A catwalk in Juba, capital of the newly independent nation of South Sudan, might seem out of place in a country just emerging from decades of conflict. Up to this point, South Sudan’s most famous fashion statement has probably been President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s predilection for black cowboy hats. Notwithstanding the success of the country’s most famous supermodel, Alek Wek, the most common images of South Sudan are still armed rebel fighters or malnourished children, the visual hallmarks of the series of conflicts that have raged across its territory for decades. But Akuja de Garang, the organizer of the fashion show is determined to change that image.
With her Festival for Fashion and Arts for Peace, now in its second year, Ms. Garang, 38, is trying to change not just outside perceptions, but also the way people here see themselves and one another, especially in a nation still rattled by interethnic tension and violence. “There are still problems. Partly that’s because we don’t have a sense of common identity as South Sudanese,” said Ms. Garang. “We’ve been scattered for so long. What we hear about each other are stereotypes.”
“South Sudan has been at war for a very long time,” said Ellen Lekka, a culture specialist at Unesco, a sponsor of the event. “Traditions that go from generation to generation might have been lost in the struggle for survival and migration.”
The fashion show is a small project compared with Unesco’s work to help set up a national archive, which it hopes to inaugurate here in 2015. The group is also working on a concept for a national museum that ideally would break the mold of the traditional Western-style museum. It is all part of a larger effort to establish not just a seat of government, but a capital for a new nation.
With every tiny step, the country inches closer. Last year, actors from the South Sudan Theater Company represented the country at the World Shakespeare Festival in London, performing “Cymbeline” in Juba Arabic. Juba still has the feel of a provisional place. The city lacks the sort of grand colonial architecture that still stands in many African capitals. But those familiar with Juba before independence from Sudan in 2011 see a city booming with construction, with apartment blocks, hotels and even 10-story office buildings sprouting up.
“When we compare Juba from the year before we were called South Sudan, there is a great change,” said Davidica Ikai, chairwoman of the Itwak Women’s Group, one of the groups displaying and selling their wares at the festival. Mer Ayang, a singer who performed at the event, said she hoped the development in the capital would not come at the expense of the rest of the country. “I would judge my country in terms of development on better schools, hospitals, streets and public services,” she said.