A Sudanese novelist by the name of Tayyib Salih has retired to London. I practiced my Arabic by translating his novel Season of Migration to the North. Here is a tragic story of a Sudanese who tries to live up to the standards of the British, fails to do so, and kills his English girlfriend and then himself. And this is also pretty close to the story of Sudan.
True, at the battle of Omdurman at the close of the nineteenth century, the British sealed their occupation by killing ten thousand Sudanese, the bravest of the brave, in the face of machine-guns. The young Winston Churchill rode in the decisive cavalry charge and remained proud of it for the rest of his life. But it didn’t take long for Sudan to become the outstanding example of enlightened colonialism. About 200 British officials administered this vast country with its 500 or so tribes of different religion and ethnicity and language, and brought them peace and justice. Tayyib Salih acknowledges it in his book.
The news that Sudan has just split led me to look again at the writings of some of these former governors and district commissioners, men of immense experience and devotion to Sudan like Sir Reginald Wingate and Colonel Hugh Boustead. Wilfred Thesiger, the great explorer, joined the Sudan Service and left an unforgettable portrait of his time there in the 1930s and the humanity that he learnt. “Ever since then it has been people that have mattered to me,” he writes in his autobiography.
How long ago that all was, and how much better that lost world seems than the ghastly murderous decades since then. The Sudanese have been fighting each other now for almost half a century, in a free-for-all of Muslims, Christians, and animists, tribe against tribe, with women and children raped and left to die, villages burnt, wells poisoned, anything cruel that the strong can devise to send the weak to the wall.
The criminals who did this will be remembered for a long time as the janjawid, a local version of the Gestapo. It is said that between two or three million defenseless Sudanese were killed, and as many displaced, but the real numbers will never be known.
Sudan has just divided with the Muslims keeping the north, and the Christians and animists forming a new country, to be known as the Republic of South Sudan. Having lived and suffered under the rule of Islam in the north, the southerners voted almost unanimously to secede and they are celebrating their independence accordingly. They have a president, a capital at Juba, a flag, and an anthem. There are about eight or nine million South Sudanese, most of whom live on one dollar a day, and are illiterate. When Libya became independent, that country had nobody with a Ph.D, and I wonder if South Sudan is any better off.
Just about fifty miles of roads are paved. The country is potentially fertile for agriculture, and it has oil. This may lead to extended warfare, since the boundary with the north is not yet properly demarcated and it is not clear to whom the oil money should go. Equally ominous, it is an article of faith in Islam that territory once held by Muslims cannot be given up. The likes of those English officials are required if there’s to be another period of peace and justice.