A few days into my freshman year of college, I met a Sudanese boy. Sudanese, like me. How exciting, I thought. My first week in Canada and I’ve met a fellow compatriot on some staircase in some building in some university in the Northwest of some frigid city thousands of miles away from home. Sweet.
But he, a Nuer from the South of Sudan, wasn’t as stoked to make my acquaintance. As much as I try to avoid identifying myself as such, I am a Northerner. I come from a people who are responsible for the death of some two million Southern Sudanese and the displacement of four million more. People who look more or less like me have abused people who look more or less like him for decades. And that’s why I couldn’t fault him for his anger.
“Fuck you,” he said. “Your people enslaved my people. I should smack you.”
Those were his exact words, and they cut deep. I was 17 at the time. Naïve enough to expect strangers to give me the benefit of the doubt, to give me enough time to say I’m an ally of the South, to detail my father’s long history with the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to explain that we are all people of the Nile. But, naïve though I was, I
had for years shouldered a sense of “Northern Guilt,” if you will, that kept me quiet.
My relationship with my country has been painful and complex for as long as I can remember, but my national identity has always been based on the rejection of tribe / religion / language / race as a marker of Sudanese-ness. That is a notion I inherited from my parents, in whose homes there have always hung as many framed pictures of Dr. John Garang as of our family. Garang, the charismatic, widely adored leader of the SPLM who died in a freak helicopter accident in 2005, was a friend and colleague of my father’s.
One of my earliest memories is of sitting next to him on a bamboo sofa in a backyard in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. I was five years old, my family newly flung from Sudan after the arrival of an Islamist regime that quickly expelled academics, hanged communists, imprisoned dissenters. As a kindergartner, I recognized Garang as a hero of sorts. But it would be years before I could even begin to tackle the complexities of my country’s identity and mine.
The current conversation concerning the referendum for the South’s independence, for which voting began last Sunday and will continue through the end of the week, falls into the trap that people talking about Sudan cannot seem to escape. It classifies us into one of two rigid categories, with no room for overlap. Either you’re an Arab Muslim Northerner or else you’re a Christian (or Animist) Black Southerner, the story goes. Your allegiances, too, fall neatly into one of those categories.
And, sure, there are clear differences between Sudan’s Northern and Southern provinces. But there are differences within them as well. And despite those differences, inter- and intra-, both regions are linked through historical interdependencies and a shared common heritage. Neither of which can be erased by the re-drawing of borders and the issuing of new passports. Sudan’s history and its people’s ethnicity and race and culture and language and religion, our ties to each other and to outsiders, are complex beyond measure. So complex that there is no narrative that encompasses us all. It is beyond disingenuous to try to impose one.
We’ve had a long legacy of racism, institutional and otherwise, whose infectious presence in Sudan’s political, economic, and socials structures cannot be overemphasized. But we’ve also had a long legacy of interaction with foreigners—the Turks, the Egyptians, the French, the British, among others—that has shaped us, enriched us, torn us apart, complicated our story exponentially. Our history traces back further than the coup of 1989, further than the landing of the British in the 1800s, further than the arrival of Islam hundreds of years before that.
While it feels wrong to idealize a unified Sudan, so does it feel wrong to ignore the centuries of shared history that connect all Sudanese to one other and to our land. I fully respect and support the outcome of the referendum, be it for unity or independence. But, looking to the future, I can’t help but wonder what it will mean for our collective histories and senses of self. As the moment of truth approaches, I’m hoping for the best, but cautiously preparing for heartbreak.