First, the matter of getting situated. In this, the largest country in Africa, geographically, nearly twice the size of Alaska: Sudan.
Its peoples speak 134 different languages, more than 400 if one counts distinct dialects. It officially declared independence on January 1, 1956.
North of Sudan is the Sahara desert and the Nile Valley. West is the Sahel savanna. To the east, semiarid land over mountains to the coast of the Red Sea. The South braces the Nile and covers jungles, plains, and a swamp the size of Belgium before it meets the Kenyan desert, not far from the ridge of the Great Rift Valley.
And, in the middle: fertile clay plains that stretch from the Nuba Mountains to the Ethiopian highlands.
Everywhere: people. Its population is divided into 19 ethnic groups, with 597 subgroups.
Out of Exile: Narratives from the Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan (2008) gathers some of these people’s stories. Looks for commonalities.
“One could argue that during the brief life of the modern Sudanese state, the thread shared by the country’s myriad peoples is a living memory of violence.”
Violence and displacement. Into these disparate regions so tidily described in the introduction.
“Each person has been forced, by violence or the threat of violence, by ideological oppression, or by extreme economic injustice to leave his or her home.”
This experience of fragmentation varies from account to account, but similarities emerge, patterns of movement against a backdrop of frustrations and sorrows.
Each account begins with a line illustration of the individual and details which situate them geographically and culturally. Where possible, each ends with an update as to their situation at the time of publication.
One might expect a constant refrain of despair and loss, but the human experiences run the gamut.
Unexpectedly, there is determination, even hope.
“A lot of people in Sudan have passed through the experience of losing family like this. But you should gain from this traumatic, horrific experience, I think. It’s given me a power really, a power to do more. To be strong. To fight.”
Also published by McSweeney’s is a collection of fiction: There Is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation South Sudan, which gathers eight works, seven prose pieces followed by an excerpt from a poem.
Its editor recognizes the same thematic connection – violence – as did the Voices of Witness volume. Nyuol Lueth Tong writes:
“Our nation has been marked by wandering and longing, by waiting and return. No other force or reality had has the ubiquity in South Sudan that war has had in the last several decades. War dominates, and its legacy will continue to influence our literature and culture in many ways for years to come.”
Tong also contributes the longest story in the collection, “The Bastard”, which directly addresses this chronic state of wandering. “By definition, a bastard is he who does not belong,” he writes.
This inherent between-ness he describes haunts not only his story but the collection: “This was the danger of war. It dissolved boundaries. The burden of the warrior was that he must walk with the living and also with the dead.”
In Edward Eremugo Luka’s “Escape”, one of the three young men who were once so close as to be called “The Three Musketeers” after they studied Dumas’ novel in school, is forced to leave his home, diverting from the path walked by the two who remain. The infamous white house, with its detention cells – a series of transport containers, some of them underground – stands nearby.
The sound and sense of conflict infuses David L. Lukudu’s “Holy Warrior”: “The incessant hum of a Sudanese air force bomber, a Russian-made Antonov, faded as it crossed above yet again. A persistent, stale-stench pervaded the vicinity; the intense fear of impending death was vivid to the two men in the trench on the outskirts of Yei town. Almost unnoticed were the monotonous mumblings of a nearby stream, and the anxious shrills of the birds in the bushes.”
An unjust accusation in “Potato Thief” ironically introduces a young boy to the pleasures of thievery, but it, like several of the other stories, reaches for universal experiences to which all readers can relate. When reading fiction, the geographic distance seems both larger and smaller.
Have you read anything set in Sudan? Have you read other books in the Voices of Witness series?