Development? A little bit on gender in Sudan
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
We have all embarked on a journey. We are learning a lot. For me, a large part of this journey is to set straight in my mind what it is that I, as a ‘development economist’, should be putting my effort into to contribute to the ‘development’ of my continent. What is ‘development’ anyway? I like the way Robert Chambers defines it: ‘good change’. Although... from my perspective, there are some wonderfully good aspects - precious gems in various forms in different African contexts - that don't need to change. That I would be saddened to see to change. So I will use this adventure to focus on absorbing the existing good that attracts my attention. I will also to listen to the change that the people we meet wish for - the good that they hope for in the future. What I absorb, interpret and share will be shaped by who I am: a young white South African woman, a traveller on a small budget never stopping for too long in one place, someone determined to make a positive contribution to good change in Africa. So, although I cannot possibly understand entirety of the concept ‘development’ during this trip, I will endeavour to stitch together a tapestry from ordinary, personal experiences that will shape my understanding. I hope that this writing will serve others in some way. Perhaps as a point of attraction for the efforts of those interested in ‘development’ in Africa.
You should know that this is taking great courage to put my thoughts down in writing. Worried that my perspective on ‘development’ as someone who has never experienced financial shortage will not be worth much. Worried that people may read this and wonder how I managed to graduate with a Masters from Oxford. I will take comfort that what really matters for our wellbeing or our ‘good’ are experiences beyond financial wellbeing that I understand well: what it means to have mother who loves me, to have good health, to enjoy personal safety, to feel unsafe, to feel lonely, to lose a father. I hope you find value in what is to come.
I'll start with my experience in Sudan. My first day in Sudan began watching the sunrise with a young Sudanese Economist. We were on a ferry carrying us from Egypt to Sudan over the great Lake Nasser. As we admired the new colours of the day, I eagerly asked her what she thought about development in Sudan. Could she please describe the good change that her country was experiencing? Without hesitation, she flatly said to me that there is no development. There used to be. But not anymore, she said. Perhaps I should have expected such a response: with the secession of South Sudan and the formation of the Republic of Sudan in 2011, Sudan lost its access to the oil resources which had contributed to more than half of government revenue. This is but one of the struggles resulting from conflict on the countries borders. I should have expected her answer - given that she is part of the generation standing up in protest to demand better governance. At the time, people of her generation were in the capital city, risking their personal safety, to demand better governance. Governance that allows freedom of speech. Governance that is not a military dictatorship. (A few days ago their efforts resulted in the resignation of the dictator, al-Bashir.) I wish I'd had time to ask her the other burning questions on my mind. I wanted to ask her what change she thought should be happening in her country and what she thought was already good in her country. But the hustle and bustle on our vessel as passengers arose in expectation of our arrival in Sudan disrupted our conversation, saving these answers for the month to come in Sudan.
The experiences that came forth to meet us drew my attention particularly to the subject of gender. I’d said goodbye to the young economist and stepped onto sandy Sudanese soil without realising that it was a rarity to meet a female economist in this country. It wasn't long before the significance of being a woman in Sudan fully sunk in. For the first few days, as we cycled along the smooth tar road towards Khartoum, I found the absence of women to be almost stifling. The truck drivers who stopped at the same roadside restaurants are men. The restaurant owners are men. We wandered into a town of male only gold miners who spent their days prospecting in pits around which male owned markets had sprung up. The men don't always speak gently and respectfully to us. So, when we see two middle aged women in their bright clothes standing near the roadside, waving at us, my heart delights in some kind of relief. They beckon to us and invite us in for tea. We end up staying for two nights in their lovely, bright, home, near the Nile and in a village surrounded by all the food they need in their fields but not a shop for kilometers. About 7 women live here, spanning three generations. The energy in this house feels beautiful and pure. So much love and tenderness they show us and each other. The gentleness that shapes their daily tasks and the warmth they hold our hands with touches me. Their relaxed enjoyment as they laugh with their friends and sisters and aunts as they pick and shell the beans to feed their families made me wonder whether the separation of gender roles is really that detrimental to their lives as we declare it to be our western societies. How would their lives be different if they were expected to have the same roles as men like us ‘western’ women are? If they were expected to leave their children at home and go to work for 8 hours of the day, would that be good change?
We briefly chatted to Fatuma and Ayesha, the 18 and 20 year old daughters of this family, asking them what makes them happy in their lives, trying to get a better glance at the good that exists. Fatuma gestured to her mother, aunts, grandmother and sister. Her family is what makes her most happy. For Ayesha, who has just finished her formal education, it is cooking. She loves spending time helping her mom in the kitchen. These sweet, simple answers somewhat diminish the gender inequality monster that has been growing in my head. We say our goodbyes, feeling awkward not to be shedding a tear as they did and cycle on towards Khartoum.
