Sept. 8, 2011
JUBA, South Sudan – A new country, a new beginning.
Read the banner prominently hung from the classroom building that flanked one side of the court at the Playing for Peace Championships in late August. So it was perhaps somewhat fitting that the championship game was dominated by the club team of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a clear crowd favorite, in the lopsided matchup with the Juba University Club Team. The SPLA team cruised to a 55-40 win over Juba University in the championship tilt.
The SPLA squad overcame its toughest challenge in the first round when it upset the Bright Stars in what was the best game of the tournament. The Stars were coached by Ajou Deng, older brother of Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng and featured Kueth Duany (captain of Syracuse’s 2003 national championship team.) The Stars were considered the top up-and-coming club team in South Sudan.
But the end result of the championship game was irrelevant when contrasted with the unifying message of the event.
“Everything we did with this event promoted a message of peace and unity for South Sudan. Sporting events are an important way for us to come together as a new country. Sports also give us an opportunity to develop our children. They are the real future of South Sudan,” said Acuil Malith Banggol, Secretary General of the South Sudan Basketball Federation (SSBF). “The message we are spreading at the SBFF is that everyone in South Sudan is on the same team. Playing for Peace echoes that message.”
In addition to spreading a positive message the event drew a huge crowd, showcased South Sudan’s top basketball players, included cultural dances, live music and was broadcast on South Sudan TV.
“The television broadcast and great media attention really helped promote sports in South Sudan. It also helped us with game and event management,” said Acuil. “One of the benefits of this event is the practice our federation had in event planning and marketing.”
The spirit and message of the event also drew the attention of some prominent international humanitarians to the championship game, including Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque, Director of the United Nations International Children’s Fund in South Sudan.
The South Sudan Demobilization Disarmament and Reintegration Commission (SSDDRC) served as an event co-sponsor and effectively used the championship game as an opportunity to spread their message of disarmament and reintegration of child soldiers. A successful and just execution of troop reductions through the SSDDRC is seen as a critical factor in developing a peaceful and prosperous South Sudan.
Throughout the week Kevin Dugan, manager of youth and community programs for the Notre Dame athletics department, had the opportunity to meet with basketball players, coaches, government ministers and leaders of international NGOs. However, the meeting that had the most meaning was the one with Bishop Paride Taban. It was during a visit to Notre Dame last fall that Bishop Taban spoke to the Notre Dame community and inspired the men’s lacrosse and basketball teams to organize the Playing for Peace event.
“It was pretty special to meet with Fr. Taban and tell him the story of the last 12 months, how Coach (Kevin) Corrigan, Coach (Mike) Brey, Notre Dame students and faculty and staff were playing, praying and advocating for his country,” said Dugan. “He applauded the impact sports have had on the children in his peace village. It really served as great affirmation that sports can be a legitimate vehicle for social development.”
According to Dugan, “There is so much optimism right now – there is a contagious, positive feeling that everything is about to change for South Sudan, and I strongly believe that sports can be part of that story.”
Dugan hopes to continue working with the men’s lacrosse and basketball programs to further the current Playing for Peace initiative to promote sports, peace and justice in South Sudan.