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Wrestlers fight to unite world's newest nation

From Lillian Leposo, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bier Ajak uses wrestling to unite South Sudan's divided communities
  • For years, the communities have fought over pasture and raided each other's cattle
  • Ajak says the sport reminds South Sudan's tribes of the things they have in common

(CNN) -- With ash applied to their bodies and determination glinting in their eyes, two young tribal wrestlers stride onto a large field under the hot South Sudanese sun.

In the next few minutes, the fighters will give everything they have to knock their opponent down and achieve tribal glory amid the cheers of the gathered crowd.

For years, the tribes of South Sudan have fought over pasture and raided each other's cattle. But today, thanks largely to the efforts of one of Sudan's "Lost Boys," the common cultural ground of wrestling is being used to unite the still-divided communities in the world's newest country.

Peter Biar Ajak -- an economist who's returned to Sudan 22 years after fleeing its civil war as a child -- is organizing traditional wrestling matches as way to help ease tensions among South Sudan's more than 60 tribes.

Fleeing Sudan's civil war
From refugee to Harvard graduate
Wrestling to unite Sudan's tribes

He says the sport reminds the ethnic groups of South Sudan of the things that unite them.

"To bring peace among the tribes in South Sudan will take a lot of things but wrestling is an integral part of that process," he says. "It reminds people of their commonalities -- what do they share in common -- and through that they see that they are the same people and there is nothing else that can do that.

"But it needs to be complemented by other things: delivery of services, education, health -- people need to feel that their life is changing."

Starting with the daunting task of getting the tribes to participate, Ajak and his South Sudan Wrestling Company have so far organized three tournaments.

Ajak says the results have been tremendous. He says he's seen people from the rival Dinka and Mundari tribes come together after meeting at wrestling matches.

"The women whose husbands were killed, they were cooking for the men from the communities that killed their husbands," he says.

"There are all these kinds of stories, the harmony that is bringing, the unity that is bringing. Bringing people from the Nuba mountains to come and wrestle -- it is something that is historic and never been seen before and it shows that the spirit of the wrestling and the objective in which we created it are working."

The initiative not only promotes peace but also brings economic benefits for those who participate; each wrestler is paid 1,000 Sudanese pounds -- about $400 -- per match.

"That is the price for a cow," says Ajak. "You go and compete and come back with a cow -- that is the mind set in which they were interpreting this."

As a result, wrestling is a source of income for hundreds of young people, with a potential to benefit even more in the fledging republic.

Ajak, 27, was born in Sudan at the start of Africa's longest-running civil war. The conflict, which left more than two million people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, forced Ajak to flee his country when he was just five years old.

South Sudan is completely unchartered territory, is a country that is ready for the bright and brilliant innovators of the world.
--Peter Bier Ajak
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He spent the following years moving from one refugee camp to another before finding his way to the United States at the age of 17. After completing high school, he went on to study at LaSalle University in Philadelphia before graduating from Harvard Kennedy School.

But Ajak never abandoned the dream of going back to his homeland to help its people.

In 2009, as an economist he took a job with the World Bank in South Sudan, where he helps shape policies for the implementation of the multi-donor trust fund and assists the government in setting up the first-ever development plan.

Despite having vast arable land and plenty of water, as well as being rich in oil reserves and minerals, South Sudan faces many challenges as it takes its first steps as a new country.

The land-locked nation lacks infrastructure to even refine or transport its oil while the majority of its people have little in the way of education and skills.

Ajak says initiatives like wrestling, which match existing talents, are desperately needed in the new nation.

"This is a period that we'll need a lot of support," he says. "We need to look at 21st-century means of doing development and apply them in South Sudan to attract investors in South Sudan -- to organize our people, train them, to bring investors to use the skills that we have.

"South Sudan is completely uncharted territory, is a country that is ready for the bright and brilliant innovators of the world," he adds.

 
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