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BPFNA in the Sudan
November 2008

Transforming conflict. Training people in countries around the world in ways to non-violently respond to the conflicts that confront them every day.

For over 20 years the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America has been working for peace through conflict transformation trainings. This work continues this month with BPFNA sponsoring Lee McKenna’s return to the Sudan for a fourth training there held in conjunction with the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation (SweFOR) and Sudanese partner organisation, SONAD (Sudanese Organisation for Non-violence and Development).

We ask for your prayers for Lee, Patrick Gruczkun of SweFOR, and Ilham, a Sudanese Muslim woman, and Phillip, a Sudanese Christian man, who will act as co-facilitators and translators.

Continue to read more from Lee McKenna....

The harvest was small but has greatly multiplied

In August of 2007, the ‘graduates’ of the 2006 training formed the Sudanese Non-violence Forum, and invited the 2005 graduates, all Christians, to join them. Following the 2007 training in October-November, their ranks swelled once more. Though they are still a small group of perhaps 40 people, from all parts of Sudan – Christians and Muslims, Nubians, Nuer, Dinka, Bor, Furians, Zaghawa, Baggara and Beja – they have in less than two years exponentially multiplied their own learnings, training more than a thousand people, including parliamentarians of the new Government of South Sudan, village and IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp health promoters (on gendered violence, custom and practices, including female genital mutilation), members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, itinerant teachers, their families and communities.

They have planned and implemented demonstrations, published posters, pamphlets and articles, both print and online; they are changing and challenging ancient customs, practices and beliefs. Both Christians and Muslims turn to their respective holy texts with a different eye and heart, searching for those elements of their faith, belief and tradition that drive violence or make for peace.

We have a unique opportunity to make a difference in Sudan – but the work needs to be multiplied many times over if future governmental peace agreements are ever to have the chance to be laid on the foundation of a people yearning and working for peace.

What the training will encompass
In a few words, it is non-violence training; it is what I think has become a peculiar mix of Anabaptist conflict transformation, Training for Change and those elements that have been woven in out of my own experiences, especially, third-party non-violent intervention, gender and violence and economic literacy. It has always been about self-awareness and other-awareness, coming to an understanding of our own interests and motivations, of those things in our selves and in our environment, culture, history, faith, tradition, text and practice that drive violence, that make for peace. In this methodology and in these stories, there is nothing that is not up for interrogation.

The covenant that enables an utterly astounding level of trust and willingness for mutual vulnerability and intimacy is grounded in everyone’s commitment to be a peacemaker, to find another path – and to do so in the company of the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’. Throughout our time together, all are invited to bring their faith into dialogue with what we are doing and talking about. Often, faith is explicitly part of what we are doing, sometimes in a kind of remarkable show-&-tell, in which Muslims and Christians have an unparallelled opportunity to explain their faith to those of the other faith and tradition. We raise critical questions about our assumptions that our text, tradition and practice provide unadulterated tools for peacemaking. Perhaps one of the most important things we do is a kind of mutual confession: that what we have most in common as Christians and Muslims is the gap between our theory and our praxis, what we think and hope we are and can be as far as peacemaking goes and how our respective stories are actually played out in our own lives, those of our co-religionists and of our leaders and history-shapers.

The 14 days of training are divided into three parts: Introductory, Digging Deeper and Training of Trainers. Fourteen days really needs to be much longer – but that is what we have. As it is, the Sudanese participants take remarkable risks and make remarkable commitments to be there. The learning is experiential, elicitive, ‘popular’; the methodology assumes that all are learners, all are teachers. It assumes that the role of the trainer is to midwife what is already present, if nascent, in the room, within and amongst the participants. It relieves me of being the ‘expert’ – though I do make a point of doing substantial research on Sudanese history, the roots – economic, social, cultural, political – of violence in each region, the heroes and important figures of Sudan’s past and present, as well as, with each year, improving and enlarging my Arabic vocabulary and my understanding and familiarity with Islam, the Qur’an and the Hadith (stories of the life of Mohammed).

