Authoritarianism and Hierarchy: Lessons Learned in Khartoum

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Seven days after our wedding, Ken and I boarded a plane and began traveling. Our first shared address: Khartoum, Sudan. Here we are at a party: Ken in galabia and mustache. 

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.

What do you think? 

4 Responses to Authoritarianism and Hierarchy: Lessons Learned in Khartoum

  1. Maggie Connolly August 4, 2017 at 5:11 pm #

    I admire your ability to articulate these ideas and feelings Rebecca! Thank you for sharing your stories. It inspires me to look deeply at the themes in my own life and stop making excuses that I don’t have the time to think about my personal issues. But I do feel overwhelmed – my mind is like a desk overflowing with stacks of papers and I don’t know where to begin!

    • Rebecca Waring-Crane August 8, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

      Hello Maggie,
      Thank you so much for your encouragement. And taking time to join me on this journey.
      I totally relate to the overwhelm. Just now I stopped editing the next post to curse writing! This is hard work, and remembering experiences, putting them into words, them organizing all of it to make sense——*sigh*!! And I’m not always happy with the result. But, I digress.
      You hint at a question: Where to begin? Go where the writing feels juiciest, the story that you’ve rolled around for a while. Anne Lamott suggests the “one inch by one inch frame”. A small window…like lunch in grade school, or your first pet, or why you love a certain color, book, or season. I love her book on writing: Bird by Bird. <3 So, pick one paper from the stack. Write for yourself.

  2. Diane August 10, 2017 at 11:27 am #

    Rebecca, thank you for sharing these deep and disturbing ideas with us. We all have them and just don’t know how to articulate them most of the time. Your truthfulness is inspiring. I pulled out one of my old metaphysical books from that timeframe, 1984, entitled “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay. I’ve been studying it. It talks about anger and resentment and how it translates to disease in the body. Also, how to process the negative thoughts we learned very early on in our lives about ourselves. Very powerful indeed. And since I’ve been troubled by a lot of physical ailments recently, I have been very interested to understand more about this. So, I will keep on keeping on and hope you do too. Oh, and by the way, she inscribed the book to me by stating, “Love is always the healer”. Love it love it love it.

    • Rebecca Waring-Crane August 11, 2017 at 11:43 am #

      Dear Diane,
      With each short essay I strive to write from the heart: craft at least one honest sentence. I’m thankful to know some of my ideas resonate with you <3
      I LOVE Louse Hay! About 5 years ago I came across her work and bought the very book you name. Along with solid counseling, I am sure that putting her ideas into practice contributed to my healing process.
      Many thanks for taking time to read and respond to my musings.
      With gratitude ~ R

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