“Peace is an opportunity women must grab by the scruff of the neck” – Nancy Joseph, hairstylist, South Sudan

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9 Mar 2022

“Peace is an opportunity women must grab by the scruff of the neck” – Nancy Joseph, hairstylist, South Sudan

Zejin Yin/Filip Andersson

WARRAP STATE – “Since I was a child, I’ve wanted to become an engineer. Imagine how intriguing it would be to create things from scratch. Challenging your knowledge and inner creativity to come up with useful stuff, stuff that benefits others. How exciting would that be?”

Nancy Joseph’s eyes come to even more life, just as you’d be forgiven for thinking that would be impossible, as she talks about her childhood dream, one she is still nurturing, while giving us a tour of her modest hairstylist salon at Kuajok market.

Yet another failure, you may think, considering that she’s dyeing hair instead of building bridges, but then you’d need to think again. Few conclusions would be farther from the truth.

Aged 24, Nancy has made the most of the cards life has dealt her, some of which wouldn’t have caused her to fire off her winning, infectious smile at the time. She does, however, when she seems to realize that she has not simply accepted her hand but reshuffled the pack, given herself a new set of cards and played them to her advantage.

“My heart leaps when customers are satisfied with the hairstyles I have created for them. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in seemingly small things in life, and this is another way of using your creativity to make others happy,” she says.

With the exception of facing the particular challenges presented to her by the odd bald customer, Nancy may not be making something out of nothing, yet there was a time when she did have to start all over.

“For one reason or the other, most of my female peers were unable to attend or finish school, and I was one of them. I finished primary school but was forced to drop out of further education because I became pregnant at a very young age. Others never went to school at all as their families believed girls don’t need an education, or couldn’t afford one,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Nancy may be young, but life and her ability to adapt to circumstances have made her an old soul, and a keen observer of what is going on around her. Over the last few years, since South Sudan’s fledgling recovery from civil war and restoration of relative stability, she has seen a lot of changes that she wholeheartedly approves of.

“I do have the impression that things are improving, at least in the areas that I’m familiar with. These days, when something significant occurs in my community, we (women) are consulted and invited to voice our opinions. More girls are going to school, and if one of them does get pregnant, she may now return to school after giving birth. These are all positives worth celebrating,” she notes, while acknowledging that much work and many changes of attitudes are needed to achieve further emancipation.

Pondering what has made these improvements possible, Nancy identifies the real game-changer: peace, and some of its possibly subtler dividends.

“Now things are calm in my neighbourhood, there are no more conflicts. It is a situation which allows women to go out and explore freely, to consider their options and come up with ideas on how to make a feasible and meaningful living. For anyone who lived through the horrors of war, and for everyone for that matter, it’s an opportunity we must grab by the scruff of the neck.”

This conviction, core to Nancy’s personality and outlook, combined with having time on her side, is fuelling her own determination to return to school to fulfill her engineering dreams.

“As a child I was a dreamer. There was nothing I couldn’t do. Later, life taught me that options are sometimes limited. And now, now it feels like my dormant, dreamy self is making a comeback,” she says, laughing gently at this new piece of self-discovery.

Education, however, is far from a laughing matter to Nancy Joseph. It is, in fact, more of her adage and rallying cry.

“Education. It must be education. Giving them more opportunities to go to school,” she says without hesitation when asked about what would contribute most to building women’s resilience, independence and prospects to flourish. “It saddens me when I see girls wasting their lives. The other day I saw some of them idling and loitering, getting drunk, wandering around aimlessly, and it breaks my heart.”

With three young children of her own, Nancy acknowledges that she may have to shelve her own dreams of further education for a while, but nothing will stop her from being engaged in community affairs and leading by example.

“We women cannot only teach our children never to resort to violence but also help resolve other people’s disagreements. When two persons quarrel, I’ll always approach them and attempt to sort out their issue amicably, by having an honest talk. It may not seem like much, but I believe it contributes to peacebuilding and a cohesive community.”

The same, Nancy argues, goes for gender equality, which she thinks benefits women and men alike.

“We were all born as equals. Why, then, make things awkward and counterproductive by treating men and women differently? Now, for as long as such differentiation prevails, we must continue to raise our voices and advocate for the obvious rights of girls and women.”