The Sudan
Everyone’s heard of Sudan. The news of its suffering is rarely absent from our headlines. General Roméo Dallaire calls it Rwanda-in-slow-motion. It can only be spoken of in superlatives, it would seem: the greatest number of internally-displaced persons in the world; the longest running civil conflict – some would mark its beginning in 1955, with independence and the filling of post-colonial vacuums with internecine violence; the largest country in Africa uniquely bordered by no fewer than eight, also troubled, countries.

All sorts of solutions have been tried, most of them armed and mandated for violence or counter-violence, but the results have usually been greater fracturing within opposition movements and higher death tolls amongst the civilian population caught in the vice grip of nomadics vs tillers, Arab vs ‘African’, religion vs religion, co-religionists against one another, central power against the peripheries. Stirring up the pot of violence, Khartoum pits Sudanese against Sudanese, privileging some, brutally extracting the country’s wealth for the benefit of Khartoum’s chosen élites and willing foreign partners, arming militia to displace, depopulate and divide up ancient tribal land, accepting oil and gold royalties from foreign, mostly Chinese, interests, using the funds to purchase Russian tanks, planes and arms and European expertise to build infrastructural monuments for the benefit of the very few.

People – Sudan’s neighbours, the United Nations, concerned citizens of the planet, Sudanese most of all – want quick solutions: peace agreements that divide up this and that, hand over this, cede that, promise this, promise that – with timelines that vainly hope for order and return and ‘peace’ by the middle of next year. But real peacemaking, peacebuilding takes time; it needs time to unravel the story of how we got here, to search amongst the texts of history, traditions and practices of culture, religion, civics and courts for those elements that drive violence – and make for peace; to sift and sort them out, to lift those elements up and out as problems or solutions and begin to build something new, from kitchens to commons, from mosques and churches to courts and legislatures, from wadis to the streets of the capitals.

Though I have gone looking and researching for projects in Sudan (and far beyond) just like this one, there aren’t any. Some, no doubt, bring together Christians and Muslims, northerners and southerners, and create a space for a kind of dialogue that breaks new ground of understanding. But there is none that takes this novel and provocative method of building foundations for peace – and stretch to embrace all the conflict zones of Sudan, including Darfur.

I have never, in years of doing this kind of training, seen such a ‘harvest’ of people for whom this training takes their life in entirely new directions; it changes them forever. They are, within days, out there, putting what they have learned into practice, finding previously untapped power for peaceful, lasting change in a toolbox they didn’t realise was theirs all along.

They are at this moment attempting risky things, provocative things, training others, challenging those ancient elements of culture, faith and tradition, as well as the unexamined détritus of colonialism. Mothers are going home to raise their sons differently, challenging a warrior culture that pits men and against men. Warriors are setting aside their fighting sticks as icons of a past era. Fathers are finding means and methods, words and actions, that challenge their culture’s depreciation of women, their bodies, their minds, their spirits; some will do the previously unthinkable, run the risk of being seen as nothing. Price rises in transportation, IDP camp demolitions, massive displacements, military misconduct, dissident detentions, media silence in the face of human rights violations, the use of rape as a weapon of war, military bombardment, Khartoum’s creation and arming of marauding militias, habitat destruction, are being challenged by the graduates of three ‘classes’ in non-violent reflection and action for change. Some have experienced arrest, even torture, for their actions: What of us? What have we done beyond joining the bystanders in yet another human disaster of genocidal proportions?

The stories
There are so many stories to tell, stories of metamorphosis and hope in the midst of a crushing anti-future of violence and despair. Here are two.

Tahani is a Darfurian. She is 21 years old and she lives with her family in an IDP camp west of Nyala, the capital of south Darfur. I am not sure how she got here, she and the other Darfurians who form a minority of this group of twenty Sudanese from all parts of the country. It’s a five-day train ride to get here from there, the rail cutting through the territories of the janjawid.

