January 14 – May 31, 2019
Lee McKenna's Journal: Sudan, November 2008, Entry 2
January 27, 2009 | bpfna
Lee McKenna's Journal
Sudan, November 2008
Light arrives to pick me up. We stop first at SONAD’s new offices; quite an improvement, larger, more space, not so down at heel. Randa is there, a ‘graduate’ of last year’s training.
The compound appears spiffed up; there are no string beds scattered around, no derelict vehicles; much of the mounds of rubbish has disappeared. The heavy desert drapes meant to keep out all things – light, dust, air… –have likewise disappeared and the fans spin quietly and efficiently.
When we arrive, there are Susan and Arig, Widad, Priscilla, Kodi, Ihlam (not Khairy), Sulafa, Mai, Yasmin and three who took the basic training. It is one thing to walk into a room of strangers and know with a certainty that, before too long, we will be friends, breaking down all the divides that separate us; it is another, of a different order, to walk into this room of ‘graduates’, the backbone of their own Sudanese Non-violence Forum, to know and love them already, to have heard already bits and pieces of their news over the years, their struggles for peace, their resistances, small and large. Though the work is all theirs, I cannot miss the sense rising in me of pride, the results of my midwifing.
We have small expectations of ourselves today as Light and I are both exhausted. For me, the energy, the enthusiasm going both ways, will carry me for awhile.
We begin with a review of the training, a few from 2005, some from 2006 and 2007. What do they remember? What are they putting into practice. Their favourite tools? the fishbowl, says Mai. Human Knot, says Widad. Big Wind Blows says Sulafa. What did you learn from these tools? The fishbowl helps us to understand the other. The human knot teaches us patience with a complex problem, co-operation, leadership, what to do with vulnerability, allows us to generalise to other experiences. With so many of the tools, we were energised, invigorated by the physical movement; we learned information about others without asking a direct question; we exposed ourselves to one another in ways that are safe; we had fun. The stranger cannot long remain the stranger, the enemy the enemy when we have just spent time laughing and having fun together. We dared to explore the dangerous territory of history, land, ways of life, culture, religion and tribe, all of those things that divide us and make us uncomprehending xenophobes and warriors towards the other. We came to understand the economic roots of the violences around us – that get layered over with ‘easier’ rationales that our history and tribes have woven into the fibre of our respective beings.
In triads, they share stories of what they have done, how they have used the training they got, how they have multiplied the experience to touch hundreds, even thousands of lives over the last four years. Each group chooses one story to share. Arig tells about her work that takes her to health stations in the informal settlements and camps, where she dispenses both medicine and training in non-violence to people who seem to be either war-weary or aching for revenge. Randa tells of a protest she helped to organise in these months leading up to next year’s national elections. It took place recently outside of the parliament building in downtown Khartoum. Although the constitution guarantees 25% representation of women in the legislative assembly, the ideal outstrips the reality by a wide margin. Adding insult to injury, election laws require a separate list for women. Though I am not completely clear about the list and its oppressive role, the enthusiasm for the protest is clear.
They remember what we talked about with respect to rules: to question them whenever they encounter the all-too-usual ‘but we don’t do it that way; it’s against the rules’ – whether in church or mosque or the street or school, the marketplace or the kitchen – to ask: who wrote the rules? who benefits from the rules? if only a select few, only one gender, one race, one class, one tribe, one village or region and not another – then maybe this is a rule that needs to be questioned, changed, broken.
Priscilla tells of being invited, she and Gloria, to make a presentation to a church meeting on the topic of non-violence and peacemaking. The chair of the committee who invited them, interrupted them at one point, clearly unhappy with what they were saying. She said to them: ‘You are still young; you have a lot to learn. You will find out. Come back when you are older, when you understand more about life and its necessities (for violence).’ But Gloria and Priscilla did not just get up and leave as they were told. They talked about the twelve year-old Jesus in the temple; that, even though his words were provocative, they had wisdom that the elders recognised as such and they gave him a space to talk. ‘You must treat us as the elders treated Jesus,’ Priscilla said. ‘You cannot dismiss us because you say we are too young.’ The meeting erupted in rambunctious discussion – the result an invitation to continue.
Mai lives in El Fashur, the capital of northern Darfur. She tells a story of the recent census. As she speaks, I am reminded of the census that took Jesus’ family to Nazareth and the oppressive agenda of the powers in that census. The powers in the town named a group of four women, of which Mai was one, to carry out the census in the IDP camp on the western edges of El Fashur. Driven from their homes over the years by alternating waves of violence at the hands of the Sudanese military and air force, the government’s out-sourced violence, the janjawiid, and the responding violence of the rebel movements – the people were suspicious. They were certain that the census was for one purpose only: to count the numbers of boys still remaining in the camp, ripe for recruitment. They called a community meeting to discuss their concerns and fears with the census-takers. The people were afraid of the police who were to ‘guard’ the census-takers; they are, after all, the same men who, with a group of soldiers, killed their children. ‘We’ll let you count us,’ they agreed, as long as the police do not enter our houses!’ The community leaders agreed to a compromise: the armed men could accompany the women into the market place, but they had to stay out of their houses; the questions would not be asked and answered in the presence of the police.
Still, more than two million Darfurians, North, South and West, remain uncounted, invisible, absent from the voters’ rolls.
