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Lee McKenna's Journal: Sudan, November 2008, Entry 5


January 27, 2009 | bpfna

Lee McKenna has been representing the BPFNA across the world for many years. Her main work is teaching and accompanying people as they experiment with and implement the peacemaking work of transforming conflict. Lee's most recent trip was a return trip to Sudan in late November 2008. These journal entries chronicle her travels and encounters. You are invited to prayerfully read them over and imagine yourself there alongside her as she accompanied peacemakers interested in conflict  transformation.

Lee McKenna's Journal
Sudan, November 2008
Entry 5

The daily newspapers are spread out before rickety stalls in the market, samples of each weighed down with stones or clipped with metal hooks and flapping like clothes drying in the breeze. There are many from which to choose, all in Arabic. Though I still don’t know where they find them, the SONAD team of volunteers manages to deliver to me each morning one of the English dailies – The Vision, The Advocate, The Citizen or The Monitor, each taking up their particular place on the spectrum of Sudanese political opinion. Freedom of the press is hotly debated here, the most critical of the media, the Khartoum Monitor, being regularly the object of government search-and-destroy missions. Frequently closed down, either due to state interference or its own decision to temporarily shut down publication in order to draw attention to the latest round of threats and shrinking space for public dissent.
Today’s Sudan Vision headlines insist that the ICC (International Criminal Court) and its indictment of President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is responsible for ‘igniting strife’, not only in Sudan, but throughout Africa. Kenya’s Prime Minister, meanwhile, has broken ranks with African leaders on the topic of Zimbabwe, calling for AU troops to be sent into Mugabe’s fiefdom. Every day, there are reports of conferences and meetings, all attended by men of multiple honorifics, who issue challenges or assurances, plans for peace in Darfur, cleaning up the Nile, developing the South, solving the Abiyei border dispute, liberating women, signing a peace agreement with the Lord’s Resistance Army which is creating havoc on the Sudanese-Ugandan border, putting an end to student beatings for infractions small and large, importing labour to clean the streets and pick up garbage (in a country where the goats are much more effective at the latter) – but yet little seems to change. One paper says Darfur is doing well; another heralds a joint HAC-Libyan venture for Darfurian economic development; yet another details the latest casualties in another round of violent clashes between the government and the rebels. The visit of United Nations Under-secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, is being covered widely, as he tours first Darfur, then Abiyei and Juba.
Though my body estimates the temperature at 30 degrees, I am told that it is indeed closer to 37. Hot for November, they say. Participants trickle in, their arrival barely noted by the emaciated and generally lethargic crew of compound dogs.
Following a re-cap of the previous day’s learnings and insights, we continue with introductory tools. With the laughter-inducing, non-musical chairs, ‘The Big Wind Blows’, we find out who is named for a figure in Muslim or Christian history or literature (about a third), who are parents of children (one or two) and who are children of parents (some hesitate as the joke makes its way over semantic fences …); who has fallen asleep in mosque (harder to do standing up), who can recite the names of the books of the Bible (no one), who has participated in a demonstration (almost everyone), who has been arrested (at least half), who was born before Nemiery seized power in a coup (no one!) who reads a newspaper every day (a few), who has ever experienced conflict (Marco remains seated) and who can name the Prime Minister of Canada (no one; well, one). Patrick then sets up a hassle line, two rows of same-gender pairs facing one another, separated by a line provided by the battered and gritty linoleum at our feet. Their instructions are simple. Reach across the boundary and shake hands. In this culture of enthusiastic handshaking, a minimum of once, often three or four times in a single encounter of less than a minute punctuated with touches-to-hearty slaps on the other’s right shoulder – this comes naturally. Hold the shake. Then get your opposite on to your side of the line. Go.
The highly predictable happens: mini-tugs of war, some succeeding within a few seconds to drag the other onto his or her side of the line. The resulting scuffles raise little tornadoes of dust; laughter echoes against the white-washed-long-since-yellowed and pock-marked walls. Patrick calls a halt. How do you feel? What happened? Why? The laughter slides into a heavy chagrin as they recognise the violence in their default move. Violence. Force. Patrick reminds them of their instructions: get them, by any means, onto your side of the line. What happened? Why?
To say that things get lost in translation does not quite describe the pitfalls encountered in this setting. We’re working with new translators this year; never have we had the luxury of trained professionals. We go with what we have and what the budget will buy, usually volunteers. This year, we have Priscilla and Rafaat and this is likely their first assignment as not only translators, but interpreters. They are struggling to turn one complicated language into another with their mirror-opposite syntaxes. Not only translators of language, they are a two-person class of advanced facilitation and training as well as on the constant lookout for the cultural potholes into which we occasionally fall, unawares. Metaphors that don’t work, nuances that don’t make the other side of the interpretive chasm, cultural allusions that get lost in the woods of unknowing on both sides, nouns and verbs lacking a happy counterpart – and giving rise to confusion, occasional paralysis and frustration on both sides of the chasm. Some of them have seen more episodes of ER and American Idol than I would ever hope or care to see, know more lyrics to songs of western songsters I have never heard of. And most of them live in the most modest of conditions, without water or electricity in camps or neighbourhoods devoid of roads or shops or schools.
