One of the most disappointing aspects of going to an "elite" university was how politically apathetic many of the students were. It is significantly more disappointing when those same students are some of the most brilliant and motivated individuals I know. I've often softened my judgement and moderated my criticism of these students, many of whom are not only peers but close friends. But after three weeks back in Sudan, where I was doing fieldwork for research and filming interviews for a documentary, I find it much less impressive for one to be intelligent than I do for one to be bold and principled. During that short time, I met some of the most courageous and inspiring young people I've had the opportunity to work with.
I was fortunate to be in the country during the protests that broke out at Khartoum University in late December. It certainly helped with my research, as students were anxious to get their stories out. Ultimately, they were the stories of how friendships turned into activist ties that withstood the tests of hardship, imprisonment, and even torture.
Some have gone from partners-in-protest to comrades-in-arms (usually figuratively; on occasion literally). Others were able to form an even deeper bond. One pair, Majdi and Sara, took turns telling how they met within the youth group Sharara, meaning "spark," and how that working relationship led to a sharara between them.
At a Sharara demonstration they both attended, police rushed through the gates of Khartoum University, wielding brochettes. Majdi attracted their attention by hitting one officer, giving Sara and others, time to escape. In addition to the beating he received on the spot, the police took him in for days of torture.
The two are now married and expecting their first child. Their union has, if anything, intensified their passion for activism -- the two cut their honeymoon short just to come back to Khartoum when a fellow Sharara activist was jailed.
This is but one example of the individual stories that make up the broader narrative of political activism in Sudan. And as is often the case, universities and their students remain at the forefront of this activism.
A large number of those I interviewed were directly tied to the December and January protests at Khartoum University. A thorough account of how students recount the saga was posted on my blog last month. The shortened version is as follows: The government promised a tribe, Al Manasir, compensation for land lost to flooding because of a dam built on their territory. When that compensation did not materialize, members of the tribe organized protests throughout the country. The demonstrations at Khartoum University, Sudan's oldest institution of higher learning and at one point one of Africa's best universities, became the focal point of the controversy.
One of the anecdotes from the KU saga that stuck with me was how angry police officers were at non-Manasir students who were protesting. It made sense for one to stand up for their rights and the rights of their people. But these foot soldiers of authoritarianism were bewildered as to why one would risk their education and freedom to participate in protests that, even if successful, would have no impact on the lives of Darfuris or South Sudanese.
Higher up the chain of command, I'm sure that these acts of unity terrified more than confused those ordering the police raids. Dividing ethnicities has been a staple of the central government's policies for decades. This newfound solidarity threatened all that years of meticulous planning and political maneuvering had accomplished.
In ways, the recent and ongoing protests made my time in Khartoum very exciting. After spending years studying the country's politics and months planning this research, it was refreshing to actually be there and witness what I was reading and writing about.
The flip side of the charged political atmosphere was that I was constantly afraid for the safety of those I was meeting, and on several occasions, afraid for my own safety as well. The interview process is nothing novel, but previous interviews were, generally speaking, legal and legitimate activities. Some of the topics broached in past interviews in Khartoum and Juba were certainly touchy, and some statements could land interviewees in trouble if they were quoted publicly. But the interview itself was not an illicit activity.
In this latest batch, the very fact that we were meeting at all could get the interviewees in trouble, regardless of the topic. There was a lack of ethical clarity as to how much I should ask or how much I should divulge about myself. On several occasions I cancelled interviews and meetings at the last minute because of a bad gut feeling on the part of my fixer (who is also a close friend and confidant and deserves more credit, but again I'm wary about giving more details). I trusted her instincts much more than I did my own, and as bad as I felt about canceling meetings, I knew that a few good quotes weren't worth compromising the safety of those I'd spoken to so far (if my notes were confiscated) or myself (if I let slip my own allegiances).
It was sad to leave behind the activists from Girifna, Sharara, and other organizations founded and run by young Sudanese to push for social and political change. It was even more difficult knowing that when I come back some of these same activists may be imprisoned or worse. However, I am glad that, if nothing else, I can help get their stories out to a broader audience. What that audience chooses to do with that information once it's out there is up to them.