Ilham tells of a protest that related to a funeral and a group of women mourners. A group of soldiers closed the streets to them and would not let the cortège pass. They heckled and threatened the women: ‘What are you doing out here in the streets? You are women! why are you not home where you belong? The women replied: ‘Because we also must be about or work and in society, just like you!’
Sulafa, who volunteers with SONAD and works with an organisation called Students for a Safe Education and carries out training and workshops in villages in the east on the topic of reproductive health and female genital mutilation (FGM) – in a part of Sudan where rates of FGM are as high as 95% of the female population over the age of 15. A young girl was to have her ‘operation’ – an activity that is not treated as a hidden, shameful thing, but an important rite of passage that ensures a family’s honour. A group of women and students quickly planned and carried out a protest in the street outside the house of the practitioner. They carried signs and handed out leaflets to the passing villagers. Though I miss some details in the translation, the eventual result of their work was a remarkable abandonment of the practice in the village.
Widad told of an eleven year-old girl, part of a nomadic family from Saudi Arabia, who, in the course of her duty watching the flock, lost four sheep. Her father was enraged, telling her, if you do not find those sheep, I will kill you! The sheep were not found. The father threw the daughter into a dry well where she languished, but, mysteriously, did not die, for more than 40 days. The well was infested with snakes and insects. A man in a white jalabiya passed by a day or two after she had been placed there by her father. Not wanting to challenge the local customs, but not willing to ignore the plight of the little girl, whose weakening cries – help me; please help me! – first drew his attention, he stopped to investigate. Every day as he passed by the dry well, he would lower down to her a skin of milk mixed with salt. He continued to do this, while passing rumours in the village that the girl continued to live despite her deprivations in the dry well; that she must be accompanied by Allah. Widad and her friends gathered to talk about the situation and to invite others to be part of the conversation. Gathered on little plastic string stools in outdoor kitchens while the men played board games and drank tea in the commons, they discussed the rules about women and girls and the unchallenged rights of men to do with them as they please. The little girl was eventually rescued from the hole and is now in hospital being treated for injuries to her legs. The father, Widad says, has changed his mind; tells his neighbours that he regrets his actions.
Kodi tells a different kind of story. He tells of a man who ran a hotel in Rwanda, who gave shelter during the months of the massacre to women and children, whether Tutsi or Hutu. (I think he’ s seen a movie lately…)
Once again, they go into small groups to talk about themselves, how they have changed, how their families and friends have responded to their work to build peace in Sudan. They role play out the results of their story-telling.
Rafaat’s extended family live in a neighbourhood that are mostly Nubians like them – except for a family of Christian southerners who live next door. Back home, near Dongola, three young southerners killed a cousin of Rafaat and, on hearing the news, his family wanted to exact revenge on the neighbours. His family wanted to set fire to their house as payment for the death of their cousin. But Rafaat confronted his male cousins and said to them, ‘If you do this, I will call the police.’ They called him a coward, but backed down from their plan – later telling Rafaat that they were glad that he stopped them, that it was the right thing to do, realising both the good of their neighbours and the wrong of collective guilt and punishment.
In the role plays, Kodi and Priscilla play out an abusive domestic relationship – Kodi playing the wife and Priscilla the husband. We see Kodi on his knees cleaning and scrubbing, cooking, tidying; the husband returns, swaggering into the house and asking her what she had been doing with her time, where was dinner, how useless she was and that, if she did not change her ways, he would beat her again. Unbeknownst to the other, they each receive an invitation to attend a local workshop put on by SONAD and the Forum on non-violence. They each show up at the workshop, having sneaked out of the house to do so. They are shocked to see one another there, and make as if to leave. The trainers urge them to stay. While ostensibly focussed on problems out there and playing them out in ways that bring them to the outer edges of their primordial shaping as men and women, the couple confront their violence and their victimisation. Changed agents of change. A true story, happy ending…
In another drama, a daughter comes home, sits with her father and tells him that she has been recruited by SONAD to do training in non-violence and she would like to attend the training of trainers. Her father explodes with anger: They are Christians and southerners! some of them are Moros, she tells her father, southern, but Moro. Nevertheless, he says, you will bring dishonour on our household if you throw your lot in with this group; I will kill you if you continue this craziness. ‘What if I,’ the daughter pressed on, ‘bring someone from SONAD here for you to meet.’ In the next ‘scene’, a SONAD volunteer comes to visit and s/he manages over many hours of conversation to convince the father that something good may come out of the South and of SONAD.
Yasmin and Ghada’s groups have not got to the design of a role play, but each of them tell stories that have come out of their group discussion. Both of them are about sexism in SONAD and the demands of the women volunteers to include women in key decision-making roles in the organisation. Light has left; Rafaat is translating for me; there doesn’t appear to be much discomfort or anxiety in the room; only an insistence that the organisation that has empowered them, empower itself, do as they say.
I show them the poster of the sheep. ‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ the caption says, giving voice to the lone sheep travelling in a direction opposite to the thousands that are slowly, but surely, thronging their way to the edge of a cliff – and over. It’s hard to do this work when you feel that you are alone, going against the tide of custom, story, law and practice, to find another way. The weight of the majority movement remains in the direction of violence as a tool for solving problems of land, water, wealth distribution, tribal and religious difference. Yet what is the result? More violence; destruction in the end. Violence begets violence; means and ends must be coherent. But it is hard. How might this picture be changed? Multiply the solitary sheep, build a movement for change that turns back the phalanx of sheep marching to oblivion. Not just the support of individuals doing good work, but of an entire movement.
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