In conversation with David Majok, Director YM-YWCA Ottawa

David Majok

David Majok

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you?

I was born in Wau, Western Bahr El Ghazal, South Sudan (formerly Sudan) and went to elementary and secondary school there. Growing up in South Sudan was special in many ways: first, there was a sense of community in everything we were exposed to; parents that provided us with best experiences in life; and comparably a good education. My childhood in that regard was simple but full of self-learning and adventure of hunting, gathering wild fruits and fishing, during the dry seasons (January to April). So, my drive to service is borne out of the sense of the community that was instilled in me from young age.

Was there any person or persons that influenced your childhood the most?

My parents were influential in my upbringing as well as the Catholic Church. My father is an educator and he emphasized the role of education in improving lives. As such, from my early years, I found books to be very inspiring and opened many doors or took me to places far and beyond. This desire for learning has helped me to learn about my surrounding as well as the world beyond. The Catholic Church inspired discipline in me. It gave me a sense of direction and understanding at an early age; the desire to help others, as well as conscious socially about issues. Though in a limited scope, it pushed me to learn and find answers to questions with an open mind.

What is your educational background?

My educational background consists of BA (Honors) in Political Science with Concentration in International Relations and minor in Law from Carleton University, as well as a graduate Diploma in Social Services Work from Algonquin College.

Could you describe your day job with the YMCA-YWCA?

I started working with the YMCA-YWCA ten years ago. During this time I assumed many position starting with frontline work as Employment Consultant, then Team Supervisor and currently Director. In my current capacity, I manage the Y Newcomer Information Centre. The Centre works as an information hub for newcomers to Canada to access information on everything related to settlement and integration. The Centre works with all the settlement agencies in Ottawa as a first stop shop to meet the needs of newcomers as a neutral ground. We provide needs assessment and referral services to newcomers based on their needs. The Centre also works as a meeting place for communities of immigrants and immigrant serving agencies. As such, my day at work involves making sure that services are offered to newcomers in an efficient way and in keeping with the vision and mission of the broader Y.

You are also involved as a sessional lecturer with the Centre for Intercultural Learning. Can you describe the centre’s mandate and the role you play?

As my background is in political Science with specific interest in South Sudan, I provide occasional independent consulting support (as a Subject Matter Expert) to the Centre for Intercultural Learnings through GrayBridge Malkam. As a Subject Matter Expert (SME), I provide country-specific orientation on cultural, political and social understanding of the host country to Canadians by their respective jurisdictions prior deployment to South Sudan. The aim of this training is to provide personnel with adequate and basic understanding of the interacting cultures to increase cultural empathy as well as competency.

You are one of a small group of diaspora South Sudanese working to bring needed aid and support to Africa’s newest nation. Can you describe your current initiative, your successes and challenges?

I am currently involved in two initiatives that are focused on immediate and long term prospects for our people. The first, which is more urgent, is the work to bring peace to our communities. And, the second deals with provision of maternal health services to mothers and their newborn in the North Central State of Warrap in South Sudan. These two issues are important and addressing them require increased effort not just from South Sudanese diaspora but other well-meaning friends of South Sudan, to assist in bridging the gap between where we are and tasks ahead.

Through Global Partnership for Peace in South Sudan, we are engaged as concerned South Sudanese in advocating for peace through training initiatives in the diaspora and at home to help our communities heal from the devastating effect of war currently obtaining.

The second initiative through Maternal Health Network, we are seeking to support local health services with medical and health supplies through donations and support from diaspora. This task is currently on hold due to the obtaining situation at home. The current war has made it difficult for us to assess the need in order to be able to develop adequate response given the fact that the need is very high.

You know, the legacy of civil war in Sudan has been very devastating. Over the two decades of the last civil war, over two million people died, either directly or indirectly because of lack of medical as well as other immediate services. This, coupled with lack of development has immensely increased the suffering of our people. There are places in South Sudan today that have limited or non-existent medical assistance and, if there are, they are generally provided by the international community. As such, our effort in the diaspora, currently at the beginning stage to support the development of basic services, is highly needed. And with the signing of the IGAD led, Compromise Peace Agreement of the conflict in South Sudan, we hope to ramp up our efforts to realize this endeavor.

Recent news from South Sudan speak of a new outbreak of civil war, with in-fighting between and among the various leaders who had hitherto been partners to the lead-up to independence. Can you clarify the situation for our readers? How did things deteriorate to this point, coming so soon after the celebration of your independence?

On December 15, 2013 war broke out in South Sudan as a result of political dispute within the SPLM (Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement), the ruling party in South Sudan, two years after independence. The genesis of the conflict is rooted in the political culture of the SPLM elites throughout the history of the liberation struggle. Since South Sudan gained its independence on July 9th 2011, the culture that was rooted in the movement did not change. Those at the top failed to realize the dreams and aspirations attached to the struggle for independence. State reform and nation building was ignored, while many within the ruling regime opted on enriching themselves instead of creating an equitable society based on the principles that the movement was founded. This and other intrinsically rooted problems fragmented society along ethnic lines. This spiraled out of control when the President Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar, who was sacked from the government began to struggle for control of the party—the SPLM. The president and the Chairman of the SPLM, having failed to reform the party and its institutions, began to receive credible challenge to his position as a party leader. This has pushed him and the contending groups within the party to the politics of brinkmanship around reform and leadership succession. This boiled over during the party’s National Liberation Council meeting, December 14th 2013, when the president invoked past events that lead to the split of the party, which led to the death of many, in 1991.

