“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
In South Sudan, in the midst of hunger, and desolation, a man, in his little way is trying to re-instill peace in the hearts of people by distracting them. He isn’t adorned in a UN jacket, neither does he have guns strapped around his body. Surrounded by books in his makeshift bookshop, he is determined to bring what joy he can through stories. Not your conventional hero, right?
“People are usually not reading for fun anymore because times are very tough, but there are still favourites. They come here and they like it,” Juma’a Ali said.
Juma’a Ali, is a 34-year-old man who escaped persecution from the Nuba mountains in Sudan for being a Christian. He made his way to South Sudan to seek refuge, but his meeting was greeted with a civil war. This civil war since its inception five years ago has displaced thousands and has put millions at the risk of dying from hunger. But this harrowing reality which Ali is stuck in doesn’t him make him angry or resentful, instead, he has sought to find a way to make the world he lives in a better place, by selling books.
His story, just like his bookshop, is profound. Escaping persecution to a place which will unknowingly be torn apart beyond recognition. The books in his shop, which he sells for little money, are books he gathered on his way from Sudan, or books donated from abroad, or books from the libraries of South Sudan. Ali never worked as a bookseller before, in fact, he was just a church worker in his former home. But in his new home, which is also home to 33,ooo displaced people living in a UN IDP civilian camp near the city of Malakal, Ali, is now a popular bookseller, branded the ‘bookseller of Malakal’, which he loves.
In Ali’s shop, the books that sell the most are the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary, and occasionally, collections of love poems also steal the attention of his customers. He said, “Whenever there is conflict or war, people are reading books about politics and religion. When there is peace, there is also more love.”
Ali has made an example of stories and their ability to distract us from our current reality and give us a way of escape to places where there is nothing but happiness. But his story isn’t the only example. People in countries at war like the people of South Sudan have either sought to read, in order to get distracted or turned to writing. Anne Frank is a good example. Anne took to a journal which she was given as a birthday present to document her life in hiding from 1942 to 1944, during World War II at the time of the German occupation of the Netherlands. She died at 15, but her father published the journal as a way to make her words stay with us forever.
Then there was Bana Alabed, a little girl of just 7 years old, who took to Twitter to document her life in Eastern Aleppo, Syria. As bombs and shrapnels were raining down on her city, decapitating and killing kids as innocent and as young as her, Bana allowed the world to see these through her eyes. We fell in love with her and were hurt when she was hurt. One day, Bana with the help of her mother sent out a tweet, saying that she had watched and loved the Harry Potter films, an adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s books, and wanted to read the books. J. K. Rowling reached out to her and sent e-books when she found out how difficult and impossible it was to send hardcover books to Aleppo. Bana and her parents read books to distract themselves from the war.
What Bana, Ali, Anne and the people of Malakal, South Sudan have in common is this: stories, the ones they have written and the ones they are told through books or film.
In faces of adversity, there will always be heroes. There will be people like Ali, who in spite of their struggle and travails manage to be good and give people solace through selling books; there will be Anne, who will save us with every word and every full stop they document; there will be Bana, who will take us on a journey and humanise a people that have comfortably been turned to statistics; and there will be people like J. K. Rowling whose works of art will bring some happiness in the face of adversity and maybe, just maybe, give them another reason to hold on.
In South Sudan, where people are living on the edge and watching as others fall to their death like flies from hunger, gunshot wounds, or diseases, some will find peace by reading, writing or watching movies, and they will remind us of the importance of telling stories–their stories or our stories.