JUBA, South Sudan
Twenty-year old Chika Sydney Edward Joshua has only been playing football for six years. But he is already so skilled that he’s reached the national level, playing for the South Sudan Under-23 team.
“I decided to play football because I developed a love for the game. It’s a beautiful game that unites people,” he said. “When you play it, it is just so enjoyable that you feel, yes, this is a game to play.”
Under the sweltering sun on a Saturday afternoon in Juba, Joshua and his team-mates tackled each other in fierce competition for supremacy while also sharing messages of peace and unity with the hundreds of fans watching on.
The exhibition match was the highlight of National Unity Day celebrations which focused on social cohesion at a critical time in the peace process in South Sudan. While the A team enjoyed the honour of winning the game 2-0, the players from both teams embraced each other at the end, sharing their love for the game and for their country.
“I pray to the people of South Sudan that it is time to forgive,” said Joshua. “We are one nation. We are the same people. Let us forget about the past and look at the future. When I look at our country it has a bright future, if only we can forgive one another, then this country will grow to be a better place for everyone to visit from all over the world. They will come here and have fun and, every time they go back home, they will say, wow, South Sudan is a beautiful place!”
There was a real sense of celebration at the event, sponsored by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in partnership with the Government of South Sudan. Local music legend Emmanuel Kembe performed a series of songs, bringing many in the audience to their feet, clapping, dancing and singing messages of peace along with him.
The President of JICA, Shinichi Kitaoka, travelled to South Sudan especially for the event, to express Japan’s support for peace, social cohesion and development in the country.
“Personally, I have felt so attached to South Sudan. Even before your independence in 2011 and since I was Ambassador to the United Nations in 2012,” he said. “Therefore, I made JICA offer financial assistance to help South Sudanese athletes go to the 2016 Olympic games at Rio de Janeiro, the very first Olympic celebration of South Sudan.”
Many South Sudanese are more optimistic about the future in the wake of the signing of a revitalized peace agreement last year. They hope that a permanent end to the violence will encourage investment in development and give people the chance to reach their full potential. The Government was a partner in the event, celebrating peace through sports.
“The power and benefits of sports in uniting people are tremendous,” said the Vice-President of South Sudan, James Wani Igga. “Sports and national unity are close friends. Sports bring people together across culture, language, gender and social class. Its popularity and universality make it uniquely placed to reach socially isolated or hard to reach groups.”
Members of the Bangladeshi peacekeeping contingent from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) took part in a cultural performance at the event, in a show of unity with the people and support for peace-building efforts across the country.
“I think there’s some confidence out there in relation to the peace process,” said the Head of UNMISS and Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer. “It is up to us collectively to make sure that we continue to build that confidence and ensure that it carries on.”
The real hope is that, with lasting peace, will come opportunity and prosperity for all, particularly the next generation and future leaders of South Sudan. For Joshua, his dream is to become a professional footballer, representing his country internationally.
“Our country has been at war – on and off and on and off again,” said Joshua. “So, it has been hard to succeed. But every morning I wake up and see stars playing the game and I think, hey, maybe one day I can be one of them. So, I have a passion and I’ve set myself a target and a dream that I’m now working hard to achieve.”