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Athong Mayen crouches close to the ground, scoops up a handful of dirt and tosses it into the air – hoping to intimidate a man he has only just met. As refugees from South Sudan, they are engaging in the traditional Dinka sport of wrestling.

Since he arrived at Uganda’s Nyumanzi refugee settlement in January 2014, Athong, 25, has been splitting his time between competing in wrestling tournaments and running a phone-charging shop in Nyumanzi’s now-bustling marketplace.

As he stands in front of his new shop, Athong proudly tells us that he was a former wrestling champion of Jonglei State and remains unbeaten since his arrival in Uganda.

“I like wrestling because it makes you strong and helps us keep our culture”, he says, smiling. “When people living in different settlements wrestle, you learn things from them and they become colleagues”.

When UNHCR and its partners first set up Nyumanzi settlement, they searched for ways to educate young people to get along peacefully with neighbours and resolve differences amicably. One of the ways they identified to do this was by promoting indigenous cultural activities and events between the different communities and refugee settlements.

“Wresting is the leading sport in the Dinka community”, explains Jacob Achiele, an elected leader of Block E who also serves as wrestling chairman. “You come and know a person you’ve not met before and then you are no longer strangers. You become like one person. Otherwise you are strangers who face each other”.

The refugees have embraced the initiative wholeheartedly, organising their own tournaments, trainings and scouting sessions. Tournaments attract huge crowds, reminiscent of those held back in South Sudan, where people travel hundreds of kilometres just to watch. Today’s friendly tournament against Baratuku is one of these, and the participants expect a big crowd.

It is a two-hour walk from Nyumanzi to Baratuku settlement, even with shortcuts. Still, the wrestlers find the energy to run the last kilometre, singing, beating drums and causing enough noise to alert anyone who isn’t already aware of the upcoming tournament.

The tournament begins once the wrestlers from Baratuku arrive and after the traditional dancing and singing. Athong is up second. Nervously rubbing his hands, he takes his place.

The match is short, lasting only a couple of minutes, and ends with Athong being slammed to the ground. The crowd goes wild, appreciating such a dramatic victory.

Athong limps off gingerly, no longer a champion, but content to have lost to the better man.

As the sun sets over the surrounding grasslands, four more pairs step up in turn to try their luck – one win for Baratuku, one for Nyumanzi and two draws. After nearly an hour of entertainment, the six weary but happy Nyumanzi boys and their band of supporters start the long trek back home, excited to share the news they have picked up and discuss the new friends they have made.



[This article has been edited by the Operating Team]


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