The National Director of SOS Children in Sudan, Ali Mahdi is also a renowned actor and theatre director. Last month, he was honoured as the joint winner of the 2010 UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture for his work with child soldiers and refugees throughout Sudan.
The prize, awarded by the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), celebrates the development and promotion of Arab culture and honours individuals who contribute to conservation of Arab cultural heritage.
In 2004, Mr Mahdi founded the Al-Buqaa Theatre, which travels around conflict zones in Sudan staging plays based on traditional African stories. Their aim is to involve everyone, especially child soldiers and refugees in camps, and encourage them to work together peacefully. Mr Mahdi explains how the project started. “I used to see child soldiers hanging around the market looking for food, defiant, and consumed by violence: with every two words a fight could erupt. They would not talk nor met my eyes, no smile, no words.”
Mr Mahdi approached them and told them a different story every day for seven days. On the eighth day he asked them to take part in his theatre, “I told them it was their turn to do something and that they will act out the first story together, because theatre is group work. At first they refused, because they used to fight each other. The next day they came back and agreed. They rehearsed together and decided on roles, which was not easy.”
The Al-Buqaa Theatre builds bridges across communities, by offering participants a safe environment to communicate their emotions, be creative and retain traditions. Mr Mahdi explains “Theatre can help children to express their trauma and reflect about their inclusion and exclusion” he says. “In a conflict situation where many tribes, cultures and languages are present, singing to the same melody in different languages makes participants realise that everybody has something to offer.”
Mr Mahdi says that he is honoured to receive the award and believes that drama can play an important role in his country’s future “We firmly believe that the arts are one of the most powerful tools in facilitating reconciliation among all Sudanese to foster hope and understanding.”
Ali Mahdi and his theatre company will donate their prize money to a medical clinic in Darfur, which offers treatment and healing therapy through creative arts for women and children in the community.
SOS Children have been present in Sudan since 1978 and support thousands of refugees, child soldiers and families affected by the ongoing conflict.