Athong’s story

As the match begins, Athong (left) tries to gain the upper hand.

UNHCR/Frederic Noy

Wrestling for Peace

After fleeing violence in South Sudan, young men find common ground in a traditional Dinka sport.

Athong’s story
  • Written by
    Lucy Beck
  • Photos by
    Frédéric Noy
15 January 2015 15 January 2015
South Sudan Uganda

Barefoot and bare-chested, Athong Mayen crouches close to the ground, scoops up a handful of dirt and tosses it into the air – hoping to intimidate a man he has only just met.

The two strangers have a score to settle, but it’s all in good fun. As refugees from South Sudan, they are engaging in the traditional Dinka sport of wrestling.

Since he arrived at Uganda’s Nyumanzi refugee settlement in January 2014, Athong, 25, has been splitting his time between competing in wrestling tournaments and running a phone-charging shop in Nyumanzi’s now-bustling marketplace.

He started the business back in his hometown – Bor, South Sudan – when he was just 13 years old. But several months ago he left nearly everything behind when the conflict that has ripped the country apart finally forced him to flee.

The one thing on Athong’s mind was how he would survive after reaching Uganda, so before exiting his home he quickly grabbed his speakers and charging board, carrying them with him on the nearly 400-kilometre journey to Uganda in order to continue his business from there.

As he stands in front of his new shop, Athong proudly tells us that he was a former wrestling champion of Jonglei State and remains unbeaten since his arrival in Uganda.

“I like wrestling because it makes you strong and helps us keep our culture,” he says, smiling. “When people living in different settlements wrestle, you learn things from them and they become colleagues.”

As we stand chatting, a friend calls to tell him that a wrestling tournament has been organised with refugees in the nearby Baratuku settlement for this evening. The Nyumanzi team have wrestled them twice before and found them to be formidable opponents.

“You come and know a person you’ve not met before and then you are no longer strangers.”

When UNHCR and its partners first set up Nyumanzi settlement, they searched for ways to educate young people to get along peacefully with neighbours and resolve differences amicably. One of the ways they identified to do this was by promoting indigenous cultural activities and events between the different communities and refugee settlements.

Peace teams were set up with four representatives from each block of the settlement, who submitted ideas related to their cultures. Wrestling and dancing emerged as the unanimous winners.

“Wresting is the leading sport in the Dinka community,” explains Jacob Achiele, an elected leader of Block E who also serves as wrestling chairman. “You come and know a person you’ve not met before and then you are no longer strangers. You become like one person. Otherwise you are strangers who face each other.”

The refugees have embraced the initiative wholeheartedly, organising their own tournaments, trainings and scouting sessions. Tournaments attract huge crowds, reminiscent of those held back in South Sudan, where people travel hundreds of kilometres just to watch. Today’s friendly tournament against Baratuku is one of these, and the participants expect a big crowd.

It is a two-hour walk from Nyumanzi to Baratuku settlement, even with shortcuts. Still, the wrestlers find the energy to run the last kilometre, singing, beating drums and causing enough noise to alert anyone who isn’t already aware of the upcoming tournament.

The tournament begins once the wrestlers from Baratuku arrive and after the traditional dancing and singing. Athong is up second. Nervously rubbing his hands, he takes his place.

The match is short, lasting only a couple of minutes, and ends with Athong being slammed to the ground. The crowd go wild, appreciating such a dramatic victory.

Athong is brought to the ground by his opponent, and many spectators rejoice. UNHCR/Lucy Beck

UNHCR/Lucy Beck
Athong is brought to the ground by his opponent, and many spectators rejoice.

Athong limps off gingerly, no longer a champion, but content to have lost to the better man.

As the sun sets over the surrounding grasslands, four more pairs step up in turn to try their luck – one win for Baratuku, one for Nyumanzi and two draws. After nearly an hour of entertainment, the six weary but happy Nyumanzi boys and their band of supporters start the long trek back home, excited to share the news they have picked up and discuss the new friends they have made.