While I was working toward my Master's Degree at Western Illinois University, I was engaged for a while to a man from Southern Sudan. With two youngsters to raise, a graduate assistantship to fulfill and the rigors of full-time graduate course requirements, I had precious little time to call my own. But what I had, I gave to hanging out with people from other countries, especially from Africa, as about a quarter of the students on that campus were from somewhere other than the U.S. and, as far as I was concerned, this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. It was very exciting and eventually even gave birth to my thesis, which was on Social Distance Between Africans and Black Americans and the Attitudes of White Americans Toward Both Groups.
I met Martin through a couple from Botswana. He was massively intelligent and exquisitely articulate. And his voice was like velvet, barely above a whisper. Our conversations were beyond seductive to me, so hungry for news of the real world outside our borders, so ravenous for analysis of power relations more in depth than what I was wont to get on average. I often stopped by his apartment for tea on my way home from class in the afternoon. Sometimes he would cook a chicken. We ate with our fingers and, for special occasions, peanut soup with fufu. He told me tales of his homeland, of acres and acres of mahogany; of hundreds of oil wells already dug and capped, waiting for later; and of chunks of gold lying on top of the ground in a region where people didn't value metals as much as family. But most often, he spoke of missing home.
Martin had been sent to be educated. His family was already deeply involved in the struggle to throw off the oppression of the Arabic people who were handed the power when the British "gave" Sudan its independence in 1956. And Martin wanted nothing more than to be back on the battlefield. He preferred to wear the khaki tan shirts and pants of a uniform, though most of the time he was dressed in elegant Italian fashions rarely seen on a campus where jeans and sneakers were the usual choice.
I never heard him raise his voice. In fact, I never saw or heard him get worked up in any particular way about much of anything. He seemed mildly bemused by the state of humanity and especially, that of specific humans when they were in a tizzy, as I, for one, sometimes was. He smiled softly and often, and overall, gave off the aura of a leader unlikely to be rattled, not to be messed with and never to be underestimated.
Shortly after I met Martin, I wrote:
For the World~
With feet apart,
he stretches to embrace
ancient and modern,
holding them so tightly to his chest,
they will become one entity in his arms.
Let what will fight against
his Black arms, fight.
His arms are strong
and they will not let go
until the future wills itself
his grateful concubine,
even as he loves her,
his sister in another life,
His education was interrupted when the U.S. government agreed to force his return to Sudan where almost certain charges of treason awaited him, so he sought asylum in Canada -- which he was given -- and wound up going to school there until he ultimately did return to Sudan a couple of years later. I visited him once in Toronto, but it was obvious by that time that his heart was already back in the bush. He was through and through a military man and I chose not be an army wife. It did not surprise me to learn a few months ago that he has become an important man in his country. Referred to variously as a Brigadier General or Commander, I was able to follow his trajectory -- and that of Sudan -- by chasing it across the internet. It has been dramatic and difficult and complicated and it's just as fascinating to me today as it was when I was first introduced to the topic while I sat listening on Martin's sofa.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa and in the Arab world and has been torn by civil war virtually continually since the British left. It's been messy largely because the north is predominately Arabic and Muslim, while the south -- which is very, very rich -- is made up of ethnic groups who are darker skinned and more likely to be Christian and/or followers of the more traditional African practice of animism. Religion and skin tone might not have been so important had the Muslims not been so committed from the beginning to keeping all the power and the wealth for themselves -- at all cost. The more recent nightmare that became world famous in Darfur, for example, was the direct result of the Arabic Muslim government in Khartoum allowing (and probably bankrolling) murderous rapemongers to terrorize the helpless Southern Sudanese refugees who had gravitated there trying to avoid the war elsewhere.
In any case, it now appears that Martin was among those who crafted an agreement with the government in Khartoum in 2005. Part of the agreement held that Southern Sudan would -- finally -- be allowed to secede and form their own nation if the Southern Sudanese themselves so willed it with a vote in 2011. The time has come and a week-long voting process started today. According to the agreement, for the decision to be legitimate, sixty percent of the Southern Sudanese registered voters must vote and this is no mean trick where so many have been kept in such abject poverty and criminally undereducated, where there are no roads, and where other obstacles (both natural and political) are so daunting. But assuming they are able to meet the sixty percent criteria, it is almost without question that the simple majority needed to declare Southern Sudan a free standing national entity will be met.
The United States government -- at least partly due to worldwide mass public opinion related to Darfur -- has brought increasing pressure to bear on Sudan's Muslim leadership to work toward bringing about a peaceful solution to the standoff. One of the current carrots offered is the promise that, if it acts to ensure a peaceful election, the government in Khartoum will be removed from the list of terrorist governments in the world. For the last several days, former President Jimmy Carter, Senator John Kerry, and actor/activist George Clooney have all been in Juba, the main city in Southern Sudan. And in a further attempt to assist Sudanese refugees in the United States (such as the Lost Boys of Sudan, who were immortalized in the film of that name), eight U.S. cities are serving as polling places for the historical election.
In the end, what's producing the grin on the woman in the photo above and what Martin has been fighting and working toward for these decades is the hope of peace for the people of Southern Sudan. Another man, Emmanuel Jal, who wrote a bestselling book on his experiences as a child soldier and then grew up to become an international sensation as a rap artist, could most certainly have settled comfortably outside Sudan and moved on with his life. But instead, he has also chosen to stay and work for peace. He ate only one meal per day for nearly two years to raise funds for a school. And he works tirelessly to keep the spotlight of world attention shining on his people. This time next week, they may be free. May they have peace, as well.