And yet we make our way.
What happened? we pushed and pulled and dragged. Why? because that’s how the instructions were understood. But did the instructions require that particular response? No, it did not. So why do we do it? Why is force the default response. One suggests that we assume the other’s intention to be evil and therefore act accordingly. But why do we do that? What if we were to assume otherwise? What if the other’s intention didn’t matter and only our own? What is my intention? we must ask. Is it re-embedding war games or re-imagining peace games? And so Patrick has them start over again.
The action is different, a little more tentative. A third run at it has them experiencing the possibility of both getting what they want with no one ‘losing’. How did it feel? What happened? In these days of heated negotiations that have everything to do with borders, this exercise quickly takes on the flesh of daily headlines, real land with ancient lines, peoples and tribes.
After an 11:00 a.m. meal that is, for some reason, called break-fast, we reassemble in a circle. Everyone is asked to close their eyes and keep silent; I let them know that Patrick and I will be placing something on their foreheads; is that OK? When everyone opens their eyes, I ask them to do one thing: Form groups. Nothing else. No words.
Immediately to my left, two groups of four or five simply hold out their hands to their neighbours and form groups. Elsewhere, people begin to examine the coloured shapes on others’ foreheads: some are pink triangles, some red squares, some purple circles, yellow squares, blue triangles. Gradually, groups begin to form around common shapes and colours. One or two assign themselves the role of pulling people into their groups, assuring them with hand signals that they are the same colour and shape as the group into which they have been dragged. Others wander around pointing to their foreheads and mutely asking: do I belong here? am I one of you? Often fingers are wagged in that oh-so-African way; no, not here. Salih, a purple triangle, has been enticed out of his circle of neighbours and pulled over to a group of pink triangles. But before too long, the latter give him a push and wave their fingers at him. He moves to other circles now closing ranks, pointing to his forehead, eyebrows raised, enquiring. Fingers wave.
After a couple of minutes, the groups seem to be crystallising. I call a halt to the game. Still in their groups, I ask them, What happened? We formed groups. By what criteria did you form groups? The shapes on our foreheads. Why? Because the shapes told us what groups to form. Who said? We assumed. While all of the groups had at least three in them, Salih stood alone. I approached him: What happened? He has forgotten his original action, which was to draw his neighbours together into a diverse group and recalls only that he was pulled into some groups, then pushed away. How did that feel? Lonely; as if I don’t belong anywhere. What kind of information shaped people’s decisions about forming groups? This sticker on my forehead; ah; external information. How did it get there? You put it there. Someone else put it there. How did you know where you were supposed to belong? Someone told me. Who tells us where we belong, of which group we are a part?
I put my arms in the manner of a young mother, rocking her baby. Oh, you are such a beautiful blue square! You will be a leader of blue squares! And someday, you will marry a nice blue square – not a pink triangle or purple circle! No! a blue square just like you, just like us. And you will have lovely blue square babies!
There are giggles – and ahas! – all around. Of what does this all remind you? Who tells us who we are? Who are our mirrors? Are they mirrors of inclusion and non-violence and grace? Or are they mirrors of exclusion and competition and threatened violence? We are Moro and Nuban, Fur, Masalit, Baika, Bari, Lokoya, Shilluk, Zaghawa, Koshla, Mizyrya, Dinka, Glaien, Barno, Mahas, Christian and Muslim, women and men, our roles and our rules set before we are born, the only instruction to conform.
The conversation continues for some time. Then they are invited to form groups once again. Some return to their colour- and shape-coded groups. Others begin to float amongst the groups; one says, I like music, I play the djose; does anyone want to join me? A few move in his direction. Another is looking to form a group with one of each, a red square, a pink triangle, a purple circle…
The Spiral of Experiential Learning goes up on the flip chart: Experience; Reflect on the experience: what happened, how did it feel? how did I respond? how did others respond? Generalise: what do I make of what happened? of what does this experience remind me? Apply: how will I apply this learning, these insights to future situations? And notice the types of learning; we listen (auditory), we see (visual), we move (kinaesthetic), we feel (emotional); we connect with the Utterly Other (spiritual). How can we combine one or more of those in order to appeal to a variety of learners?