It is close to the end of day; the angle of the sun through the compound windows lengthens, adding heat to the mud-floored room. Martin strolls into the midst of the circle juggling two balls and an orange. The participants giggle as Martin puts on a little show. Lee appears on the edge of the circle, an empty water bottle in her hand. She tosses it, having emptied its last drops. She spies the juggler and begins to circle, half-crouched, watching him intently, her eye on the orange.

‘Hi!’ she ventures. Martin responds without moving his gaze from his juggling task. ‘Whatcha got planned for that orange?’ she asks. ‘Nothing,’ he responds. Nothing? Nothing. ‘Do you mind if I have it then?’ ‘Yes, I do,’ he says emphatically. ‘ I need it.’ ‘For what?’ she asks. ‘For juggling; can’t you see that!?’ ‘But I’m thirsty,’ she says, \and that orange would be just the ticket.’ ‘Sorry,’ he says; ‘I need it.’

She moves as if to leave, then dashes towards Martin to grab the orange in mid-juggle. She then dashes over and through the circle to dodge back and forth behind the bemused participants.

Give it back to me, Martin shouts even as Lee is furiously removing the peel. I need it more than you do, she says, noisily sucking its juices; here! you can have it back – pitching the pieces of peel at him as she dodges his attempts to catch her. With the remaining peel emptied of liquid, she hurls the last chunk of peel back at him. Here! you can juggle with that. That won’t work, he retorts angrily. Now what am I going to do?!

The role play comes to an end. Once back to their seats, Lee asks: Of what doest that remind you? what stories come to your minds when you see that role play? It only takes seconds before the men and women in the circle begin to connect the dots between play and their own lives.

Tahani is one of the first to respond. She is 21 years old, trained as an engineer. Tahani has the face of a mischievous child, a jokester, inviting me into schoolyard games of hand claps and hopscotch. Yet she is implausibly articulate, impassioned, wise. She has been living in an IDP camp on the edges of the West Darfur town of Abu Suruj for over a year. They fled their homes when the Sudanese military bombed their neighbourhood, trawling for supporters of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the insurgency movements in Darfur. The family has built a house of mud and thatch, surviving on the increasingly infrequent food drops by the World Food Programme and whatever they can urge out of the dry red soils that surround them. The daily tasks of fetching water, fuel and meagre harvested crops place them at risk of kidnapping, rape and death. It’s a five-day train ride to get here from there, the rail cutting through the territories rampaged by the janjawid.

She began to organise the women in the camp to plan their outbound trips, to prepare themselves in order to reduce the risk of encountering the janjawid, to learn about their rights as human beings, as citizens, as women. The women’s gatherings were frequently vetoed or broken up by their men, brothers, fathers, sons, who felt this was scandalous behaviour, a stepping outside their roles and an abandonment of their custom. But the organising went on.

Tahani raises her hand to tell her story, her dot-connecting. One day, the military flew overhead and dropped bombs on the marketplace. After the bombardment, the janjawid arrived astride their camels and horses, slashing at the backs of the fleeing men, women and children, occasionally lifting their firearms to mow down fragile shops, vendors and buyers.

‘They have the orange,’ she says. ‘In fact, they have lots of oranges, Khartoum and their horsebackl-riding friends. They can afford to use them as toys when we need them just to survive. So we try to survive; we try to organise ourselves to resist, to live – and they come and take away our orange, smash it to bits. They don’t care. After it was all over,’ she adds, ‘they counted up the bodies of those who had been killed. The women, the nameless tea-sellers, were not counted.’

A few days later, I ask Tahani, ‘How did you get to be so smart so young?’ She grins: ‘My mother. She’s coming, you know; coming for the graduation.’ Taking the perilous journey across the desert to El Obeid and then north to Khartoum-Ombdurman; determined to see her daughter do this.

At the graduation, she is there. She sits right in the front row. There is a strange contraption across her lap, protruding this way and that. It is a water pipe, elbowed in various directions, valves and taps attached, likely purchased in the nearby souq, to take home to what passes for home right now.

