Rumbek singer highlights impact of violence against women at Peace Concert
Akuruel Makuei Maiwer was a big hit when she arrived on stage at the Women for Peace Concert in Rumbek.
Her performance was the highlight of the event organized by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) as part of a campaign to promote the education and empowerment of women, while raising awareness about sexual and gender-based violence.
The 26-year-old singer has survived and thrived despite a difficult past.
“I was forced to leave school when I was 11-12 years old to go and live in the cattle camps,” she says. “My paternal uncle and stepbrothers convinced my father to send me to the cattle camps where I could find a rich husband.”
Cattle camps in South Sudan are home to many young men responsible for tending the livestock. Akuruel was sent there by her family in the hope she would attract the attention of a wealthy man prepared to pay a significant price for his new bride, which usually consists of a number of cattle.
She stayed in the camp for two years and by the age of 14, three men had indicated their interest in marrying her. The first offered 30 cattle, the second, 60, while the successful “bidder” offered 80 cattle.
Akuruel says no one in the family sought her opinion before giving her away in marriage.
“I was brought to Rumbek to live with my husband’s stepmother, who took good care of me,” she says. “I was well fed and well taken care of until I reached the age of 15, and then was handed over to my husband.”
Two years later, Akuruel gave birth to her first child - a boy. To her astonishment, though, she was told her new son would not be hers to raise.
“My husband told me that my first child was to be raised by his first wife, who had several children but all girls,” Akuruel says. “I was brought to the family to bear male children for her.”
She says the relationship deteriorated after she was unable to conceive more children.
“He stopped seeing me, and I was not allowed in the company of the other women in the compound,” she says. I was left alone, no food, drink or any care.”
Akuruel’s father rescued her but her husband filed a complaint with the police claiming that his wife had been kidnapped. Her family was given two options: either return Akuruel to her husband or file for divorce and refund the dowry of 80 cattle.
“My father chose to return the cattle rather than lose me,” she says. “By 2015 I was a divorced woman with no children, no education, no money, nothing to hang onto or build from.”
But she did have a passion: singing.
“When someone heard me singing one day, they asked me to sing their function and that’s how my career as a singer began,” she says.
“I sing all sorts of my music. I sing national songs, I sing songs of praise at weddings, I sing for people who have suffered betrayal, and I also sing songs about the issues of youths,” she says. “I just love singing. It has helped me through the years to get over my troubles and worries of the past.”
She doesn’t make much money from her talent but says she finds singing rewarding in itself. To support herself and her family, Akuruel works as a domestic help, cooking and cleaning, for local military forces.
“My dream is to be a famous singer one day and have enough money to support my siblings to get a better education, so they do not end up like me,” she says. “And also to take good care of my mother who, like me, has been through a lot of suffering in life.”
Drawing from her own difficult experiences, Akuruel has a message for the young women of South Sudan: “Take your education seriously. Appreciate parents who have sent you to school and study hard. Without education, there is no way you’re going to make it in life.”