3 May, 2020

Rites and Rights ….

The Sudan is in the news today so I might as well share a couple of linked experiences of 50 years ago.

Regrettably the theme is not pleasant, although the news itself suggests that things might improve in that country. It’s to do with the treatment of women and the Khartoum government’s decision to outlaw the mutilation that 90% of the women there suffer.

We volunteer teachers arrived in the capital in the summer of 1969 and after a few days we left for our different postings. I was put on a train south to Sennar on the Blue Nile, which was to be my home for the next two years, and most of that time I was the only westerner for around 6000 square miles. That sounds a lot but at 60 miles by 100 it wasn’t too remote other than for the practical fact that there were no surfaced roads and I knew of only one phone.

During the two years there was very little socialising with Sudanese families, but on the few occasions when I was invited it would be to sit with the men while the women, out of sight, prepared food – the normal way.  The first time was the most memorable however: about three weeks after my arrival a Sudanese teacher invited me to his house where, with other Sudanese men, we ate and drank well – my introduction to araqi, a sort of date liquor, illegal and very strong.  They knew the reason for the party and I didn’t until someone told me: they were celebrating the circumcision that morning of his son and daughter. That’s the end of that chapter.

At some time in the second year friend Malcolm in Kosti over on the White Nile sent me a letter to say that one of his Sudanese teacher friends had invited us to a village wedding, a rare thing for westerners to see. It would be at half term or a public holiday (I can’t remember which) when we had three or four days free.  Sounded interesting so I agreed and when the time came I did the normal thing: walked to the dusty souk, found the lorries, asked who might be going westwards to Kosti, paid a few piastres, and got on the back with whatever he was transporting – food or animals or equipment. In due course he set off, following the tracks across those 60 miles to the other Nile. Malcolm provided a bed in his school for the night, and in the late afternoon of the next day we were picked up in a 4×4 and driven out to a village.

If I say it was atmospheric that would be true in one sense. The village was of mud brick houses, some grass huts, bushes, a few trees and generally well-ordered.  As the sun went down I don’t remember any electric light but there were oil lamps aplenty, and candle lamps, and at the right time I think a couple of lorries probably turned on their headlights.  It was a warm tropical evening, and very pleasant.

We were taken to join about 50 men sitting in rows on metal and plastic chairs under the stars, facing a low makeshift stage. Tea and coffee were passed round and it seemed to go on for ever.  I remember we both got impatient: we were guests but we had no idea how long the evening would go on or what would happen.  Finally some music started, drums and the oud (origin of our word ‘lute’), and then it happened.

A young lady came slowly and nervously onto the stage, dressed in Sudanese finery, a splendid thobe, the full sari-like dress that covers the whole body except the face.  She started dancing, slowly.  The men were entranced, silent.  Her movements were explained to us: turning round and round, she was dancing the pigeon dance, her neck going backwards and forwards as pigeons do when they walk.  This was considered a thing of great allure and beauty.  She was the bride.

It went on for perhaps three minutes, actually quite a long time. Then a man in the front row stood up, walked onto the stage, took her by the arm, and gently led her back out of sight behind the stage. He was the groom.

It was explained to us later that this was the normal way.  Brides would be frightened at having to dance in public in front of men, so she had been mildly sedated.  She had now been taken away and would not appear in public again until her husband, and his parents, and her parents were all satisfied that she would be a docile wife.  Quite normal.  We men continued chatting with our tea and coffee, and I seem to remember that something stronger was offered as well.  Later that evening Malcolm and I were driven back to Kosti.

As I said, in one sense that was an atmospheric evening, a warm African night under the stars, mostly illuminated by oil lamps and candles, seemingly remote, and very friendly to us rare western guests – in fact it was seen as an honour.  But it was memorable also for very different reasons.  Malcolm and I did feel that we had witnessed something that few westerners had seen.  What could we make of it?  Naturally we could apply our western values, and possibly come to a harsh decision, but did we have that right?   Perhaps, after the dance, all would be well for bride and groom. In truth it was difficult to evaluate.  There was no answer really.   Also, who knows whether it’s still like that?  Whether it is or not, let’s hope that the current government in Khartoum is serious about liberating women from utterly cruel customs.

One final comment: about six months ago, here in London, I was at a dinner party with neighbours. The conversation must have moved in the direction of ethnic rituals or something similar, so I told this story.  One of the dinner guests, a married man of Indian origin, quietly commented that such things still happen in parts of India.

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