Lecture by Modupe Olaogun, Professor of English Literature, Master Strong College, York University, Canada at the 10th Professor Wole Soyinka Lecture held at Council Chambers, North York Civic Centre, Toronto, Canada on 14th July, 2007.
I like to begin with a quotation from a member of a pop band in Sudan. His name is Ali Shahabil. He says “the message for Darfur is that life will begin again”. Ali Shahabil and other members of his hip hop band were preparing for a benefit concert in October 2006 to raise money, food and clothing for homeless kids, whom they found to be a sizeable number on the streets of Khartoum the capital city of the Sudan. Some of the proceeds were also going to displaced children from southern Sudan and Darfur camped with their families on the fringes of Khartoum.
In the nine months since Shahabil’s statement the casualties of the tragedy in Darfur have grown with the death count pushing 400,000 people, wiping out of countless villages and the destruction of means of livelihood of 2 million displaced people. Against the spectra of unabated human destruction which has evoked the horror of genocide or something close to genocide, there is a temptation to feel despondent about Darfur. However the Ijed -Al Jaalad musicians are far from naïve, for their music is bitter sweet. It makes you want to dance and cry at the same time, as one of their fans observes.
Shahabil describes one of the groups songs as follows, “ our last song is about a poor woman who struggles everyday to survive, but we turn it into a Sudanese hip hop”. Shahabil’s evocation of Darfur is an implication that the region is already dead or at best dying. The dire experiences which Darfur has undergone in the past four years has given us pictures of small villages, of villagers shot in their backs, children, old people, pregnant women, men and women in their prime whose heads are bashed in. These are testimonies of the vehemence of their assailants. We have also seen countless emaciated bodies rocked by disease and famine resulting from the merciless uprooting of these people from what used to be their homes. It is not just that the atrocities that Darfur has experienced in the last 4 years are inexcusable; it is also that the naked assault on its humanity, the impunity with which its human life and values are denied must be consistently challenged.
The atrocities in Darfur constitute an attack on humanity for they lock the human participants in an unproductive binary. This binary has involved on one side the targeted Darfur villages and the rebel forces that are said to provoke the harassment of this locality by demanding that the government of Sudan stop an entrenched history of economic neglect and exploitation of the region and on the other side the Government of Sudan and the Janjawid Militia which it has employed to ferret out and destroy the villages.
The binary divides this otherwise human society into victims and their killers, the girls and women from among the Darfurians who are raped, tortured and their rapists, the Darfurian children being captured and turned to slaves and their enslavers. For as long as the atrocities continue they implicate the rest of the world for condoning them through active or passive disregard for the de -humanization going on. The pictures from Darfur exhumes other pictures of inhumanity and the dehumanization such as witnessed in Auschwitz, Jablinka, the Nazi death factories, Bosnia and Rwanda which are the scenes of recent ethnic cleansing and Pol Pot of Cambodia which obliterated a third of the country’s population in a crazed vision of purification of the people. It should not become an excuse for a justification of the latent blight in the Sudan.
The resistance called for should be concerted, honest and thorough, calling for a re-imagining of the afflicted world and of its surrounds. Such a re-imagining demands every available tool beginning with the discourses which order our human thoughts and actions. To privilege discourse is not to be confused with taking refuge behind a volley of words or substituting rhetoric for action. It is rather to seek a comprehensive understanding of the forces at work, in order to confront them as quickly as possible.
For the humanistic imagining of a Darfur which I wish to provoke, I am drawn to the narrations by the Sudanese themselves; for they are privileged as a primary source of self authorization, self apprehension, self representation and possibly self questioning. It is after all the stories which we tell ourselves, the fictions which we begin to believe as facts which have affected the positions of the various participants or would be mediators in the crisis in the Sudan.
I would like to invite you as you have the opportunity to do so to look for two novels, which in my opinion provoke us to see the kinds of dynamism happening in the Sudan. The first novel is titled In the hour of Signs and authored by Jamal Mahjoub, while the second authored by Tayeb Salih is Season of migration to the north. The idea I would like to draw your attention to in these novels is how they go back to the history of the Sudan, particularly the Hour of Signs, which is set during the period of the Majid state. That was when Hamed Mohammed a religious man and teacher who emerged in the riverine area of the Sudan to say that he was the chosen one, who had been selected to purge the country of its corruption and to redirect the energies of men and women towards the way of God.
I was struck by this novel’s powerful evocation of several layers of areas of discourses – the geographical, geological, economic, the political and the popular- and the intersections of these various levels of the discourses in the generation and creation of a national imaginary. For those not familiar with the Majid uprising, it is basically a reaction against a coalition of forces which had formed from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, interested in the slave trade in the Sudan and a number of various forms of exploitation in the country at that time. Egypt and British and the members of the force that the Majid ended up having evoked in this novel are pilgrims, people in rags. These people could call to bear and work with them in the deserts, rivers and all natural physical features of the Sudan in their war against oppression.
There is a character in the novel that intrigues me. He is a member of the Sufi brotherhood of the time called Hawi and he represented the voice of questioning. All he does is basically ask why Sharia should be imposed upon the newly emerging nascent state of the Sudan, for which he came to be ostracized as an apostate. This novel sensitizes us to some of the problems within an essentially plural society.
The second novel Season of Migration to the North supposedly focuses on the misunderstanding and illusions between the West and the rest of us. The novel focuses on the very melodramatic behaviour of a Sudanese student who goes to England in the 1920s and to the London School of Economics. He ends up seducing several women and murdering one of them. This story is set in a village in the Sudan which evokes Darfur specifically and in which there are people whose social imaginary is also very important and helps us understand the problem in contemporary Sudan.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to suggest that in the stories which we circulate and in the fiction which we believe and the fictions which we convince ourselves are immune to the facts are sometimes the germs of the internal destruction which we unwittingly sow. The problem in the Sudan is not incapable of being unravelled because the very humans who inhabit that place have the humanity and so do you. Let us bring the genocide in Sudan to an end. Thank you.