It’s difficult in the middle of a desert to explain something so arcane as a fishbowl. Pet fish; in a bowl of water. Somehow an icon of what we are about to do, some ‘fish’, some ‘bowl’; some talking, some listening. It is a tool with a remarkable capacity to create a kind of out-of-body experience, with those in the middle eventually sinking and settling into their conversation, the bowl fading away. The result for those on the outside a kind of outrageous eavesdropping on a conversation otherwise not heard, themselves witness to a drama to which they have not been invited.
The Muslims begin in the middle, the Christians on the outside. They have two questions to answer: What do they like about their religion, faith, text, tradition and practice; what do they not like so much, wish weren’t there, would prefer to not associate themselves with? They begin slowly, Rafaat both eliciting and one with them. Islam is a religion of peace; it is the completion of all religion, the supercessionalist of all supercessionalists. Rafaat then moves them into the second question. Mohammed Hjaj is not so sure: I don’t think we should be talking about these things when other people are listening. It’s the last thing I understand for several minutes as the circle erupts in disagreement. Here we are in a Christian space; Muslims are invited here, but such an invitation would not be reciprocated! The women elbow their way into the conversation; our space to move is circumscribed, our roles limited. Others add: People are using religion for their own purposes! They mix up religion and culture and call culture Islam. Have you noticed, says one, that it’s jihad if we win; if we lose, it’s something else. We need to retrieve the original Islam, back to Mohammed and the Qu’ran. We don’t know what’s in the Qu’ran; people claim something is from the Qu’ran, this or that practice or rule – and it’s not! Rafaat is uncomfortable with the energy of the conversation; he hauls them down to more manageable levels of debate. Then he leaves the circle and Noura easily slips on the mantle of choreographer, encouraging, eliciting, affirming.
The Christians have understood a lot more than I have. For some reason, Joseph holds up a sign (which I can’t decipher); Marco gets up for a wander, James for water.
With their turn in the fishbowl, the small group of Christians is surrounded by the greater numbers of Muslims. They talk about Jesus, loving your enemy, turning the other cheek, his words to the woman ‘caught in sin’; they talk of Christianity as a religion of love and harmony, forgiveness and equality, all created in the image of God. Jesus cast out demons; so can we. He differentiated between what belongs to Caesar and what to God; he led a simple life. Christians believe in the trinity, that Jesus is God. When Priscilla invites them to consider those aspects of Christian history, practice, belief, text or tradition with which they have problems, they want to talk about whether or not the rich can get into heaven. A long discussion ensues about ‘the needle’; did Jesus really mean it? it seems a little much to condemn entire slices of humankind just because they happen to be rich. Or is it just about nasty rich people who don’t give to the poor? Marco thinks it’s possible to be rich and get into heaven as long as he uses his money in a good way. Sam agrees; it may be difficult but not impossible. Julia makes her way into the conversation, suggesting that true religion is reflected in actions, that Jesus challenged the powerful, making friends with the poor, with women, with prostitutes; he didn’t just talk about it. Religion, she says, has been used to gain wealth and power; arrogant missionaries came here insisting they had a monopoly on the truth. Priscilla notes that women are not allowed to speak in church, according to the Bible: what do we do about that one? James says that freedom means that Christians will have different practices; for some, it’s OK to have women speaking in church, for others not. Joseph adds: in Roman Catholic churches, women don’t preach, but other churches, they do. Sam has heard of women bishops. And that some churches they marry men and men and women and women.
Before we close for the day, we spend some talking about ‘noticings’, non-judgemental observations about something that happens or a kind of drawing back the curtain to see the workings backstage. What do you notice about the Big Wind Blows? It energises us. We move around. We learn things about one another in an indirect way. We have fun; we laugh. Even more, it’s a leveller. Stuffed shirts do not survive the Big Wind; we all settle back into our common clay feet. The fearful and nervous are drawn up and into the group, embraced in the laughter, the common bonds of strangers and travellers on a journey. What did they notice about the fishbowl? Did each group answer the questions? And what about the ‘bowl’? The Muslims were quieter, more attentive observers. Though some expressed reluctance to say things critical of Islam, they eventually forgot the ‘bowl’ and talked as if alone, pushing, pulling, debating, questioning. The Christians focussed on Jesus when talking about the positive; got stuck on camels and needles and being rich, being women, being gay, when the task required criticism. How different would it be if Muslims were talking to Christians and Christians to Muslims?
Smoke from a garbage fire in the street outside the window is quickly filling the room, pungent, acrid, stinging. Fires are lit in the absence of goats or public works, adding yet more heated layers to the air drawn into human lungs. Some get up to pull the metal shutters against the smoke; another goes outside searching for the fire-starter, but no one lays claim to the smouldering heaps; dowsing with water an unavailable option. The dogs stir. The muezzin begins his call to asr.

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