It’s hard to imagine what it’s like for a young girl from a poor village in South Sudan to arrive in Oslo, a completely foreign shore, countless miles away from home. She would spend the next nine months here on a Peace Corps exchange programme. For Jackie Bage, it was an experience that was to change her whole life.

- When I came to Norway, I was a girl who was afraid to speak in groups. I couldn’t look other people in the eye; that’s how I was brought up, says Jackie now. 

But a great deal changed during her stay in Norway. She was on an exchange through KFUK-KFUM Global and got a placement with the KFUK-KFUM Guides & Scouts. After the Peace Corps exchange, she travelled back to South Sudan where she worked for female education rights, equality, and women’s participation in the peace talks taking place in the country. Jackie works for the Young Women’s Christian Assosiation (YWCA), or KFUK, as it is known in Norway. She knows that her stay in Norway gave her the ballast that prepared her for what awaited her there.

- I met so many challenges when I came to Norway. I was assigned the task of holding presentations and courses, I had to learn how to manage on my own. To do that, I had to completely change my attitude; I had to lift my gaze and learn to stand in front of a group.

Seeing the world through fresh eyes

Slowly but surely, she gained the confidence to do it. She says that the support she received from her supervisor at KFUK/KFUM in Norway was important.

But it was far from easy. New country, new language, new climate. Everything was new and strange when she came to Norway. It took time to adapt. But the opportunity to leave her country and see everything from an outside perspective was an important experience.

- Jackie was a determined young woman. She immediately took on board the challenges we set her, but later she told us how overwhelming it had been”, says Solveig Øiestad, who was Jackie’s supervisor.

For example, just being given an address and a map and told to get herself a visa at the British Embassy in Oslo. Or taking the tram for the first time. Or the time she was sent to London to hold a course. She had never stood on an escalator before and, after all, the London Underground scares the life out of most people. Or to have skates put on your feet and be sent out onto a skating rink when you have never seen snow before. Jackie couldn’t understand why in the world Norwegians did such things.

- I remember well how Jackie told me that it was in Norway that she learned how to say ‘no’, says supervisor Solveig.

That saying no was permissible when she didn’t want to do something, even when it was an older person who was asking, even when it was a man. It’s all about everything from saying no to the little things in life, like a work group, to the really big things, like who you’re going to marry. 

- I learned to manage myself, to motivate myself, in difficult and unfamiliar circumstances too. The exchange has made me who I am today - it was the start of lots of big challenges for me, says Jackie.

South Sudan’s war

Many may perhaps think that coming to a peaceful country like Norway would be easy compared to living in a poor country scarred by years of conflict, violence and poverty. South Sudan is the youngest country in the world – it was declared independent in 2011. But the run-up to South Sudan’s independence was filled with protracted war and bloody conflicts. Conflicts reigned between ethnic groups – not just between the countries but within South Sudan too. South Sudan is the country that is ranked last in the UN’s survey on living conditions and in all the indices that measure conditions for women. Freedom of expression is severely limited. 

Jackie grew up with this and this is the reality she works in now. But resistance can also be a good thing.

-The good thing about working in demanding conditions is that it’s easier to understand what must be done. There’s so much still to do, it allows a lot of space for new thoughts and ideas. And, not least, the feeling that we can play a part in influencing the country’s future.

The most difficult thing is remaining motivated when so often everything they want to achieve feels completely impossible.

- Especially when it comes to the work we do to change how men see women, she says.

Global politicians who listen

A girl from a poor village, Jackie never thought she would end up with both a bachelor’s degree and the opportunity to travel the world telling top politicians about how women in South Sudan lack rights. In 2014, she was invited to participate in the peace talks in Ethiopia. There she met Børge Brende, then Norway’s foreign minister. She took the floor in front of all the top politicians and argued for why women must be allowed to take part in South Sudan’s peace process. There have been several more trips and many more meetings with top politicians since then. She has also met Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

Jackie meeting Børge Brende during the South Sudan peace talks in Etiopia, 2014

Today, Jackie has primary responsibility for all the YWCA’s programmes in South Sudan. She underwent management training while she was in Norway. The projects Jackie heads up are financed by Norwegian aid funds. 

Jackie believes many young South Sudanese are optimistic and have faith that things are changing.

- I often think about something Nelson Mandela said; that the beginning of the end is the day we stop talking about the things that are important to us. That’s why I talk and talk about the situation for women.

