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.
However, when our Air Egypt flight hit the tarmac, the famine crisis had been waning for some time. As regular crop production slowly resumed, dusty bags of worm-filled beans languished in USAID warehouses. Post-emergency status meant time to explore connection and understanding. But that wasn’t happening in our small outpost.
I’m oversimplifying. Several Americans on the team were doing their best to befriend national workers. Ken and I joined them. Ken was (and still is) all about visiting people in their homes for tea or evening meals. But the workload was intense and our after-hours effort, like our window air conditioning units, provided only a temporary, slight change in limited space and time.
Layers of Personal Anger (as two questions and two observations)
Writing this piece I bumped into the dilemma of nuance. Anger is not always about a clear cut, discrete act, or a distinct good or bad guy. I can be the bad guy reporting a story from one (very biased) side, and the good guy as I call out evil. I can dismiss a person in the way I hate to be dismissed, or identify with the marginalized.
That said, Glen, the director for the small program in Khartoum, was the textbook definition of Authoritarian and Hierarchy.
He could represent anyone plugged into a position not because he was a good fit, but simply because he would do it. As a product of the A&H system and because of his A&H-based leadership style, Khartoum was the one place he could work.
I overheard Glen dress down one of the national staff members. (This happened more often, but the first time is most memorable.) His nasal voice dripped with condescension. The thought of that patronizing tone still raises the hair and skin on the back of my neck. The cringe, born of shame and helplessness, goes deep.
1) Why are damaged people assigned to work where they can do so much damage?
Note: Anyone with an A&H leadership style a) doesn’t see the problems it generates b) blames others— their lack of responsibility, dedication, and respect—when things don’t go their way.
I couldn’t just swallow the meanness I’d witnessed. This must have registered with Glen because on another occasion he spoke to one of the staff, in my presence. He used the tone reserved for other expats (still poison, but not full strength). Afterward the person left, Glen looked at me and preened. “See, I can be fair.” he said. I was stunned. “So you should be praised for doing the right thing?” I asked.
2) Why does anyone expect kudos for not acting like an ass?
Early on, I became and remained distressed and afraid. Distressed because of unavoidable association. Like Glen, I was an outsider, a white westerner there to dispense help. But I was not Glen’s equal; I had no influence to create change in the office culture.
3) We may look like we’re on the same team, but we’re not.
At the same time I was afraid. Glen had the power to make life miserable. For example, he could grant access to vehicle use for weekend trips. Or, if pissed off, not. How badly do I want to go camping in the desert?
4) Speak truth to power; prepare for reprisals. Or protect personal interest and feel like sh*t.
Darkness and Light
This has been painful. [Special thanks to Ken for being the first reader. I know it was hard.] Remembering Khartoum, I sit with the stunning ignorance and idealism of my 24-year-old self. I love and hate myself for these—traits I still wrestle with. And I wonder, What good was it? And What good is naming Personal Anger? I’m not sure. The answers are complicated and nuanced.
However, I continue to believe that owning our stories, including the pain, the darkness, and the light, is what integration is all about. It is the way to authentic relationships: with others and with your Self. Writing as honestly as possible, facing and sharing our humanity—including the full range of our emotions—is an accomplishment.