In the morning rituals of greeting, Ferdinand responds with something other than the expected, ‘Tamaam! al humdillilah!’ I feel so tired. I forgot where I was – a training in non-violence – and what is the first thing I think of? A gun.
In the language appropriate to women-as-property, he explains: ‘My ten year-old cousin was “stolen” last night. About dinner time when all of the men in the family were in the market. Two men, both armed. They pistol-whipped my aunt and took my cousin. My aunt called us and we tried to find the traders in children but gave up some hours after midnight. And all I wanted was a gun.’ He drops his head.
‘What will happen to her?’ I ask. ‘She will be sold for cows to someone who has no wife. The thieves will then have cows.’
His story adds to the others, heaping one upon the other to create a despair-inducing and apparently insuperable barrier to the realisation of the dreams that gestate within them. Why am I here? I guess it happens at least once, sometimes more, with each journey here: that moment when I feel myself sinking under the load of the stories and the headlines. And I wonder what I could possibly have to offer; what do I know? Who do I think I am? I look around the circle here in the Women’s Union Centre and I find myself peeling back their layers to expose more of what I know is already there: incredible pain, layers upon layers of pain already laid upon the layers of dead and displaced. Yet – and this day will display it well – the arithmetic does not add up here. There is a palpable hope that defies all of the logarithms of disaster.
Logarithms of Despair, Arithmetic of Hope
Every deal of the deck is against them, yet this disparate group keeps showing up for another day of discomfiting, risk-taking, odds-defying work. What draws them together, keeps them coming?
Zakia, a strikingly beautiful 25 year-old, is from the Nuba Mountains, in the state of South Kordofan, one of two states (the other, Blue Nile) where there are significant minorities, if not majorities, that supported and fought on the side of the SPLA (Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army) and continue to host detachments of what is now known as SPLA-North. Though there is little doubt that the SPLA-N has little but its own power in mind these days, their presence draws Khartoum’s fire, with frequent strafing and bombardment by the Sudanese Air Forces. Massive refugee flows into Yida in the west and Mabon in the east, are exacerbating fractious and fragile border negotiations. It’s never-ending for Zakia, whose grief at the loss of six members of her family, including her father, frequently spills out into the midst of us.
Betty is a social worker, spending long days inside the central state prison. Like so much of South Sudan’s governmental machinery, it mostly doesn’t work. In an environment thrumming with constant fear, the cry is for more prison for more people, punishment for the desperate – while the rewards are reaped by the new royalty, whose castles are built on fraud. Ojok, like so many of his 20-30-something generation, has taken on a Christian name, Jimmy, a sign of an individual’s declaration of independence from the decades of Khartoum’s programme of Arabisation. He’s a lost boy, one of the lucky ones, who found work and training in Kenya in a growing film industry. His Nairobi English is slow and deliberate, elegant.
Allison is one of three sons in his family, all of them blind by the age of two years. Demonstrating his own mantra – ‘Disability is not INability’ – Allison is game to try anything – even those tools and exercises that seem so dependent on visual cues. Bending over his braille slate and stylus, Allison produces sheet after sheet of hole-ridden paper notes. Weaving him into the sighted mainstream is seamless as participants take turns being his eyes, directing him to the toilet and the meal table, pushing him out of his chair for the Big Wind Blows, moving his hands and arms to mimic what the rest of us are doing for the closing liturgy and – most profoundly, opening up new learnings for all of us with the Blind Walk.
Ferdinand is from somewhere else, like so many who have made their home in Juba. Many families who had fled civil war violence returned to find their property destroyed, the land stripped and the wells poisoned – or occupied by well-armed squatters on land for which nobody had any paper. He is tall and lanky with wide-set eyes below a ridged forehead. Sometimes I get the impression that he is surprised by kindness. (In his evaluation many days later, he writes, ‘Sometimes I felt as if I were a stranger, a not-human amongst the human beings. But other times, I felt so encouraged, so good! This is what I came here for. I want to learn to reach for something other than a gun.’)
Adding up the Differences
What bring this disparate group together? Perhaps even more to the point, what keeps them together?
Ferdinand is a Christian, as are most of the participants in this training. Six are Muslim, all members of the Juba Dawa. While barriers of social conditioning, misunderstanding and tribe fall around us as the days go by, one of the most interesting testimonies to the power of non-violence has taken place between two Muslim women. They agree to an ‘interview’.
With the participant witnesses encircling us, Sadya to my right, Habiba to my left, Sadya begins. She is from Yei, south and west of here. Before the war, they had lands, farms and houses there. But, like so many, they fled to Khartoum. When the lands fell into the hands of the SPLA, her mother was the last to leave, taping the deeds to her body for the long and arduous journey north. With the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and South in January of 2005, the family packed up to return. The squatters on the family lands were Dinka and, it would seem, willing to cede possession peacefully once the papers were produced. They asked if it might be possible to have some time to find another place to live. Three months, it was agreed, would be suitable.