Fighting for the girls

Jackie is preoccupied with the situation for girls and women in South Sudan. Women are still viewed as the property of men and they are rarely included in important decisions about their own or their country’s future. Personally, Jackie believes the education she has received has been the key to identifying what is required in order to bring about change in the country. 

- Where would you be today without the education you received?

- I would’ve been locked into village life, married with lots of children. I wouldn’t have known about the things that are happening in the world around me. So that means I wouldn’t have been able to contribute to any positive changes in my country, says Jackie.

She knows she would never have become a spokeswoman for female education because she would not have understood its importance.

- I would have looked at the life I led as completely normal and wouldn’t have tried to do anything to change it.

Jackie says that instead of becoming a housewife she has become a role model both to her sisters and other girls in the village. 

- I am the only one in the family with a bachelor’s degree. The neighbours send their daughters to me and see me as an inspiration.

She says she likes to be seen as a role model. But she would have preferred more role models to exist. Then girls would have to get an education. Through the YWCA, she has started the “Girl Talk” project, where young women can meet to discuss education, careers, and difficult issues such as how they are being treated at home. She even spends a proportion of her wages on ensuring that girls from the village get an education.

- I dream about heading UN Women in Africa. That’s my goal now, says Jackie.

South Sudan’s new generation

The women raise their voices

One person can make an enormous difference; Modi refused to be treated like a slave. She escaped. Two decades later she is the head of South Sudan’s largest women’s organisation. 

Modi Enosa MbarazaThe YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), KFUK in Norwegian, is the world’s largest women’s organisation with over 25 million members in over 110 countries. 

Jackie is far from the only YWCA employee in South Sudan to have taken part in a Peace Corps exchange programme. 

- Many of the most central figures in the organisation have been on exchange. The things they have learned and seen have made them key figures in the work of winning rights for girls and women in South Sudan, says Enosa Mbaraza, general secretary of the YWCA in South Sudan.

Modi says that they leave and come home with new ideas. Some travel to Norway, but even more go to other countries on the African Continent, on what are called “South-South” exchanges. She believes that without them the organisation would not have been as successful as it has been. These young women have had a huge influence on the small villages they come from. They themselves embody the fact that women are so much
more than mothers and housewives. Many of them, like Jackie, come from extremely primitive rural
backgrounds. Nevertheless, they have made it thus far. 

From refugee to general secretary

Modi’s story is a remarkable one. She lived in poverty, her mother died when she was 16, and soon afterwards she had to get married. Just one year later she had to flee to the Congo because of the war. Her in-laws treated her poorly and, now that she was separated from her family, there was no-one left to defend her. She talks of how she worked like a slave and was constantly told that her only job was to give birth to children. In the end, she escaped through the jungle – an arduous journey – and finally made it back to South Sudan.

- But back in my country I discovered that the women were being treated even worse that I myself had been. 13-year-old girls were raped and forcibly married. Children were giving birth to children. I decided that I had to do something. 

Just 19 years old, she went to the local priest and said that she wanted to start a women’s group. And the priest supported her.

- We gathered some women together, we had nothing, but we decided to take on small jobs here and there. We would often work for salt and soap, we took what we needed and sold the rest. We put the money into a common fund that we could withdraw from if the children got sick. That’s how we helped one another, says Modi. 

The meal that changed everything

One day, 25 local women were given a cleaning and catering job; a group of foreigners were visiting the country. One of the international guests was a Norwegian priest. Modi could speak English and got talking to the priest while she waitressed at the dinner. She mentioned the women’s group and the priest asked if she had ever heard of KFUK. Modi had not. So the priest gave Modi his business card and asked her to write – would the women’s group like to join KFUK’s network?

But it was to be several years before Modi would see a computer for the first time.

- I remember being told what email was. It sounded completely incredible to me; can I really sit here and send a text and someone in another part of the world will receive it? I couldn’t believe it, says Modi and laughs. 

Then she remembered the Norwegian priest’s business card. She wrote to KFUK/KFUM in Norway and the rest is history. Modi’s little women’s group has now become the local KFUK chapter in South Sudan.

- I’m not just proud, but extremely proud of all the young women who work here and all the girls who join. Every day more women join. When we first started, women in South Sudan had nowhere they could express themselves. My goal is to see women take responsibility, that’s why I delegate many important tasks to those who work here. That’s how they grow and that’s what I want, I want to see them blossom.

Photo: Camilla Ransborg Aschjem and Liz Palm