A week before starting, I was asked for my blood group and next of kin. I’ve worked in some dodgy fringe theatres but never had a writing job where I was expected to lose blood. Or my life.
At Heathrow airport, the customs man smiled at me: ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever had going to South Sudan. Isn’t there a war on?’ There had been a war, for over 20 years, ending in South Sudan’s separation from the north of the country in 2011. Then tribal divisions in South Sudan caused widespread fighting for control of the new country. People were displaced, there was limited infrastructure, food and medicine were scarce. This was why airport officials also asked if I was a charity worker.
My answer began ‘Well, I write radio plays and….’ I understood their squint at me. Wasn’t I taking fancy tableware to the starving? Selling designer bandages? Shouldn’t I be attending to basic needs? Probably. But I had been invited. South Sudanese radio dramatists and journalists were creating radio dramas to help spread information and understanding. There was Our School, a series to encourage female education. Our Tukul (meaning the traditional, round, straw-roofed house) passed on childcare advice. Then there was the soap opera, Life in Lulu — the everyday life of a farming and fishing village.
Life in Lulu had two writers, recently commissioned, who were creating 30 new episodes. I was going in for a week to help them ‘storyline’ the show. After that, they were on their own, with their hours and hours to script. This work was, in fact, for a charity: the somewhat unusual BBC Media Action, which helps with media development across the world. (The brand and personnel are provided by the BBC, while the money comes from the UK and European governments or private donors.)
According to the nice young woman at BBC Media Action, I couldn’t start scripting until I had three days of Hostile Environment Training. ‘I’m a writer,’ I told her; ‘I’m used to hostile environments.’ But apparently I’d need more than a thick skin in South Sudan. I needed ex-paratroopers to show me what to do if I was kidnapped, car-jacked, shot at….
I have a cowardly disposition, hate being shouted at and have the physical prowess of wet washing, and I assumed I’d be sent home before the end of the process in sobbing disgrace. Nevertheless, I tried to look confident as I gathered with the team’s newer researchers, accountants, drivers and IT people in a dusty yard behind a school in central Juba. These colleagues were cheerful at the prospect of acquiring new skills that would help them negotiate their volatile hometown; nerves were a luxury for foreigners. We’d learn how to survive attack by armed militias or an accidental meander into a minefield — but the trainers had identified the cratered mud roads of South Sudan as the greatest threat to health and safety, so first aid in road accidents was the priority.
Our instructors had generous supplies of fake blood to create scenes of appalling carnage. We were taught how to splint, bind, tourniquet and build makeshift stretchers. We were shown how to do CPR and make neck braces from coats. I tried my best; these were skills I might use in real life. For most of my colleagues there was no ‘might’ about it. They had lived through and expected to see more fighting; many had been brought up in refugee camps. They were used to minimal medical facilities and drove daily on the terrifying roads.
By the second night of training, as I went to bed in my comfortable hotel, my head was spinning with gory images and the trainers’ vividly poetic language: wounds could bleed catastrophically and proneness to post-traumatic stress depended on the size of a person’s cup of tolerance. My room was equipped with extra water, first-aid packs and emergency rations, in case I had to hibernate — stay in my room until rescue.
That night was the anniversary of a coup attempt and a rerun was expected. The city was full of barricades and extra soldiers. The president was on television making an interminable speech about unity and the citizens of Juba were walking around anxiously clamping radios to their ears. Sometime after midnight I heard automatic gunfire and shouting. Very near the hotel. The rebels were coming.
I went to the bathroom. How dreadful to be held at gunpoint with a full bladder, especially for the cowardly. I put on clothes: why be kidnapped naked? — as they say in all the fashion magazines. Should I get under the bed? In the wardrobe? By this stage I was expecting to hear running feet, doors, screams, more gunfire. There was nothing but the sound of generators.
Next day, only the breakfast waiter had heard the shooting.
‘Oh, that was just a robbery at the car dealership down the road.’ ‘Sounded like very big guns.’ ‘Very big guns are common here.’
The training taught me the possible extremes of life in South Sudan. The hotel taught me the relatively luxurious lifestyle of NGO employees. The waiter taught me what was accepted as average — like big guns.
When I finally began work with the soap writers I could learn about other elements of everyday life. The storylines for Life in Lulu concerned jealousy in polygamous marriage, early pregnancies, unrequited love, failed ambition, thefts, farming disasters and gathering hostility between two tribes. The scripts were more violent than Coronation Street but they did remind me of the early intentions of that soap: to reflect ordinary life. The new country of South Sudan needed not only to express consensus on what was ordinary, but to develop it as well.
A theme for the season had already been agreed: the stories would focus on conflict resolution, public and domestic. We had to plan tactfully. The mutually suspicious tribal groups must only reach agreements in ways the listeners wouldn’t find offensive or fantastic. The squabbling wives could come together in a crisis — but what to do about the issue of wife-beating? The problem was widespread, and couldn’t be solved overnight because so many listeners wouldn’t see it as a problem. We agreed that a young woman in the village could at least start the debate. Even if she didn’t succeed, the notion that wife-beating was challengeable would have been aired.
I was reminded that although soap stories may seem broad, predictable and repetitious, as instruments of social change they are invaluable. They introduce majority and minority cultures to each other. They suggest how social problems might resolve. Even if the story reflects how issues may resolve for the worse, possibilities have been offered.
Soap operas don’t change the world but they do more than reflect it. Thirty years ago, a gay character in Eastenders was a story in itself. Now gay characters are an unremarkable part of British fictional communities, which suggests that viewers find them acceptable. Back in South Sudan, we couldn’t end domestic violence, but we could give a vocabulary to women dealing with it. We felt that this was particularly important, as the audience was mostly women. They were seldom literate and had little access to television — but radio went everywhere.
As we made stories for thirty episodes, we filled a wall with Post-it notes. The air conditioner fought the glue, so we had to slap on extra adhesive to keep the notes in place. We talked, argued, laughed, ran out of ideas, struck inspiration and filled the wall. Then the boss came in.
‘There’s a big problem with this wall.’
I realised that all our gluing would have defaced it. I apologised, but it was the best way for us to see the story spread out.
‘It’s not that. It’s a problem because this building isn’t secure.’
I didn’t understand. Someone might break in and steal Post-it notes?
‘They might take the whole wall’, the boss explained. ‘The city is still on high alert. If there’s fighting, a building this close to the centre could come down in the first rocket launch.’ Time was short, we all felt very weary at the thought of transcribing the notes, but just as we sighed and began, the boss had a brainwave: the team had a cameraman. While he carefully filmed the Post-it panorama, we told him the stories. ‘My sisters will pay me to hear what happens in advance’, he said. ‘They love it. It’s the first story they heard with people like them.’
On the plane home, I sat next to a woman who managed a nursing charity. I told her what I’d been doing. I could see she thought it was trivial nonsense in a country full of catastrophic bleeding, illiteracy and hunger. The woman scowled at me.
<>pre‘You were being paid to make a South Sudanese Eastenders?’
I’d changed my mind about feeling that my impractical skills weren’t adequate to the situation. Voicing an identity isn’t a luxury. If people don’t recognise the humanity in each other, don’t recognise each other’s stories, no amount of CPR and tourniquets will hold a place together. The Life in Lulu team knew what they were doing: shared fiction did as much to promote conflict resolution as political speeches. And tended to hold an audience far longer.