Sadya then threw herself in to the work of restoration, organising Muslim women for mutual support. A Juba chapter was begun and they sought a president; Sadya was elected. However, her election was challenged by a woman named Habiba, whom Sadya regarded as uneducated and ill-suited to a position of such responsibility. Through a long narrative, bits and pieces of which I miss despite Luka’s simultaneous translation over my right shoulder, Sadya tells of a relationship that descended into disagreement, hostility and violence.
Habiba, draped in layers of brilliant yellow, seated on my left, takes up the narrative. She begins by asserting her University credentials, tells us of a paper she presented at Juba University and of her election by the women of Juba to preside over the local women’s dawa. She was unhappy with the interloper from Yei – who was chosen over her to attend the ashura. She left the meeting angry.
Through a chasm of missed translation, I catch up with Habiba at the point where she is in a house of a family in mourning, whose extended membership included Sadya. A confrontation took place and insults flew between the two of them. Sadya raised her hand and hit Habiba hard. Enraged, Habiba left the house and went directly to the police station, ‘opening a case’ against Sadya. Within hours, Sadya was in prison. She suffered the taunts and threats of her sister inmates, who revelled in her reduced state.
On her release, Sadya sought out Habiba, who responded by insulting her, lumping her in with the despised deserter-élites now returning from the North, and backhanding her with the insult usually reserved for masters and servants. Another session in court resulted in a fine for Habiba. Sadya asked the mosque to intervene, hoping that the imam could resolve the conflict between them. The meeting designed to do so descended into a shouting match amongst the male leadership.
Some time later, both women found employment with the Islamic Council. For four years they successfully carried out a charade of collegiality. When the Organisation for Non-violence and Development (ONAD) approached the Council for nominations to their upcoming training in non-violence, both Habiba and Sadya made the cut.
As is the usual practice, ONAD put the nominees through a two-day basic training. Of the thirty enrolled, twenty would go on to the two-week intensive training. In the course of the first day, Non-violence Programme Officer, Flora Bringi, put them through their paces, beginning with the principles of non-violence and what a commitment to non-violence means with respect to one’s perception of ‘enemy’.
Sadya uses the edges of her pink flowered hijab to dab at her dampening eyes as she picks up the story. She tells of her response to what she was hearing and experiencing in the training. ‘My enemy is right here,’ she thought. ‘Right over there.’ I didn’t want to greet her; how could I? I started to cry and turned to Flora. ‘I can’t go on,’ she said. I knew I had to ask Habiba to forgive me; I had made a mistake. A roomful of male religious leaders couldn’t do a thing. But here, in a few hours, everything has changed. My tears were flowing, like a cleansing. I went to Habiba. Please forgive me; I need to let go of all of this.
Habiba, her brilliant round cheeks wet with tears, echoes Sadya’s words. A few days later, back in September, she beams, we attended the International Day of Peace celebrations together.
The interviewer steps into the story. ‘The first day I saw you two, I remember thinking, “How lovely! Old friends. Habiba, can I get you some tea? Sadya, would you like some sugar on your chapatti?” I had no idea of your story until Luka mentioned it briefly a few days ago. It reminds me of the first time I met Flora Bringi’ – who, serendipitously, walks into the room at that moment.
Flora showed up the first day proudly wearing her Mzee John Garang t-shirt. A Shilluk Christian, she took some time to narrate the scars she bears the result of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Sudanese military. Oh, I remember thinking, this is one anger-filled woman. Unbeknownst to me, she had narrowed down her hatred of all things Islamic to one of the ten Muslim participants in that year’s training, Rafaat Fageeri, a Nubian from Dongola.
Though it took a few days and a few more rounds of experiential learning, Flora found herself, with Rafaat in the same place as Sadya and Habiba. I don’t know if there were tears, but generations of conditioning in tribal and religious hatreds fell apart under the relentlessly compassionate interrogation of non-violence. They became friends and, later, colleagues in the Khartoum-based Sudanese Organisation for Non-violence and Development (SONAD). With independence, Rafaat took over the leadership of SONAD and Flora joined the flow South-ward, lending her support to the embryonic ONAD, eventually becoming a member of the staff.
The ‘interview’ over, the room convulses in joy. They rise from the circle, surrounding the women, slapping right shoulders in that peculiarly Sudanese greeting, grasping right hands, evolving to hugs lubricated by tears, assembling for the photos that will capture this moment, this joy, fuelling this country’s work for peace.