Lee McKenna, a Torontonian, is a long-time trainer in human rights, economic literacy, non-violence, and conflict transformation. Her work has taken her to Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa, focusing for the past five years on Sudan. While in Sudan during November and December 2008, she sent postcards home, the first of which appear in this article.
It is past midnight as the plane lifts off from Lebanese soil, turning slightly to the south, the Mediterranean now lit below by a brilliant half-moon. There are five people in this Airbus, besides me. Despite the Embassy’s appeal to the tourist, the word is not getting out.
Land appears again below; the delta spreads out, the fingers of the Nile splitting it like a piece of shattered brown glass. The blue-black of the Mediterranean gives way to the wavy grey-brown Egyptian Sahara. Soon the sky is lightening over the Arabian peninsula, deepening the contrast between the desert’s ochres and the convoluting dark snake that is the Nile. The River has become, like so many of the earth’s great rivers, polluted and brown, dammed at several points to provide hydro-electric power to fuel the needs of the élites, both domestic and foreign. This is the same river in which Miriam set afloat her baby brother, one day to change the history of the Hebrew people. It is from the Nile that water is still drawn to make bricks with straw.
The airport terminal is dully lit, though it appears a bit larger, grander, than last year, apart from a wall that has fallen down, allowing in sand, débris and a family of emaciated cats. Passing through passport control, I see Light Wilson Aganwa, director of SONAD (the Sudanese Organisation for Non-violence and Development), and another guy who introduces himself as Jimmy Jeep. Their van is waiting, marked “Swedish Free Mission.” The lodging is nice and I expect to have three hours to sleep before we begin work. But as I unpack, I find my printer ink has exploded and is leaking.
Light arrives early to pick me up. We stop first at the new offices of SONAD. The compound appears spiffed up; there are no string beds scattered around, no derelict vehicles; the mounds of rubbish have disappeared. Twelve graduates of the basic training are already present. They are the backbone of their own Sudanese Nonviolence Forum. I love them already, for I have heard their stories over the years, their struggles for peace. Though the work is all theirs, I cannot miss the sense rising in me of pride, the happy result of my midwifing.
Light and I are both exhausted, so we expect little of ourselves today, but we begin with a review of the trainings in 2005, 2006, and 2007. In triads, they tell how they have used their training, how they have multiplied the experience to touch thousands of lives over the last four years. Each group chooses one story to share.
Arig, a young physician, tells of SONAD’s invitation to accompany Light to the South, to do training in nonviolence in various towns and villages in the South. Her family was outraged. He is a southerner! He is Christian! You can’t do this; they will kill you! But Arig pressed them to bless this work. She went, with Light determined to “look after her,” to ensure that all the arrangements for her were perfect, her sleeping, her eating, her traveling. After several days, Arig was going out on her own, breaking down barriers of otherness between herself and Christians, Dinkas, Moros, Bors, women and men, modeling new ways to mutuality.
Again we talked about rules: to question them whenever they encounter the usual “but we don’t do it that way; it’s against the rules.” They’ll ask: Who wrote the rules? Who benefits from the rules? If only one gender, one race, one class, one tribe, one village or one region, then maybe this rule needs to be questioned or broken.
Priscilla tells that she and Gloria had been invited to make a presentation to a church meeting on the topic of nonviolence and peacemaking. The chair of the committee who had 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. Come back 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. Though his words were provocative, the elders recognized his wisdom and let him 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 and they were invited to continue.
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 the women: “What are you doing out here in the streets? You are women! Why are you not at home where you belong? “ The women replied: “Because we also must be about our work and in society, just like you!”
Sulafa carries out training in villages on reproductive health and female genital mutilation (FGM) in a part of Sudan where rates of FGM are as high as 95 percent of the females over age 15. A young girl was to have her “operation, “ which is treated as a hidden, shameful thing, but an important rite of passage that ensures a family’s honor. A group of women and students quickly carried out a protest outside the house of the practitioner. They carried signs and handed out leaflets to the passing villagers. The outcome was a remarkable abandonment of the practice in the village.
Widad tells 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 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. 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 spreading rumors 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 and invited others to be part of the conversation about it. They challenged the rules giving men the right to do with women and girls 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. He tells his neighbors that he regrets his actions.
