The other Sudan, the politically disenfranchised liberal one, we don’t hear much about in the news - a place where culture, colour and religion proudly intermingle – found its voice on Saturday night.
Not exactly in Sudan itself, but in a small corporate auditorium in a corner of north Khartoum, in front of an audience of just one hundred people but with the potential of a much larger virtual one, thanks to online steaming.
This was the result of an unusual alliance between the American ideas spreader, TED, who franchise their intellectual talks forum for independent events Sudan’s own progressive corporation DAL Group, acting as sponsor and host and a bunch of determined and articulate women.
TEDx Women Khartoum was one of a 150 events taking place across the world simultaneously this past weekend, in which women with Ideas worth sharing, as the TED slogan goes, stood up in front of an audience and shared them on the same day, worldwide.
In Khartoum, it was as much the idea of the event that is worth sharing, as the ideas put forward themselves. Sudan is a country, that in the words of one of the speakers, has “recently been amputated, has festering sores on its edges, and is currently running a general fever.”
That’s to say the Southern independence reduced Sudan’s size by a third when it split in July 2011, there is open rebellion in its new south and in the west in Darfur, and just a few days ago, in a heated day in the capital, several prominent figures were arrested on suspicion of coup plotting.
The departure of the South, which deprived Sudan of its largest non-muslim African minority, left the country without a constitution and in search of a new identity. Many government supporters believe the answer to that is straightforward: the new smaller Sudan is now clearly Arab, and Muslim and needs a properly enforced Sharia constitution.
The difficulty with that idea, as this event showed, is there is no one face that represents this country. It has many peoples, of many colours, with different religions. Even the overwhelmingly dominant Islam has no definitive form, as the varying fashions in headscarf wearing on Saturday night demonstrated. These ranged from full cover half cover cover incorporated into the traditional Sari-like tobe gossamer light scarf elegantly draped over a high chignon scarf & jeans to no headscarf at all.
This idea of Sudanese diversity underpinned the organisers’ choice of speakers.
A penniless single mum, unable to divorce because she was Coptic Christian told of how she ended up as Sudan’s top volleyball coach leading the national youth team.
A quietly spoken biochemist, demurely dressed in a turquoise tobe, spoke of the wrench of leaving her children to complete her studies. But this proved a worthy sacrifice after her breakthrough in how to grow sugarcane from seed, a patented discovery that could reduce the cost of sugarcane production – and associated bio-fuels – by ninety per cent.
A Christian woman from the Nuba Mountains, the heart of ongoing conflict in Sudan, told the story of how she spent her childhood herding livestock, had to fight to get an education, and then by 2005 became one of a thousand women to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
A glamorous Sudanese Ambassador, who is also a serious tennis player, novelist and mother, spoke of her multiplerole as ambassador for all these things. She urged the audience, that if ever they did not like the way they were represented, to seek to find ways of representing themselves. Taking up the conference slogan of claiming our space, she told them to find their own voice to represent their religion, their culture, their values, their beliefs.
Hours of talking ended not as, I imagine, those straight laced West Coast founders of TED envisaged in enthusiastic but polite applause, but with everyone – speakers, organizers and audience alike - dancing. A young rapper who had earlier performed, was brought back on for one last song.
Everyone came on stage for this finale, itself a visual demonstration of Sudanese diversity. So the evening ended with this feisty young rapper wiggling around in skinny black jeans, a baseball cap and a tight tee shirt. She was surrounded by the elegantly tobed middle-aged bio-chemist, the chic yet carefully covered, government Ambassador and all the other speakers and the organizers, some covered, some not, dancing away as if at a Sudanese wedding in a slow sway, clicking fingers, to a song of which the only audible line, constantly repeated was: “I like the way you touch my body”. Contradictory? No, no. Just very Sudanese.