I arrive in Khartoum after dark on a minibus with my bicycle on the roof. I have a bit of flu and call a friend to ask if I can stay with his family while I heal. His sister drives her car to the bus stop to collect me and takes me home. She, her three sisters and her mother are doctors, a pharmacist and an engineer respectively. Although they, like I, have had the privilege of choosing their careers, they retain the same gentleness as the women we stayed with in Northern Sudan. Like with the other women that hosted us, the bonding between us happens much faster than I feel it would have with women in the society I call home. We share deep desires with each other as we sit in the kitchen. I feel like a princess as I waltz around the house in their gorgeous floral and flowing skirts that they insisted I wear to replace my shabby traveller’s clothes. We laugh a lot as they try and tame my wild hair into neat plates. I start to see how there might be a balance between the good that exists in enjoying our feminism and the change that would be beneficial for women whose freedom is restricted because of their gender.
My health feeling much better, I start asking around to see if I could meet some people, preferably young, who are actively involved in making good change happen. How privileged Jess and I felt to be introduced to Razan and Zainab - both women's rights activists and studying medicine at the same university. This conversation is when the real learning on gender happens. We meet at lovely restaurant where all we can afford to order is a bottle of water to share between us. We meet at a time that doesn't clash with the protests in the city.
We sit and absorb what these two passionate, well-spoken women say. It is heartwarming to see the supportive way they nod at each others’ answers and how they comment every so often that the other made a good point. What these girls do to make a good change in their society follows their passions and makes so much sense: they run workshops and training sessions for their fellow medical students. They teach students to become agents of change - to tackle a number of health issues including FGM, women's rights and child marriage.They are empowering women to empower other women, as they put it.
They are surprised, they say, by how many people - even in the capital - don't know about rights. Zainab shares that she herself grew up without knowing what human rights were. She began to notice the unfairness at the women in her close family having to obey men and being unable to say what they wanted while men could. “We should be equal here”, she thought and started doing something about it. They tell us how rewarding it is to be doing something about it - to be able to save a woman's life by convincing a family in their society that cutting (FGM) is not beneficial for the woman. This is a tricky task, however: the cultural beliefs about women’s rights have been confused with religious beliefs, they tell us. “And religion is something that you just can't question in Sudan”. They explain that the mistranslated scripts from the Qur'an are used as an excuse to maintain the existing patriarchal society.
They keep their cheer, though, and say with determined smiles that it just needs more talking. More awareness. More knowledge. They are both positive about the good change that has already happened and expectant of what is to come. Razan uses her family to exemplify this: her great grandmother was cut and received no education. Her grandmother received basic education. Her mother a holds college degree and has an impressive career. And now here she is, empowering other women to realise their rights. We ask the women to describe the lives they hope their daughters will lead. That she doesn't know what gender inequality is, Razan answers. Zainab says about her daughter: “I want her to say what she wants. I want her to feel strong. To feel she can do anything she wants… and I want her to be happy that she is a girl”.
They are positive about the role that more equal education is playing in developing gender equality. They also say the national policies are good but, like in so many contexts, the implementation is not there yet. Having visited the Ministry of Health the day before, I hold some hope in my heart that good policy may soon be translated into action - if the good change there is anything to go by in terms of government action. At the Ministry, I met men who are passionate about improving primary health care - a large portion of which is dedicated to maternal health - in Sudan. I had left feeling strongly that much good change is to come for the health of Sudanese people. I also left hoping that more women would fill some of these important roles in the near future. Razan and Zainab are hopeful this will soon become a reality. I get the feeling they will be a big part of this positive change.
I reflect on their words as we continue to travel through this exquisite country. I thought about what they'd said when we meet Achlas.
She is a young woman who hosts us in Al Shabarga, a village on our route. She speaks no English, but eagerly shares what she can about herself and her family using her torn English-Arabic dictionary as 4 of us girls giggled through the pages all squashed near each other on a bed. I feel something sharp in my heart when she beckons to me in a hushed voice and stands in the shadow of the door frame, pointing to her father as he walks past. How I wished it would have been okay for her to shout “hello, come and meet my friend!”, as any boy could do. I wonder what she knows about women’s rights. I hope she will one day realise the good change in her personal life that Razan and Zainab are working for.
Again, gender is on my mind when we are camping on a bee farm with a group and farmers and beekeepers, near the town of Al Fao. All men, they treat us with such kindness, with the same warm hospitality as we are shown by all the women we meet. They cook our food, serve us sweet milky tea in the mornings and give us some of their precious honey for dessert. I feel guilty for classifying so many men at the beginning of the trip as disrespectful and in need of a lesson on gentleness. The gentleness - a trait we westerners see as feminine - I realise is a Sudanese trait in some ways. Of course, some are gentler than others. I really hope that this extraordinarily good aspect of Sudan never changes. That women and men feel free to show this wonderful ‘feminine’ trait and that men continue to walk down the streets holding hands and that people feel comfortable to show unrestrained warmth to strangers. That women feel comfortable wearing their gorgeous flowing dresses if they'd like to or a pair of trousers if that is more comfortable. I hope that us ‘western’ women can learn from the balance that has the potential to emerge in Sudan: the balance between embracing our gender and knowing our owning our human rights.