Volume 19 Number 3
Hands up for the Big Picture
01 June 2006
Peter Everington returns to Sudan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Independence.
JANUARY 2005 saw the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Government of Sudan and the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) after 22 years of civil war. A year later thousands gathered in Juba, capital of the new regional Government of South Sudan, to celebrate the first anniversary. Among the guests of honour were the Vice-President of Uganda and the former President of Kenya. Many countries aided Sudan in the peace process. The outstanding individual was Kenya’s General Lazarus Sumbeiwo. For over two years he chaired the negotiations between the Sudan Government and the SPLM. He has no illusions about the long road that lies ahead, to satisfy the expectations raised by the peace.
As he rose to speak in Juba, a roar of applause came from the crowd. ‘You made the peace, I was just the midwife,’ he said. ‘Today I have just one request, that you choose the big picture, which will shield your peace. Please raise your hand to God now if you want the big picture, not the small one.’ As hands went up on all sides, he said, ‘Thank you. I pray the Almighty will grant your wish.’
It was a thrill for me to be there, as one who has known Sudan since 1958. In September that year, aged 23, I arrived with a five-year contract to teach English in boys’ secondary schools. I stayed a further three years as lecturer in a teacher training institute for men and women. Since then I have returned about 20 times, sometimes running student exchange programmes with UK (see opposite), and in recent years encouraging Sudan’s peacemakers in North and South.
People ask why I went to Sudan. In summer 1955, just before taking up a scholarship in Latin and Greek at Cambridge University, I was teaching at a school in Northern Ireland. An Irish teacher persuaded me to listen to God for guidance, then to measure my life against standards of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, and to write my findings. For a complacent Christian this was an uncomfortable process, but a liberating one too as I faced the truth and made apologies. That is how I discovered Initiatives of Change, or Moral Re-Armament (MRA) as it was then.
I was challenged by the idea, ‘As I am, so is my nation.’ Just as I as an individual had been domineering, so had Britain often been towards countries we ruled. We too could change and find a role of service to newly independent countries.
This new attitude brought me friendships at Cambridge with people from Africa and the Middle East, particularly Egypt. But when Britain invaded Egypt in the futile Suez War of 1956 my dreams of a new world fell apart. Doubts came about my career. Friends suggested I ask God what my part in his plan for the world could be. In a few minutes of listening for inner guidance, it came clear I should switch to Arabic for my last year at Cambridge, and be ready to go anywhere in that part of the world to help rebuild trust.
I learned that people in Sudan’s Government had welcomed MRA’s approach to world needs. Through their ambassador in London I was taken on as a teacher. Over the next years Sudan gave me an apprenticeship in Arab, African and Muslim thinking and a range of friendships for which I shall always be grateful.
In January this year my wife and I were among 21 British invited to Sudan for the country’s celebration of 50 years of independence. The majority of the party were people, or relatives of people, who had served in Sudan before Independence. The oldest man had started in a town by the White Nile in 1940. Others were making their first return since 1955 to a country they loved and had thought they would never see again. Sudan had done something for their souls. Judging by the welcome they received this time from old friends (or the children of old friends) the feeling was reciprocal.
Oil has recently brought some prosperity, but 22 years of war have left North Sudan poor and the South destitute. While the North-South peace has released foreign aid, the horrific Darfur crisis in the West has again provoked doubt as to whether Sudan can put all its energies into civic development.
The former head of the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement is now the First Vice-President of the country. And the Sudan Government is a ‘unity’ government that includes several Southern ministers. If it fully implements the North-South peace agreement, it will have the authority to bring solutions to Darfur. It will need to democratise further to unlock the talents of all its peoples.
My wife and I were taken to Khartoum Boys Secondary School where I taught from 1960-63. The school was paraded and I was required to address them in Arabic. One noticeable feature was how militarised they were in uniform and chanting. This was in preparation, until recently, for fighting in the South. Someone will have to school them in the culture of peace and help them to relate fully to South Sudanese as fellow citizens. Perhaps it will be the new foreign minister, a former pupil of the school, from the South.
The British who ruled Sudan maintained fairly good relations with both Arab Northerners and African Southerners. But, as in some other countries, at Independence we left both parties in deep suspicion of each other. That does not mean we are solely responsible for the civil wars that followed our departure. It does give us a moral obligation to support the peacemakers of both sides rather than just analyse and criticise from afar. We too need to raise our hands for ‘the big picture’ that will enable and protect the peace.
In imperial days Britain aimed to control the Nile Valley in rivalry with the French. In the Cold War the West and the Communist powers competed for influence across Africa and the Middle East. Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement has been aided by a healthy consensus of African, North American and European countries. That is the best side of globalisation.