We lived and worked there for almost one year. We were young, idealistic, and pretty clueless about life (married or single) anywhere, but especially in a totally unfamiliar culture. It was a horrible year. Not because of the hot, dusty weather. Not because we struggled to communicate with the kind, hospitable Sudanese. Not because we were learning how to live together, which was its own special challenge. But because the assignment with a small non-government aid agency slammed me into the flagrant disparity that comes with power and control, sometime called Authoritarianism and Hierarchy.
Disclaimer #1: Many things could and have been written about Sudan at the end of the famine in the 1980’s. My story is neither political, comprehensive, or objective; it is one that I will dissect and rewrite many times, for many reasons. Today’s reason: Personal Anger and Authoritarianism, also known as Hierarchy. Or A&H for now.
Growing up in a Man’s World, I saw A&H all the time. It colored everything I knew. But the coloring was subtle and muted because I’d had enough freedom and education to think hard work and smarts would earn me respect and a voice, that, on the whole life is fair, we all have the same opportunities and we get what we deserve. When I pointed out disparity, institutions of power, that is men, were happy to let (a-hem) me think I had a voice. They assured me that all I needed was a bit more effort, a bit more patience, a bit more diplomacy. And, by the way, they 1) knew what was best, 2) had always done it this way, 3) wished me well and/or loved me.
Seeing vs. Recognition
In Khartoum I started to recognize the no-win reality of the system of power distribution in which an individual or group is privileged over others within a culture, organization, or society. Personally, and as an observer, I began to wake up and see the ranking of people and their worth based on sex, skin color, wealth, faith, education—all of the things considered proof of what make us better (or worse) than someone else.
Disclaimer #2: Before I give the impression that Khartoum is where I became “woke”, let me quickly add that I am a bad feminist and a slow learner. As a newlywed, I shrugged off thoughts of authoritarian leadership (too close to home) and had no idea what hierarchy was beyond a brief encounter with Maslow. Figuring out that hierarchy is totally effed up—that it creates and feeds on division, distrust, and discontent—has taken me a very long time. For me, identifying and living an egalitarian life is an ongoing, hit and miss endeavor.
Ken and I landed in Khartoum in late 1986. The Horn of Africa, including Sudan, was recovering from devastating famine. Ken was there to work for the development and aid organization of our church as a one of many non-governmental channels disbursing assistance from USAID and a few international charities. We joined a small team of expats and Sudanese nationals working with food distribution and a mother/child health program.
When the primary purpose for a relationship is to dispense aid, power and control issues stand out in bold relief. Initially, the aid is a response to an emergency. Efforts to develop connection and understanding are skipped in the name of efficiency. One party becomes the good and powerful helper and giver, the other party a pitiful and needy receiver or taker. Respect withers before it is born. Continue Reading →