South Sudan is in conflict between Army factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and the rebel forces of his rival Riek Machar that has led to the burning and flattening of key towns and brutal fighting.
One reason hostilities flame so brightly and spread so quickly owes to a powerfully reinforced culture of young men and guns in this part of East Africa. Boys, particularly in rural areas, grow up with few options besides joining armed groups and taking possession of a gun – both symbols of power that bring a sense of identity, masculinity, worth, and place. A mix of local economics, peer pressure, and the need to simply defend one’s village and family draw in young men to a culture in which violence and conflict seem normal.
That culture is reinforced in countless ways. The military and armed groups give paychecks – in a nation with few jobs. For rural boys especially, the military seems like a lucrative patronage network with clout and benefits.
“In the States, most boys play video games; what we do is we play with guns,” says Bol David Chuol, a teacher in Jonglei State.
“There’s this real emasculation of the young men who have not been able to find a place for themselves in the new South Sudan,” says Lydia Stone, senior adviser to South Sudan’s ministry of gender. “People are looking for a sense of identity wherever they can find it, and tribes just happen to be the default. In another country it might be gangs.”