Here in Ottawa, you used to be united under the umbrella of the Sudanese Community Association. What is the current relationship between these two separate communities: Sudanese and South Sudanese?

These two communities exist independent of each other; however, both continue to connect in social gatherings and community events. Individual relationships continue to be strong amongst those who have lived in the north or south. There also strong familial relationships that are anchored in both countries. South Sudanese still see the historical relationship built over hundreds of years continue even with the political and social upheavals that spring up from time to time.

You are one of very few people within the black community who volunteer for the well-being of others. How would you explain why it is so difficult to get people to commit to volunteering, to give back, so that those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged can prosper? I am thinking of those who are well established in jobs or businesses, who can readily invest a few hours each week or month to mentor our youth, serve on not-for- profit organizations and so help our community move forward.

Volunteering is a noble cause, however, not everyone sees the benefit of giving back to one’s own community or a larger one. In our culture, volunteering in the concept associated with Canadian way of life is new to us. However, if you look at our cultural heritage, people do volunteer and contribute to the larger community. Their conception just takes a different meaning: helping a relative with childcare, organizing community events where families contribute with time and resources are the main avenues by which our community members volunteer. Taking the initiative to volunteer outside of the community is still a new phenomenon and it will take time.

On the other hand, I, personally see volunteering as a tool for networking. Getting to know new people is much an interest of mine. I started volunteering outside my community way before I came to Canada. It provided me with the opportunity to meet people. People that I will never have met, had I chose to do it within the confine of my community. Hence, my first real volunteer opportunity was as an assistant librarian at a small Community library. I was drawn to it due to my interest in reading. It gave me the chance to access books from different part of the world, on spirituality, politics and many more topics. In Canada, my first volunteer experience was in the cooperative housing sector. It helped me learn a great deal about housing issues and homelessness. It also gave me an appreciation of what Canada offers to those in the lower end of social structure to maintain an acceptable standard of living. As I moved on and continued to work in the social services field, the issue of access, not only for housing, but services became an area of interest to me. Thus, I volunteered (2012-2015) with Cultural Interpretation Services for Our Communities (CISOC) as a board member. This volunteer opportunity has provided me with a chance to see how governance at the social enterprise level works. This unique vantage point into the way newcomer access service in their own language, through cultural interpreters, has offered me hope that improving peoples’ lives and providing them with support to open closed doors for those who do not speak one or both official languages, is a true testament of our cultural mosaic. The experiences transform lives and allow individuals to articulate their concerns, needs and thoughts without second guessing their language abilities, when accessing vital services in health, social services or law.

Looking at Canada’s black population, there seems to be a divide between African and Caribbean communities on the one hand and Anglophone and francophone communities on the other. Do you agree with this perspective and if so what can be done to remedy this divide?

I agree with your assertion that there is a divide. However, I have not given it a much thought to really have an opinion informed by the realities of this divide. What I know and can speak to is this: culturally we are different. We may be, at times, galvanized to work on issues that bring us together, but these issues are time oriented and when that ends, everyone goes back to their places of comfort.

Over the years, have you seen any change in the status of the black population in Canada? Are we any better off now than say, ten or fifteen years ago?

Majority of blacks in Ottawa are still in the margin. However, individually, there are prominent blacks who are charting or trail blazing the terrain of entrenching or become part of the mainstream Canada. I think, with exposure, black Canadians will for sure have a much stronger connection to the Canadian identity—here I mean the recent immigrants.

There are some segments of our community which claim that black men do not respect black women and vice versa. They suggest that we tend to defer to other races when we interact with them, especially white Caucasians. Do you agree with this perspective?

This is a multifaceted question. I will answer based on my understanding of our community. In our community for example, the issue of cultural adaptation is a real challenge that may be at the root of this problem. But this also may not be true to every single case. With regard to our interaction with other cultures, I would think there is a process of immolation that goes on. I speak here from my own observation, which may not be full proof either that our interactions (within our communities) tend to take an emotional dimension but when in the general population we ascribe to reason as the main driver of interactions.

Looking at the Black population in Canada, what do you see as our greatest challenges and how do we resolve them? What are our strengths?

The greatest challenge for Black population in Canada is to understand or make sense of our identity and use it as a force for political representation. Here, I do not mean to take pejorative sense of representation, but using the cultural benefit that our cultures present and use them in a more organized way to benefit our people. Those who are new to this country, learn from those who are familiar with the workings of social and cultural integration. Because if the Black population in Canada are able to coalesce around social and cultural integration, political representation will follow. So, our strength is our identity.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

To the readers of Black Ottawa Scene, I would say, take a moment to find what interests you, find people and places that engage in this endeavor and be counted. This way, we will be able to, one by one, break the cycle of being outsiders in our own community.

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