Wrestling for Peace Competition Unites Yirol and Awerial Communities

Nov 25, 2016

A wrestler wins a match at the Wrestling for Peace Competition for Greater Yirol, held in Mingkaman and organized by Solidarity Ministries Africa for Reconciliation & Development (SMARD) and supported by UNDP’s Community Security and Small Arms project.

Thousands of people from Yirol and Awerial communities gathered on Thursday for an unconventional peacebuilding activity: wrestling.

Spectators and athletes travelled from up to six hours away to reach Mingkaman at dawn, where a processional led the masses out from the main road to the riverside venue. Businesses stayed closed for the morning, as everyone in town went singing and dancing, waving flags, and showing off prized cattle along the way to the epicenter where the action would happen.

The Wrestling for Peace competition for Greater Yirol was organized by Solidarity Ministries Africa for Reconciliation & Development (SMARD) and supported by UNDP’s Community Security and Small Arms project. Its aim was to promote social cohesion and foster friendly ties between the communities. The commissioner and paramount chief presided over the festivities, marking the day with enthusiasm and messages of togetherness.

The event was the first of its kind in the area since South Sudan gained independence. The competition consisted of 21 matches, each lasting up to three minutes. The first wrestler to force their opponent onto the ground was declared the winner. If neither wrestler submitted after three minutes the match was a draw. The teams were divided between the “home” community of Awerial and “visitors” from Yirol East and West.

But for many involved, Wrestling for Peace was more than just about winning and losing.

“We are here for promoting peace and peaceful coexistence,” said Gabriel Modol, Awerial County wrestling committee member and lead referee of the competition.

“We have been practicing wrestling in our communities for centuries. This is a normal activity. When a wrestler is defeated, he will be agitated but not violent. When you lose, it is a motivating moment – you go take milk, you go practice technique, you become stronger, then you come back,” Modol continued, explaining the philosophy behind using a physical sport like wrestling to foster inter-community understanding.

Fellow wrestling organizers agreed, citing the principles of competing as a way to provide guidance and teach cooperation skills.

“This is a kind of play. Opposition is a friend, at the end of the day. You must respect them. If you don’t have an opposition, you don’t have a game to play,” said Makuenpuor Nhial, wrestling manager for Greater Lakes State.

Bringing the two neighboring communities together is seen as a critical step to achieving more stability in the region, which has seen significant demographic shifts, economic challenges, and other changes since December 2013.

“This event is important as it brings people from Yirol and Awerial together, to meet and interact in a place that allows understanding,” said Sibet Jenena, a Yirol wrestling manager. “Now when [the spectators and wrestlers] return to their homes, they will remember the people they met here. If, say, a member of this group gets in trouble in an opposing community, it doesn’t need to turn into a bigger problem. They will know each other. They will have understanding.”

“This initiative has brought the two communities together. They are surprising each other,” continued Jenena.

Organizers are excited to take the momentum of Thursday’s event forward, as they see opportunities to use wrestling to encourage positive behavior changes in youth, to solidify inter-community cooperation, and to provide an attractive alternative to violent or criminal activities in their areas.

“We are so happy for this initiative from SMARD and UNDP. We have always wanted to plan for a competition like this but could never afford it or facilitate it,” said Nhial. “We would be happy with extending this project for years, in order to really have it reach into the minds of the people. This could be a great center in the state, a way to unify.”