When Tahani’s name is called, her mother comes forward with her, setting her pipe contraption aside for the moment. ‘This is my mother,’ Tahani introduces her as I hand her the certificate of graduation. She steps in front of her daughter and gives me a long, fierce hug. I string some Arabic words together to try and tell her what a joy her daughter is. She says something like, ‘To Nyala next time; you come.’


We are well into the third week of the training and we’re putting the tools into practice, planning non-violent actions for change.

The participants have decided on a situation that they will play out, putting into practice the tools they have learned. They venture onto risky territory here, dramatising the wounds, picking at the scars of history, raising the curtain on the characters and tragedies of their country.

A frantic father, with his mother-in-law, have transported his wife, deeply into a difficult and prolonged labour, into the town to beg the help of a doctor. The doctor examines the woman, while her husband and mother pace fearfully outside the room. He invites them in, having reached a conclusion, but reluctant to say present his diagnosis. The husband grasps him roughly by the collar demanding an explanation and a resolution to his wife’s suffering. The woman’s mother, shrieks in despair. In the midst of the commotion which edges towards violence, the woman quietly expires behind them. Her mother begins to ululate her grief; the father throws a punch at the doctor. The doctor, reluctant to say the words, now blurts forth: Her troubles did not begin with labour – ask the village midwife who cut her and sewed her up years ago! ask her! go home and ask her to explain!

This plays out in a country where 89% of ever-married in the northern, eastern and western provinces have been ‘circumcised’ (22%) or infibulated (76%), the latter, known as pharaonic and which includes the closure of the vaginal opening with stitching, being the most severe form of female genital mutilation. The practice is less common amongst southerners, Christians and the educated. In Northern and the Kordofan States, the rates reach 100%. While the latest figures, which put Sudanese women’s support for FGM at almost 80%, are undoubtedly out of date, the drama playing out before us in an episcopalian compound in Ombdurman feels like hazardous ground. Custom, tradition and religious demands are cited in the surveys as reasons for supporting the practice; also cited are hygiene, morality (i.e., the assurance of virginity) and improved marriage prospects.

I look around the circle; the faces are open, engrossed; there is no condemnation here. The cast in this drama are male, female; Muslim and Christian. Later, others will pick up the theme, role-playing out a village training in how to prevent fistula (or obstructed labour), and healthy obstetrical practices.

A second drama begins. Lewi (labelled in English and Arabic a high-ranking officer of the Sudanese Arms Forces) is accompanying Amojad (an official of the China National Petroleum Company) on a tour of a piece of land that promises oil reserves and rich returns for both Khartoum and the CNPC. Mr SAFi points to a map in his hand and then sweeps his hand, demonstrating the sweep of the land under discussion. Mr CNCP expresses concern about the people he saw on the road as they drove in; how will their presence be dealt with? Mr SAF assures him that they will prove to be no problem at all.

Off to the side, Ambrose, Joseph and Tahani are animatedly discussing the flying gossip that petroleum prospectors are in the area, accompanied, as always, by military or corporate militia. What are they going to do? They huddle to put together a plan. Soon, Ambrose walks into the ‘clearing’, approaching the two men, raising his hand in greeting – Asalaam aleikum! He shakes Mr CNCP’s hand, at which point, Mr SAF gets on his cell phone, turns away and engages in conversation about the securing the land. Only reluctantly does he turn to accept Ambrose’ extended hand. Though our translators are working hard to keep up with the exchange, I can imagine the content: Welcome to our land. May I ask what you are doing? May we help? This land is not for sale; it is commonly held by the people of the surrounding villages.

Ambrose’ offer of conversation is rebuffed by the two men; he leaves the clearing to join the others. Shortly, the three arrive in the clearing, carrying a mattress and declaring that they are planning on setting up camp right here and they will not move. Comically, they then check their own and their companions’ clothing labels and toss overboard anything ‘made in China’. The stand-off continues with angry, impassioned debate. Suddenly, the businessman demands that the soldier shoot them, get rid of them! The soldier pauses; the businessman urges him to be rid of these human impediments to their plans. The soldier raises his gun; pauses again. The businessman attempts to grab the gun, but the soldier pulls it away from him and shoves him away. ‘I can’t. I can’t do it. They’re my people.’


