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Speaking out for freedom

October 19, 2012

As a young boy in South Sudan, Mading Ngor witnessed a massacre that wiped out his village. More than two decades later, he still remembers the sights, the sounds and the smells.  

“I saw dead people and cows lying everywhere,” recalls Ngor, a 2010 graduate of the BA in Professional Communication program and the winner of the fall 2012 Alumni Excellence Award. “Thousands died in that conflict. It’s a story that’s sadly unknown to the rest of the world. Impunity must not happen in silence and seclusion. I want to be an honest witness to history, someone who tells it like it is, whether good or bad.”

Today, Ngor is doing just that. Last year, he returned to South Sudan, just before the world’s newest nation officially split from Sudan, to work as a journalist. Ngor is the host of a hard-hitting radio show, Wake Up Juba!, and writes for Reuters, the Huffington Post and New Sudan Vision, a website he established while living in Canada. In July, Reuters wrote that Ngor is “about as big as journalists get” in the country.

Ngor says it was a simple decision to leave the comforts of Canada and move back to his homeland.

“I think about my relatives who paid the ultimate sacrifice to liberate South Sudan from the yoke of oppression,” Ngor says. “I think about my uncle who picked up his AK-47 and never came back home. I think about my dad who was struck down by a bullet by a neighbouring tribe, as he went about living his life. I think about the life I spent as a young boy darting bullets in the jungles of South Sudan to escape a massacre. I think about all these horrifying events and I say the future must be different. Life must be better. I must work harder.”    

Ngor was living in a Kenyan refugee camp with his mother when he received a visa to Canada. He went to high school in New Westminster, B.C., before studying journalism at Grant MacEwan University and getting his BA at Royal Roads. Before returning to South Sudan, Ngor worked as a journalist in Canada, contributing to Metro, the Calgary Herald and Unlimited Magazine, often sharing stories of his homeland with Canadian readers. Money he earned was sent home to help support his mom and siblings.

“Mading was an excellent student,” recalls Sarah Wethered, a teacher-librarian at New Westminster, who taught Mading ESL a decade ago. “He told me on the first day of class that he wanted to one day return to his homeland of Sudan and change the world, and I truly believed that he would do so. Mading has become a leader and role model to the other Sudanese students at our school.”

“If I was a product, I’d probably have a tag somewhere that read ‘Made in Canada,’” Ngor says. “As a journalist, I live my education. Some people sometimes remind me that I have a Western mentality because I’m unafraid to exercise freedom of speech as I learned it, keeping in mind that it comes with responsibility. There are those who believe that as South Sudan had just emerged as a country, journalists should ‘play safe’ by not speaking out about government mismanagement, corruption or all the ills that we’re witnessing in the society today. I disagree. I think it’s quintessentially Canadian to be independent, to be different, not deficient.”

Ngor’s outlook has already got him in trouble with authorities a few times. In February, he was thrown out of parliament and roughed up by four security guards who pinned him to the ground and dragged him across the floor, ripping his pants in the process. Ngor’s case received international attention, but he says harassment of journalists is a common occurrence. Media legislation has long been absent though Ngor says it may be enacted into law soon.

“Whenever he shows up officials get nervous because they cannot make up facts,” says Reuters correspondent Ulf Laessing. “One senior lawmaker told me once that Mading Ngor was the biggest troublemaker in town, a real compliment for a reporter. His radio show is the most relevant in South Sudan. Even his enemies in the government often accept his interview requests because everybody is tuning into Wake Up Juba! One just has to listen to it.”

Indeed, Ngor’s stellar list of guests on his show includes ministers, members of parliament, economists and social commentators. Laessing adds that Ngor’s personal sacrifices further distinguish him. His small radio station has no technical staff, so Ngor often works until after midnight to prepare his morning show and then sleeps on the floor. Going home at that hour would be too dangerous as street crime is on the rise. 

James Copnall, a BBC correspondent in Sudan and South Sudan, says Ngor is one of the finest journalists in South Sudan and should be a key part of the media in his country for many years to come. Copnall describes Wake Up Juba! as required listening for those interested in current affairs in South Sudan.

“Mr. Ngor probes, cajoles, and asks the tough questions many others are afraid to do,” Copnall says. “He is also an engaging radio personality, whose shout of ‘Wake up Juba’ has become familiar all over town. Mr. Ngor even persuades politicians, including the former vice-president of Sudan, Joseph Lagu, to copy his signature call.”

Copnall observes that although Ngor is patriotic like many South Sudanese, he has an unswerving commitment to getting to the truth. For example, when South Sudan shut down its oil production as part of a row with Sudan, Ngor produced a program examining the economic consequences at a time when popular feeling was behind the shutdown and politicians were praising it.

“It seems to me his loyalty is to the truth, and to the people, rather than to those in power. This is in the very best traditions of journalism,” Copnall says. “In a short space of time he has become a fixture on the South Sudanese media scene, and he has the courage, integrity and journalistic skill to get to the truth more than any journalist I know in South Sudan.”

School of Communication and Culture Prof. David Black says Ngor’s commitment to sharing the story of South Sudan is deep, daring and inspiring. 

“As educators, we want RRU students to be worldly individuals,” says Black, who taught Ngor. “But a few, like Mading, go further, and become actors in history. They become people not just reading newspapers, but writing for them; not just studying radio, but hosting a must-listen morning radio show in his nation’s capital; not just appreciating the importance of democratic institutions and civic culture, but helping to construct them in a region of the world that’s known little but conflict and hatred for two generations.”

“It’s a sacrifice worth taking, is how I convince myself about the hazards attached to my career,” Ngor says. “For me to be a journalist in South Sudan today means reminding the society of what it fought for, what it fought against, learning from the woeful mistakes of the past, avoiding them and translating all that into dividends for the ordinary folks who have always been on the merciless end of our cruel history.”