The Mattress Game is serious situational analysis – though sometimes it looks like riotous fun. It is an extended role play, so essential to experiential learning, in which the participants in the training identify those traditions, institutions and bodies, both governmental and civil society, that serve to support oppressive power. The answers are the same, wherever. Corporate/economic, military/security, religious, cultural rules and norms, the media, judiciary, education.
But this is not Khartoum or Dongola or Al-Fashur. This is Juba, capital of the new South Sudan. So a prior question is begged: does the government of this new country, shrunken by the loss of 2.5 million of its citizens in 21 years of civil war, held under the boot of one of the world most brutal régimes – in this new dispensation as the UN’s 193rd state member, make use of the instruments of oppressive power? Yes; there is no hesitation. We don’t go into the when? at what point did the SPLM government led by Salva Kiir Mayardit turn to take up the tools of the oppressor: sometime in its 120 days of existence? or sometime in the six and a half years since the CPA granted the South limited autonomy and the right to form its own parliament? Or is the government an organic outgrowth of a culture of tribalism, nepotism and repression and a history of violence? That conversation doesn’t take place. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
Of the list of ‘pillars’ emerging from the brainstorming session, four are chosen for further probing: education, judiciary, military and religion. Representatives of each of those institutions are selected and they decamp to the sandy compound. Tucked around the corner, out of sight of the remaining participants, is a mattress, reclining harmlessly against the wall of the kitchen, but soon to rise on the shoulders of the pillars as the symbol of oppressive power.
While the four discuss the contours of oppression for each supporting pillar – education is only for those who can pay, despite a constitution that says otherwise, and, even then, used to instil conformity, not critical thought; the judiciary dishes out justice for some, injustice for others; the military, steeped in decades of guerrilla warfare, has turned young South Sudanese men into thugs with guns, given to undifferentiated violence and thievery, unable to rein in the results of trauma; religious leaders bent to the interests of their respective ‘tribes’, are more interested in positioning themselves for influence than the peace they all claim to be about – the dozen or so who remain in the training room are discussing tactics specific to each. What are the points of vulnerability to change and transformation in each? Of Gene Sharp’s 198 methods used so effectively in places like Serbia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Egypt and Tunisia, which ones, in combination, will open up the possibility of – not bringing down the pillar but – transforming it?
The extended role play begins with the four pillars carrying the symbol of oppressive power into the training room to the accompaniment of drumming. The activists surround their respectively targeted pillar and the four actions begin, simultaneously, all at once, with a mixture of fierce determination, their letters, pickets, tactics all ready for implementation – and hilarity. The Ministry of Education is the first to succumb after ‘weeks’ of concerted protest, persuasion, non-co-operation and intervention. The judiciary is the last, alone supporting oppressive power, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the corrupt practices that favour the élites and punish the poor. As other pillars ‘fall’, the protesters, their ranks swollen by defections from oppressive power, gather to focus all of their efforts on the judiciary.
As this game plays out, I am struck once more that the profile of these institutions and organisations, their hearts, minds and means bent to the service of oppressive power, is different perhaps only in degree from that which is on display in my country: does the judicial system in my country not favour the interests of the 1%? do politicians in my country not serve the interests of economic/corporate power before (if at all) the interests of those living in poverty, without healthy food to eat, struggling with addictions, mental illness, cockroach-infested housing or no housing at all? Are the media in my country not giving column inches and air time to little else but a repetition of the corporate-friendly line, drowning us in drivel or driving us into the sophomoric ground inhabited by the likes of Kevin O’Leary, Don Cherry and the denizens of the Dragon’s Den? Has the Canadian military not abandoned its tradition of peace-keeping, now lost in my country’s desire to play with the big boys, deploy a more ‘muscular’ diplomacy, to ‘punch above our weight’ and all those other silly metaphors of the schoolyard bully? Have the military and corrections budgets not expanded massively in fear’s permissive, money-making environment? Has education not capitulated to prioritising the creation of drones and cogs over the critical thinking that is at the heart of democracy? Has the church not been thoroughly domesticated, rarely courting crucifixion, peace of mind having largely replaced the radical, social, political, economic peace event of Jesus?
The unpacking that follows continues to combine the sobriety of analysis – of both the contours of the problem and the risks entailed in the tactics deployed – with the thrill of a kind of success that fires their imaginations. Days later the participants will make pledges to one another to move the play to the streets, the broadsheets, the kitchen, the commons. An employee from the President’s office undertakes to do a training in non-violence with the staff; the police officer presents her plans to work to transform a police force all too often identified as oppressor rather than protector. Others promise protests, campaigns, and investigation into the issue of bride price; for others, it is enough to consider a new way of being in the world, modelling, in a culture of revenge and cycles of violence, forgiveness and reconciliation.