I compare it to Australia, it’s like 2,000 years behind. I was actually surprised, I thought something might be changed by now.” After a 20-month civil war that killed thousands, Kiir and Machar signed a peace deal on 27 August 2015.
A pivotal moment in the process of coming of age for South Sudanese men and women is a wedding. Indeed, marriage involves the unification of families as much as individuals. In these photos, we see a bride and groom on their wedding day; we also see a bride price ceremony. In a bride price ceremony, respected family members discuss how much livestock – or, these days, how much money – will be paid by the groom to the bride’s family. For one of the weddings pictured here, the families settled, after more than five hours of discussions, on a dowry of 210 cows and 20 goats (approximately A$65,000), before an additional A$3,000 was paid to finalise the union.
Language and traditional dances strengthen people’s links to their South Sudanese roots. “People are embarrassed when they aren’t very good at speaking Dinka because it’s a very tangible way of holding on to your culture – nobody wants to seem like they’ve forgotten their culture,” says Atong Atem Yaak. The boys pictured here are performing a traditional Dinka Agaar dance. In South Sudan, dancers would usually cover their bodies in ash and adorn themselves with native feathers – such as ostrich feathers – and sometimes animal pelts. In Australia, however, the young men instead use talcum powder to cover their skin, and whatever feathers they can acquire. “When I asked where the feathers had come from, I was told they’d come from a chicken factory where one of the young men works,” says Ashleigh. For those still navigating their teenage years, he adds, these are formative events through which their sense of pride and identity are forged.