Sing Joy: The Children of South Sudan

It is an early January morning in South Sudan and already 10-year-old Bakita and her friends are walking across the dry desert to the giant mahogany tree in Gordhim Village. Many carry their younger siblings on their hips. Most are hungry and malnourished; some suffer from the ravages of disease. Too many have witnessed unspeakable horrors and experienced profound loss as a result of civil war and continuing ethnic conflicts.

In spite of these circumstances, the children keep walking, some for more than an hour, until they are gathered together, 300 plus strong for the Music and Arts Camp offered by Denise Pelley and Lucy Ogletree. While Denise directs the music portion of the camp, Lucy is in charge of the arts although many of their projects are collaborative in nature. Everyone is welcome – there are no age restrictions or pre-registration requirements here. While there may be two or three mothers and grandmothers present, most of the adults are out searching for food while the children are at camp for two hours each morning over a period of about ten days.

Denise Pelley and Bakita  Denise Pelley and Bakita

By the time Denise arrives at 10:00 a.m. the children are seated on bricks and chunks of wood and they are already singing “The more we are together, the happier we’ll be” a song they learned a full year ago. By the end of the first morning Bakita has attached herself to Denise’s side and becomes her little shadow for the remainder of the camp.

Most of the children are simply not used to having a voice but with encouragement and the chance to play and laugh, even the shyest joins in. Denise teaches them simple, upbeat songs like “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, “This Little Light of Mine” and the refrain to “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)”. In turn, they love to teach her some of their favourite Dinka songs. As the days pass, their inherent joy and energy builds to a crescendo and becomes contagious. They sing and dance with a natural passion that captivates any listener. On one particular day, the 300 plus children are instructed to find plastic water bottles and create shakers by filling them with pebbles. They then parade throughout the campground singing, “We are marching in the light of God”, waving their shakers and pounding them on the ground. The music they create is so intense that the ground seems to shake. Mothers in the distance begin to sing back and many are drawn toward the village first by the percussive sounds filling the air and then by the resounding chorus.

Denise has been with the Sudanese children for seven years now. She believes that music is the universal language, that it is healing, and that it provides sacred space for the encouragement of self-expression. She also believes that these moments of joy can sustain the children in difficult times because there is a powerful message here – “You are important to us, there is hope, we have not forgotten you.”

It is impossible not to develop a deep affection for these children. At the end of the camp, Bakita does not want to let go of Denise. “Take me back to Canada with you,” she pleads. It tears at the heartstrings. In 2014, a resurgence of violence instigated by rebel forces prevented Denise from traveling to South Sudan but she is determined to return in January 2015 for the Music and Arts Camp. There are lessons learned here that stay with you for life – that we should never doubt the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit and that love and compassion extended through music can help transform anguish into pure joy.

Kathy Berg

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