Shifting sands

“My grandfather studied the tribes of Sudan in 1930s.” It just slipped out, at the end of the interview, as I was enthusing about what a fascinating place Sudan was, in the usual end-of-the-interview let’s-try-and-be-buddies sure-I’m-on-your-side-even-though-I’m-going-to-make-you-out-to-be-an-evil-cretin-in-my-article chat that journalists, over the years, learn to perfect.

I was talking to the under secretary of state for the ministry of guidance and endowment, which, in case the title wasn’t clear enough, deals with religious affairs.

Abu Baker Deng Eljack Chol, as his business card identifies him, said: “Yeah, there have been lots of Europeans and Americans over here, studying the tribes, such as…” Then, straight off, he named by grandfather.

When I said who I was, Chol lost his ministerial airs, gripped me by the hand and then said that he was particularly pleased to meet me, in that case.

This kind of thing happens to me all the time.

What is interesting is the advise that my uncle gave me before I came to Sudan. He said that, if I’m going to be based in the North, then I will almost certainly be branded a Western spy by the government. You see, my grandfather, who gained something of a reputation studying the Nuer, was known for his rebel sympathies.

This nostalgic waffle, which might be construed as a touch arrogant, actually does have greater significance than first appearances might suggest. Although Chol is a committed Muslim, he is also a southerner sitting in the government offices, with strong respect for the work of my grandfather (he himself is writing a Masters thesis on the Dinka). Chol is one of that school of people brought in by Salva Kiir, when the SPLM aligned itself with the government – and though he is hesitant to criticise anything the government might be doing (“there is absolutely no discrimination for non-Muslims in Khartoum”) he is far more willing to recognise the diversity of this country than certain other Islamists in the government have been in the past.

He is not the first government official that I have felt this with.

As we were leaving, Reverend Adi Ambrose, who set up the interview and has been one of my most valuable contacts in the ministry, said: “The under-secretary is one of the new generation coming up through the government.”

I am starting to feel that, despite my blog entry yesterday, things are slowly changing in the government – and that the old guard is slowly ceding ground to the new chaps. I am sure that Bashir is now ruing the day he agreed to have the SPLM on board. Folk keep complaining that the SPLM has sold out to the government, and that they don’t really have any influence in politics in the North, but I think that is changing, slowly but surely.

Other than this observation, the interview with Chol wasn’t actually all that interesting.


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