The ‘curtain’ closes and discussion ensues. Many in the room have been drawn in to the drama; it all sounds so familiar. The government, the military, their militia, the foreign extractors of Sudanese resources – they’re all in a conspiracy against us, one says. We are nothing to them. Just obstacles in their path. For some, it is the oil of the south; for others, the prospect of another dam, more violence, more forced removals, more loss of land, story and antiquities; for still others, it is the scarce grasslands of the west and north, the wadis, the seasonal waters, whose use the nomads and tillers used to be able to negotiate in peace. Others are reminded of the destruction of informal settlements that ring the capital, home for hundreds of thousands of decades of war and uprooting, destruction meant to make room for the new roads, sewers, shops and infrastructure that will service the influx of Libyan, Chinese, Saudi, Malaysian and European investors.

The stories continue; the shadows lengthen in the compound. The day ends in a circle, all of us standing around a map of Sudan that has been laid on the floor. Everyone is invited to offer a blessing for that part of Sudan that is most present at this moment. One by one, they break the circle and approach the map, some kneeling to touch a province or town or piece of desert or forest or savannah or suud; their blessings are spoken softly, sometimes breaking, some in Arabic, many in the language of their tribe. It is a strange thing happening here. Their hearts are beating hard in their breasts for those bits of land or river; their particular place. But I notice something: it is Sudan, all of Sudan they bless. The room throbs somehow with the particularity of tribal passion and the commonality of shared suffering and determination for peace.

Later, as everyone packs up for the day, the four of us, Sudanese, Swedish and Canadian, gather as usual in the relative cool of the compound shade. We begin our unpacking of the day, each one’s ‘noticings’, observations, feelings. Philip begins, followed by Martin. Ilham then suddenly interjects: ‘It doesn’t happen that way! It doesn’t end that way,’ she says. ‘They shoot. Believe me! They shoot. They killed my cousins.’ She is crying; she bends her head towards her knees, the tears flowing. ‘That is not how the story ends!’

The happily-ever-after ending was more than Ilham could bear. I sit listening, conscious now of my desires for happy endings; silly, naïve foreigners. The land of Ilham’s birthplace lies beneath the waters of the Nile. The protests of her parents, their families and neighbours went unheeded, met with the out-sourced violence of corporate militia and yet another generation of Nubians were removed. An earlier generation was relocated to the arid land of the northeast, housed in tukuls roofed in woven asbestos; Canadian chrisotyle asbestos, it would seem. Eighty per cent of the cancer victims in Dongola and Khartoum are dying of slow, creeping mesothelioma, asbestos-induced cancer of the lungs. Two day later, Ilham’s sister-in-law will die of mesothelioma.

In Barbara Coloroso’s most recent book, Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide, she takes her well-honed analysis of schoolyard violence – the bully, the bullied and the bystander – and applies it to the genocidal violence of the Ottoman Empire (against Armenians), Nazi Germany (against Jews, Roma and Sinti) and Rwanda (against the Tutsi), casting the characters in each of these 20th century dramas. When ‘denial, apathy and impunity are applauded,’ she writes, ‘the drama simply packs up, goes on the road to another location, with a new cast of characters who have studied the previous genocides and improved on the script.’ Now into the 21st century and six years since the curtain rose in Darfur, the drama here is ‘nearing its closing act’. What is at work is not only what Martin Luther King called the ‘vitriolic actions of those who are bad, but also the vitiating inaction of those who are good.’ Our humanity is marred as we look the other way, silent bystanders, complicit by our silence, severed from one another, cut off from ourselves.

Pray for the people of Sudan. Pray for those brave ones who have attended previous conflict transformation trainings and who now dare to teach and live out what they learned. Pray for those who are traveling, some for days, to the conference center where they will learn the non-violent way of addressing the great conflicts that embroil their beloved homeland. Pray for Lee, Patrick, Ilham and Phillip as they help to “midwife” a new way of being among those who would be peacemakers.

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