Trades, Technology and Tailoring in South Sudan: Alex Okumu on the Mivule Community Association

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Alex Okumu

Alex Okumu (right) discusses the Mivule Community Association’s construction of the Kaka Technical Institute in Loa, South Sudan and the association’s planned projects.

Following 23 years of war, structures and services in South Sudan are notably minimal. During a return visit to his home country in 2008 Alex Okumu, who attended HCH’s program development and advocacy for South Sudan training workshops in 2013, realised that the vast majority of tradespeople working on construction projects in South Sudan were actually from neighbouring countries like Kenya and Uganda. “And this is widening the gap of poverty”, Alex says. “They [locals] are seeing foreigners who work there, coming from another country, leaving their family back home but getting their money there. If you employ people who are from the country they work, they get paid, they send their children to school and they can contribute to the economic wellbeing of the country.”

A former teacher, Alex met with some past students and several community elders and formed an idea to create a professional school for training in trades. But the ever-present question of funding remained a barrier. “I was able to contact Anglicare in Australia,” says Alex, “and they were able to help us, put us in contact with some other organisations that are working in Southern Sudan. They have been promising, and the promise is still there, but… We as community members said okay, as we are waiting what can we do? So what we did was to establish a non-profit organisation in Sydney.”

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The beginnings and construction of the Kaka Technical Institute (more below)

This project became the Mivule Community Association Inc. NSW, which Alex began in 2009 with the help of some other South Sudanese Australians. “The name Mivule is like a flashback”, says Alex. “For the community here, it’s giving something back to the community at home, like looking back.”

To get the project underway, Alex explains, “We started to build a structure to show we are having a vision for the community… We put our initial funds into a structure so at least we could concentrate our initial funding body.” The building, named the Kaka Technical Institute, is currently under construction in the South Sudanese town of Loa. “It is at the finishing stage, just needs the doors and windows”, says Alex. Though the building as it stands is not large enough for the trades school Alex envisions, he plans to begin with computer classes for young women who have left school to get married. “And when they get married and have children they cannot go back to school again and pursue their career”, says Alex, “So this training will be a chance for them to contribute to the economics of the country.”

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With commitments from volunteer teachers in South Sudan to teach around two days a week, they plan to have computer classes up and running in 2014. He adds: “We have started collecting laptops – we’ve got about 40 laptops.” Setting up this professional trades school remains a very big challenge, says Alex, because of the money involved. “We are trying to lobby to some NGOs who are going to work there, if they have that money… It’s about getting that voice.” He hopes that “when we have those computer classes, maybe that will be the point when maybe an NGO will come and see and then maybe they will help.”

In addition to these computer classes Alex hopes Mivule will be able to run some tailoring classes for women, teaching them to make clothes which can be sold locally. Some community members had a similar project during the time they spent as refugees in Uganda, and many graduates were able to make a sustainable living as self-employed tailors afterwards. The advantage of this project, Alex points out, is that the sewing machines do not require power and are therefore easier and cheaper to manage than electrical tools. Alex and his team have also found teachers to take these classes.

 
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The Mivule project involves a team of volunteers from both the South Sudanese community in Australia and in South Sudan. “I’ve got people on the ground monitoring the construction”, Alex says, in addition to the volunteer teachers. “I heard about the training that Oxfam was running [through HCH] and it was all about getting the knowledge and skills for project management and project organisation, so to get that training, it was very good”, says Alex. “I brought some of the issues, the things which I couldn’t deal with by myself and was able to talk to friends to see how they were doing it and talk to other people, so it was a kind of sharing.”

 
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Alex is also a member of the South Sudan Diaspora Network (SSDN), which developed from the HCH workshops, and sees lobbying and advocacy as important steps in building his and other organisations for development in South Sudan. “For diaspora people from some parts of the country, it is really very, very hard for people in their home towns and they are not getting help at all. So that’s why we need that SSDN, to do advocating with the NGOs that are on the ground.”

Alex identifies the lack of education and employment opportunities as a major problem for the South Sudanese people. “There is no proper setup of services by the government”, he says. “There has been fighting, fighting through all these years… Some people have got the luck of schooling in neighbouring countries but some people do not, some cannot go to secondary school.” Government services are slow to arrive, so “by the time they are going to come”, Alex says, “we will get some people already ahead”.

 
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Though he admits that the effort for diaspora involvement in South Sudanese development still has a long way to go, Alex is confident that, through the combined and persistent efforts of the diaspora community, “the voice is going out”.

For more information on the Mivule Community Association, or to get involved or donate, contact Alex Okumu at okumusaraf@yahoo.com.au.