“It’s a land perfect only for vultures.” That is my first thought as we descend to a clay airstrip near Bentiu town, maintained by an oil company and 35 miles from the newest border of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. A Land Cruiser drives us fast to Leer, two hours south-east on a dirt road. The car’s bulletproof glass has a spiderweb crack, the center right between the driver’s eyes.
I’ve learned that violence here is like the heat, fixed to nothing but felt everywhere: a spear under a bed, a Kalishnikov leaning in a corner, boxed ammunition stacked higher than a house, six parallel scars across the forehead of each man, cut so deep they’re said to leave marks on the skull. It’s the violence of forty years of civil war, one hundred years of colonial war, one thousand years of tribal war. After a few days I stop talking about the 130-degree afternoons. It’s part of the place.
I am here to help bring social media to South Sudan. I am with Every Person Has A Story, a two-year-old non-profit that gives students around the world the tools to tell their stories, and an audience to make those stories heard. In our bags are 60 digital cameras, batteries, memory cards, lesson plans, printers, a laptop, and a desktop. Back home, 20,000 monthly viewers on Facebook, twitter, and http://www.ephas.org see daily images by orphans in Rwanda, child land-mine victims in Cambodia, refugees in Kenya and tent-city dwellers in Haiti.
The basic idea is that an opportunity many of us take for granted — to snap a picture, post it to the web, to share our lives, for thousands to see — is unavailable to those whose lives most need sharing. Social media can create personal connections on a global scale. In a picture, we can be moved by someone else’s beauty, or the mundanity of their lives, or their love for another, and this connection irrevocably makes them a fellow and not just a fact. It’s a connection that expands our conscious moral horizon, a connection that can inspire us to create a better world.
I am teaching photography classes to groups of 20 students at a time. The brightest is Peter Choul. He is seventeen years old but looks thirteen. He speaks near-perfect English, something I haven’t seen from any of the adults I’ve met here, much less from children. He has become our unofficial translator and our ambassador.
Yesterday, Peter came to the compound after class. He had the look of dragging himself along, like a grade school child confessing to his still-anonymous crime. I thought of how we can accept fates and still be terrified. Our rational brain has trapped our heart in a box, and is now exerting tremendous energy to keep it there. Peter slumped in a yard chair while our guide, Mach, told us Peter’s father was killed in the war, and Peter is a very clever boy but has no means to continue his education, to leave this town, and make his family’s life better, and could we pay to send him to school in Nairobi? Peter had the expression of a man facing a firing squad. As if his hopes and dreams stood waiting to be ripped to shreds in a volley of “No” and “We wish we could but” and “There are many smart boys in the world”. By the time he left, it was past evening. I went to my bed, lay face-down, and cried.
South Sudan is so flat, and there are few trees, and each compound divided by head-high cornstalk fences — so rarely do I see more than 70 feet in any direction. At night, the sky is so big it feels like the curve of the earth has tightened and the whole world is small, maybe only a few miles across, or maybe so small it could sit atop the construction of the new World Trade Center, like a giant golf ball on a tee stuck into downtown Manhattan. Seeing this place, I’m reminded that our world falls short of perfection, sure, but much worse is that it falls short of a moral minimum: that if you give everything, you will get something, no matter what.
And tonight, over the cornstalk-fence horizon of my small earth I hear children laughing, a sing-song game, drums in the distance. I think of Peter Choul. Hope and happiness should be a part of this place, like the cool nighttime dew: fixed to everything, and felt everywhere.