What happens next is up to us

June 18, 1996|By Gregory Kane

One day my grandson may take a break from trying to drive me to the nut house and ask me what I learned in Sudan.

Proof of slavery I expected to find, the denials of President Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, the Sudanese ambassador and Louis Farrakhan notwithstanding. But there were unexpected surprises, some pleasant, some not.

Several impressions stand out.

One is that the definition of race and ethnicity depends on where you are.

In Sudan, all the "Arabs" I saw looked like African-Americans, ranging in complexion from dark brown to light-skinned. I discovered I was the same complexion as the people who were making life a living hell for the southern blacks, who are just that: jet black. My color inspired much merriment among the Dinkas of the south.

The morning Gil Lewthwaite and I left for Manyiel to buy the freedom of two young boys, Aleu Akechak Jok, the commissioner of Aweil West County, suggested - with a straight face - that I don an Arab robe known as a djellaba and a turban and pose as an Arab trader.

"You're joking, right?" I asked.

He smiled a little, then responded with what I hoped was a Dinka wisecrack. "You know, with the beard, they might even think you're a fundamentalist." Jok and the assembled guards then burst into raucous laughter.

There it was. My complexion causing mirth. My African brethren having a chuckle at the expense of their bronze American cousin. Go ahead, I thought, make fun of the colored kid from West Baltimore.

On the road to Manyiel, my thoughts turned to home. Southern Sudanese blacks are of a jet-black complexion that some - dare I say many? - African-Americans would regard with derision. No wonder when Jesse Jackson handed down an edict that we switch from black to African-American, most of us gladly did so, virtually overnight.

Was there a race war here in the Sudan? Jok said no. But Yousef Kuwa Makki, a Nubian commander of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, replied with an emphatic, "Sure."

Is the fact that the race war pits browns and yellows against blacks the reason most African-American leaders have been so disgustingly silent about slavery in the Sudan?

Louis Farrakhan has clearly sided with the lighter-skinned "Arabs" of the north, which brings up a question some blacks have posed for some time now: Is the Nation of Islam essentially a pro-black organization or an anti-black one?

There is a list of victims of violence by NOI members. All the victims are black. Black journalists who criticize Louis Farrakhan are almost guaranteed a call or visit from an NOI vanguard either making threats or demanding retractions. White journalists and radio talk show hosts condemn Farrakhan routinely - and much more vehemently - without so much as a whimper of protest from anyone in the NOI.

Arabs called Sudan "Bilad al-Sudan," which translates into "land of the blacks." They didn't mean it as a compliment, some historians say. One of them, the late Dr. Chancellor Williams, said Arabs in the region have a color superiority complex and have historically regarded the southern Sudan as one vast slave repository.

Afew days after we returned from the Sudan, Gil and I spoke with Mahdi Ibrahim Mohamed, the Sudanese ambassador to the United States.

He was unctuous and disingenuous, claiming that slavery was anathema in Sudan and contrary to the traditions of Islam. He acted as though Gil and I knew none of the history of slavery in Africa or the Sudan. Who, exactly, did he think he was talking to? Beavis and Butthead?

The views of many southern Sudanese on the history of their country clash with the ambassador's.

John Mangok, a Sudanese People's Liberation Army fighter, was our escort. He said he joined the rebel movement because of the "obvious ... discrimination done by the Arabs to our people." Mangok claimed that during the years of southern autonomy, blacks gained educationally.

"Those people who are now fighting are those who were educated during that period," he said. "We were enlightened to know the aims of the Arabs for our people."

Incidentally, Mangok's cousin is pro basketball star Manute Bol.

In a mere five days I have learned that the poor, half-naked blacks of Bahr el Ghazal and the Nuba Mountains - especially the youth - value education more than all too many of their African-American brethren.

As I walked back to the campsite one morning, a lanky 16-year-old Dinka boy named Gobir sidled up to me. He said hello, asked me my name and where I was from.

"America," I told him. "The United States. Where did you learn to speak English?"

Gobir pointed to a mission school off in the distance. It wasn't in session, he said, because enemy forces were operating close to Nyamlell. But school being canceled didn't douse his desire to learn.

"Please, do you have a pen?" he asked, explaining that even when school was in session he and other students had no pens or notebooks. I handed him one of my pens.

"Pilot," he said, reading the brand name.

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