Rafaat’s extended family live in a neighborhood that are all Nubians like themselves, except for a family of Christian southerners next door. Three young southerners killed a cousin of Rafaat, whose 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.
In our role playing exercise, Kodi and Priscilla play out an abusive domestic relationship – Kodi playing the wife and Priscilla the husband. We see Kodi scrubbing, cooking, tidying; the husband returns, swaggering and asking her what she had been doing with her time. If she did not change her ways, he would beat her again. Unbeknownst to the other (a true story), they each receive an invitation to a local workshop by the Forum on Non-violence. They each show up at the workshop, having sneaked out of the house to do so. Shocked to see one another there, they make as if to leave. The trainer invites them to stay and helps them confront their violence and their victimization. A happy ending…
The work begun here has reached into unusual and far places in Sudan. The training required by the diocese for its workers now includes non-violence taught by one of “ours.”
Another graduate, Saleh, is an oddity, a Muslim, an imam and a card-carrying member of the SPLM, the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which carried out a 21-year-war with the central government. It ended in 2005 with a peace agreement whose key elements remain ignored by Khartoum. Saleh continues his work with the SPLM membership, coaxing it out of warrior mode and into governance mode.
The journey to the compound is quiet today, with businesses closed for the Muslim day of prayer. The air is easier to breathe, the dust swirls with less ferocity. Only the beggars are still at work. Little boys still leap up onto the hood of the jeep to wash a window – without water or soap – in hopes of a penny or two.
I read this morning that Hillary has accepted Obama’s invitation to serve as secretary of state, that Zimbabwe has refused entry to three of the “Elders,” Jimmy Carter, Graca Machel and Kofi Annan, and that the Security Council has urged an increase in the numbers of peacekeepers in the Congo. Elsewhere the paper has an article about the 17,000 peacekeepers that, in the opinion of the writer, are living “high off the hog” and just watch atrocities happen without doing anything. Sigh.
Twenty new faces greet us. SONAD uses its pan-Sudan contacts to gather individuals from organizations already doing risky work. While previous trainings were intentionally composed of more women than men and equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, in this group there are more men than women, more Muslims than Christians. Strangers now; but that will change.
We begin with introductions. Paired with someone they don’t know, they are to find out their partner’s name, birthplace, tribe, what they like to do; and then, with their “wrong” hand, draw their picture, depicting one or more elements of their story. Paper and pens are distributed. The results are funny and revealing.
The training will last ten days, with one day off in the middle. We agree to listen to and respect one another, to arrive on time and, in this land where cell phones are everywhere – to use them only during meals and breaks. Times for Muslim prayer are agreed upon, mats provided; notes about translation and key word lists are posted. I am not the expert, I tell them. You are the experts. I do not come with the answers. Instead, I am confident that the wisdom already lies within you. The answers to peace in Sudan are already gestating inside of you and I am merely your midwife. I will do my best to provide a safe place and all the tools and encouragement you need, but the work, the birthing is yours.
I hold my hands out in front of me describing a stretched-out belly and effecting a late-term waddle: you are all pregnant. The women giggle as I walk round the circle; the men smile, not quite sure what to make of this. They may have been called many things before, but never pregnant. You are all pregnant with the new Sudan. The nervous laughter fills the room, creating gaping holes in fences of race, religion, tribe and gender.
Although the participants are all literate, they are mostly unpaid volunteers. Three of the twenty are married, the others, it would seem, caught in the cultural requirements of dowry and debt, tradition and tribe. Those who have gathered here receive from SONAD a few pounds per day to provide for their needs while here. Accommodation is primitive, the water cloudy, the food just adequate.
Later I crawl under my mosquito netting, the day’s dust and sweat mostly washed away. One of the beasts has found a way in and I wonder where in this desert mosquitoes find breeding grounds.
Ah yes; perhaps those little pools of water that lie about on streets, the results of broken water pipes. The air is dry and cools quickly following sunset. My little flashlight and a good book combine with a fan that spins slowly, fa-woomp, fa-woomp, fa-woomp, moving enough air to bring on sleep.
Lee McKenna is an organizer in the Ontario health care sector and a Baptist pastor. Her international work in non-violence is supported by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and her local church, Woodbine Heights Baptist Church.