Born during conflict, Yuol’s childhood in Kenya was far removed from the one he might have experienced if he had grown up in Australia. Given the chance to escape the fighting in western Sudan, he looked forward to a better life in a luckier country.
The transition to a country he thought he understoodwas not quite as simple as he had imagined.
Sudanese refugees settling in Sydney struggled to find acceptance but Yuol was determined to find a cultural home, a home for his voice. Through the Blacktown Arts Centre’s African Theatre Project, for which Yuol is now a writer, he helps these savannahroots African voices find their way into mainstream Australian society. And from May 18 they will be finding their way into the mainest stream of all when it comes to culture, The Sydney Writers Festival
“Life in Africa is a little bit different,” says Yuol.
He is not talking about the weather or the terrain but explains that many Sudanese families have struggled with this change, experiencing identity issues and isolation in their new homeland.
“It was a struggle to find a right way to live,” he says about this Australian culture so removed from his own. He continually asked himself “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” but it was these kinds of questions that made him feel different.
Australia provides over ten thousand humanitarian visas every year and within the last decade the majority of these have been given to African refugees. These growing communities have seen the relationship between Africa and Australia become increasingly important.
The Australian media pay little attention to conflict in Africa, but for Africans, it is daily reality; and it is stories such as Yuol’s and the other African writers at the Festival which can help translate distant wars for those more fortunate.
The war in the Darfur region of western Sudan has seen almost 500,000 people killed and over three million displaced. Oxfam Australia has been involved in humanitarian efforts to provide clean water, sanitation and assistance in increasing livelihood opportunities in war-affected communities. The Sudanese government recently ordered Oxfam Great Britain out of the country and this has meant an even greater impact on those who need aid.
But for most Australians, these stories seem too remote to matter – and it is part of Yuol’s aim to connect the African experience to the Australian one. He believes understanding the African experience is important for Australians in order to appropriately connect the two continents.
Art, as always, quickly imitates life and this year’s Festival is doing its best to develop the continental connection.
The relevance of Africa to Australian audiences is clear from the opening address, which is to be presented by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, winner of the 2007 Orange Prize.
In bringing African experiences to Australia audiences, the SWF presents nine other events during which authors are given the opportunity to share their African experiences.
Chimamanda and Yuol will be joined by Emmanuel Jal, a child solider turned hip-hop sensation; and James Maskalyk, a Canadian blogger who spent six months in Sudan. Yuol will be appearing alongside the African Theatre Project’s director, Johannesburg-based Robert Colman as excerpts from the Project’s script, ‘Two Ways Diverging’, are read. Colman feels that it is important to bring this African immigrant experience to the stage.
“It’s such a large community and I think it’s a very unknown community,” he said. “There are documentaries but there hasn’t been a [theatre] production.”
The difference, he says, being that documentaries tend to be objective, where as the theatre allows the expression of different, more human stories and the portrayal of actual experiences in the community. He believes that it is important to recognise the struggles and experiences of this emerging community group. Through the African Theatre Project he hopes to remove the fourth wall and to help audiences see into these Sudanese immigrants’ lives.
“I hope to make people understand from a different point of view, to see…[different] lifestyles and to make communities understand,” said Yuol.
The life of Emmanuel Jal began in a year no one remembers, in a province of Africa. At just seven years old he was forced to join the Sudan People’s Liberation Army as a solider and missed out on the kind of childhood expected in contemporary Australian society. He was saved by a British aid worker and has since been able to find his voice through his own brand of hip-hop that comes with messages of peace and reconciliation. His experiences allow Australians to see the world from a new perspective and it is this description of the African experience that will allow audiences of the SWF to recognise familiar aspects of the human experience in a foreign tale.
James Maskalyk was a successful ER physician in Canada before he gave it all up to join Médecins Sans Frontières. He soon afterwards found himself sandwiched in a small village between two military bases in Sudan. In this war torn community, a vastly different experience from his own country, he began to better understand the African experience.
“The more I travel, the more I realise that people are the same, that the concept of the ‘other’ is a category of convenience,” he said. “Of course, I lived a particular (and short) African experience, and rely on African people to continue to illuminate my understanding of their home through their words, pictures and music.”
Going from his comfortable, Western lifestyle into a place of conflict, Maskalyk knows better than most the value in learning about foreign experiences.
“I think the right words, in the right order, at the right time, can change a reader, and through [them], the world. The change is often small but real,” he said. He will be appearing at the SWF to speak of the experiences recounted in his book, ‘Six Months in Sudan’ and the blog he kept during his adventure.
“People are not the same,” said Yuol Yuol but he believes that with experiences that are shared through literature and theatre that they can grow to understand each other and to consequently grow as a community.
By: Elizabeth McAnulty