In the midst of the desolate and arid south Sudanese landscape, a jubilant stream of young women and girls burst forward. Some clad in athletic gear, some in traditional tribal dresses and many in rags, they punctuate the hot desert silence with their laughter.
Singing "We are happy, so very happy!" the girls storm a dusty sporting field in Akoc, South Sudan for the beginning of the girls' volleyball competition. They are an integral part of the fifth annual Twic Olympics, a sporting event designed to bring youths from tribes who have formerly fought one another together to resolve conflicts through sports rather than violence.
For most of the girls, the games are also an opportunity to play, make new friends and engage in normal childhood activities for the first time in their lives.
"Until last year, I had never played sports before," says Monica, one of the star volleyball players at the games. "I went to school when I was younger, but when the fighting got worse I stopped. This volleyball team is the only chance I have to play with friends. Most of the time I have to do chores."
Due to war, drought and a series of natural and man-made disasters, two generations of south Sudanese children have been deprived of schooling and a normal childhood. Girls have suffered the most, as they are typically kept at home to help with household chores and look after younger siblings, while boys are sent to school.
Without education, a chance to play and a normal social environment, they are doomed to inherit the deprivations of their parents and perpetuate their tragic history of strife and conflict. Education, sports and other normal childhood activities are critical for building self-esteem, developing decision making skills and learning social interaction skills.
The Twic Olympics were started five years ago by a local humanitarian organization, Sudan Production Aid, as a way to involve Sudanese youth in efforts to reduce intra-tribal violence, as well as to further childhood development — build confidence, improve communication and teamwork skills, develop a healthy attitude toward life and foster optimism for the future.
Mercy Corps has been an active partner in supporting the Twic Olympics for the past two years. At this year's games, Mercy Corps provided equipment from its corporate partner, Nike, including 2,000 pairs of shoes, apparel, socks and gym bags to the athletes, coaches and organizers.
"It is essential to give youths the experiences that will equip them with the skills to respond to the great challenges that await them," says Lainie Thomas, Mercy Corps' Country Representative for South Sudan. "Today, in light of the recently signed Peace Accords, it is critical that youths learn how to resolve conflicts in non-violent ways, how to cope with the economic, social and environmental dilemmas they will face and how to work together with their communities to solve their problems."
While the national Peace Accord between North and South Sudan proceeds, the effort must be supported by people-to-people initiatives at the grass-roots level. Much of the fighting in South Sudan takes place between or even within tribes. Therefore, while peace initiatives aimed at bringing the north and south together are essential, community peace-building activities are equally important and have a more direct impact on the lives of most South Sudanese people.
For Monica and her teammates, the games have brought laughter, hope and a little relief from the daily struggles they face.
"I look forward to practice all day long," says Monica. "I love to play volleyball, but more important are the friends I have made. Now, I have girls I can talk to about my problems and share things I couldn't talk to anyone else about. One of my teammates has gone back to school and I am thinking about trying to go back, too."
By bringing once-isolated youths together, the Twic Olympics provides an opportunity to form friendships and encourages children to talk about their experiences with their peers. The initial results are extremely promising: youths who participate in the games are more likely to attend school and have a positive outlook on their future. (According to a UNICEF survey, only 40 percent of South Sudan's one million primary school age children are enrolled in school and only 26 percent of these are girls.)
"Most children in southern Sudan have spent their lives in a constant state of fear and stress, never knowing what will happen tomorrow," says Daniel Dhaal, the Youth Empowerment for Peace Coordinator for Sudan Production Aid. "The goal of the Twic Olympics is to give them the capabilities, skills and opportunities necessary to build a better future.
"Only then can they become part of the peace process that will end the repeated need for massive humanitarian relief — only then can the cycle of war be broken."