The peace games: Dreaming big for South Sudan’s youth
A relatively new independence and fresh waves of conflict inspire a South Sudanese refugee to build antiwar video games.
There are approximately 20 people displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution. Recent figures from the United Nations put an unprecedented 65.6 million people worldwide in the category of forcibly displaced.
South Sudan is one of the three countries making up 55 percent of the total number of refugees worldwide.
Home to more than 60 different ethnic groups, oil-rich South Sudan continues to struggle with violent conflict and the weight of its seven-year-old independence.
Lual Mayen is one of the hundreds of thousands displaced South Sudanese who’re forced to seek shelter in neighbouring Uganda.
Born and raised in a refugee camp, he grew up wanting more for himself, his family, and most profoundly, the youth of South Sudan, many of whom have known nothing but war.
This is his story in his own words:
I was born in Uganda in 1993 in a camp for South Sudanese and Congolese refugees. I was born in a refugee camp, I grew up in a refugee camp and all my education was in refugee camps.
As a child, my mother told me and my siblings about the conflict back home every day.
So, when South Sudan gained independence in 2011, I was still in the camp and we were all very excited. We were hoping that everything would change in our country and that we would be able to live in freedom and peace. We had been going through a lot.
Growing up in the camp was tough. It’s a lot like containment, you kind of live in a junkyard.
The education was poor. You’d go to school, but you’d never learn anything. The school was made mostly of huts, some of the teachers were not very good, and they’re not very good facilities, like books, like a study plan, so it was really hard for me to be inspired and motivated to go to school.
At the end of the day, you just go to school to play football and you come back after four hours because nothing happened. If education is taken away from you, it’s like your life is taken away from you.
My mother played a very big role in my life because she made me study and go to school. She was very hard on me. And at that time, I felt that’s not something that my parent should do to me, but it was really helping me, it was shaping me up.
I had a big imagination and a lot of creativity. It was so hard for us to go and watch films in the towns, for example, so I would get some boxes, cut them up and put some kind of screen on top and make a viewing box.
In the evenings, people would come from around the camp and gather in my house to see what I had made and watch different creations through the viewing box.
‘Video games are not made by people … they are from above’
But then, I discovered my passion for computer engineering.
In the beginning, it was hard to find computers in a refugee camp in Uganda. But I remember telling my mum, “One day, I need to study computer programming.”
She laughed, but I told her again: “My passion is to do something with computers.” She saved money from her wallet and clothes-making for about three years, after which she managed to raise a good amount.
I bought a computer in a small town in Uganda [with that money].
It was difficult to get internet in the refugee camp, there were power cuts, and I was the only one with a computer. Exploring new things is difficult, but I took it upon myself to learn. There was a game installed on the computer called Nuclear Bicycle and I played that a lot.
I felt like video games could not possibly be made by people, they were from above. And I knew, this was my profession.
After South Sudan gained independence, lots of people wanted to go back. My family did not return to South Sudan, because it was not clear when the fighting would stop.
That changed for me in 2013 because I was studying at university in Kampala and working on the weekends in South Sudan to make some money. I did that for about a year, building websites – something I taught myself over time.
During my studies, I thought about having my own start-up which I then set up in South Sudan.
It was called Citycom Technologies. I needed cash flow for this, so I interviewed with a bank in South Sudan for a loan. The government was not interested in my proposal.
‘It’s all about war’
In 2016, war broke out in South Sudan once again. At the time, I had been asked to train the new government on particular systems and a technology conference was coming to town. So, I went to do the training.
Everything was destroyed, including everything I had worked for.
My parents were still in the camp back in Uganda and said I needed to flee South Sudan but it was very difficult to leave.
Witnessing the conflict for myself, I thought, “What can I do to end this violence in South Sudan because I’m tired of it. What can I do?” Playing violent video games and then seeing how South Sudan was first hand … these are people that grew up with war. Some of them were born in times of war. Their perceptions and attitude – it’s all about war.
Again, I realised that this wasn’t about the government signing a ceasefire. They’d been doing that for years yet nothing was actually happening to help the people of South Sudan.
My parents were also still suffering in the camps, yet going back to South Sudan could make you cry because the camps were still the better option.
That’s when I knew that computers were the solution. I thought that creating video games for kids may be a good conflict resolution. Maybe if they played specific kinds of video games, it would help change their mindset, their attitudes.
Back in the refugee camp in Uganda, I built my first mobile video game, Salaam. Salaam means peace. Within two months of completing Salaam, I was invited to tour Africa to talk about the game.
Within a year of that development, in 2017, and after years of my family trying to seek refuge abroad and being denied, I was invited to speak at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Five days after receiving that email, however, Donald Trump’s travel ban was announced.
The trouble then was how the US suddenly viewed refugees. Many didn’t realise that South Sudan was actually not the country on the list – it was Sudan that was included in the travel ban. It was an upsetting time for me. I was so sure I wouldn’t get my visa that I contacted the developers and told them I wouldn’t be able to make it.
‘Independence and freedom drove me to where I am’
Three weeks later, my startup was selected as one of the best peace-building games by Amazon Startups and the US Institute of Peace. My video game, Salaam, had been submitted and was seen as a potential tool for peacebuilding.
When I went to apply for my visa, I told them my story. “It’s a miracle and you need to go,” they said.
I arrived in the US last year and was there for about two months.
Shortly after returning to Uganda, I secured a contract with the World Bank to come back and work in the US. I’m now also looking to continue my studies with a masters scholarship at the University of San Diego. I want to study social immigration, which is a new course teaching the use of modernisation for social impact.
I’m not convinced about bringing my parents to the US due to several reasons. Africa is a great continent. There are some good places and people and my family understands that culture.
Bringing them to the US would cause confusion. This place is for young people, not the older generation.
I want to work hard, prove to the people who misunderstand refugees what we are really like and then try and make things better for people back home. I’m thinking about Africa and my African culture.
Independence day is a very good day for us to remember, for us to celebrate, for us to have hope for the future because the future belongs to us.
It’s our responsibility as young people to define the way people think about South Sudan. If we don’t use all the skills, the knowledge and the talent that we have right now there’s nobody that we can blame, because we have everything to make the people in South Sudan proud of us.
Without independence, I couldn’t be where I am right now because it’s the independence and the freedom that drove me to where I am.