To change the place in some novels would be to remove one of the lead characters or to rewrite the whole story. Half a Yellow Sun is one such novel, set before and during the Biafran war, its gives tremendous insights into Nigeria’s history, its people and the divisions that exist in Nigeria to this day; Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy is pure Dublin, one cannot imagine the characters with their unique wit anywhere else; the Yorkshire Moors are integral to the darkness in Wuthering Heights.
In my fictional novel, Deniable Memories, I’ve set Martha’s personal story in Sudan, as I experienced it some thirty years ago. I was the grand age of twenty-five when I went there and I was under the illusion I was strong, independent and maybe even resilient. Sudan, where much of the story takes place, was startingly real to the young idealistic person I was when I landed there gloriously ignorant of Sudan’s history and its own divided people. In Deniable Memories, I hope I have done justice to Sudan and the Sudanese; in particular, to the women and the many hardships they faced, often with incredible dignity. Sudan changed me. It awakened in me a new sense of self and gave me greater insight into love and human resilience. When Martha’s story came to me, the Sudan I knew and my experiences there were the natural backdrop. Some readers may even consider there are two main characters in my book: Martha and Sudan. I did not plan it that way but, on reflection, it is how the story demanded to be told.
When I landed in Sudan, I was carrying US$10,000 I was to smuggle into the country. An intense military presence struck me with full frightening force when I walked into Khartoum airport; their uniforms lacked uniformity and their weapons were ancient, but they were no less terrifying for that. After the airport we faced military road blocks where curfew passes were presented and checked, at gunpoint. The scene was set for my new norm; security everywhere, even when it was not conspicuous: on Christmas Eve, after a blanket distribution in a leprosy settlement out in the desert, a fellow volunteer and I got lost driving through the unlit streets of Khartoum. We were nearing panic as curfew time was fast approaching. Out of the darkness a child ran in front of us; his small body made a startling impact as it hit the side of our pick-up; on he ran, back into the darkness; as if we had imagined him. Four men appeared. Four rifles were pointed at us. We were forced to pullover. A few terrifying hours followed.
If military control was my first and lasting impression of Sudan, dry heat and sand were my second; wherever I went, there was heat and sand. I adjusted to these and in time I adjusted to the slow, endless bureaucracy: a licence to have a camera – which only permitted photos of close friends and family; tightly controlled foreign exchange – at ridiculous rates to allow the government to cream off millions – hence I was expected to smuggle in $10,000; permits to buy fuel – a little of which might go missing; permits to import vehicles – which took so long to get that sometimes the vehicles had mysteriously disappeared out of Port Sudan by the time permits came through.
Ever-present military control, heat, sand and endless bureaucracy are all new and unsettling to Martha, the main character in my book, as they were new to me when I landed in Sudan. But what has resounded with me and what I hope will resound with anyone who reads Deniable Memories, is how witnessing the love, strength and resilience of the Sudanese refugees is life-changing: Martha has a lot to learn from the people of Sudan, especially the internal refugees, the women and children from the south who had made the arduous one-thousand-mile journey north, by foot, to camps outside Khartoum where over one million of them lived in hovels. They were fleeing war as the resource-rich south fought for independence from the rest of Sudan.
As an author I did not, and do not, get to decide how Sudan’s story will unfold; it is not unfolding as I would wish for these wonderful people. It was a further twenty-one years from my time in Sudan before South Sudan formally became an independent republic in 2011. Sadly, violence continued after independence and the latest peace agreement was struck only in February of this year. In Sudan, as in the rest of the world, conflict, not drought or other natural disasters, is the primary cause of hunger.
Terror continues to the present day in Sudan and extreme violence was used on the streets of Khartoum against the protesters in the recent revolution; a revolution which is said to have started when the fight for bread became a fight for freedom; a revolution which has had women at its forefront as they aim to put an end to over thirty years of a military dictatorship.
But it will be a slow journey to end the patriarchy and the rule of the elite as depicted in Deniable Memories. Female Genital Mutilation, usually carried out by local midwives using unsterilised sharp objects, was and is the norm. These midwives asked volunteer nurses for sterile blades, leaving the nurses in a dilemma: if they gave the blades, they knew they would be used for cutting girls and by giving them, they might be seen to condone cutting; if they didn’t give the sterile blades, then anything, including a sharpened stone, might be used and the young girls could suffer serious infection and even die. Almost nine out of ten women and girls in Sudan have undergone FGM according to United Nations data. But Sudan’s story is moving on and on 22 April, 2020, the transitionary Sudanese government approved legislation which criminalises FGM. Women’s rights activists fear it will be difficult to change minds in communities which view the traditional practice as necessary to marry their daughters. I still shiver when I think about this.
Women and in particular, mother-daughter love, are at the centre of Deniable Memories. The main character, Martha, a volunteer with an Irish NGO, cannot but compare the love she witnesses between Sudanese mothers and their children against the lack of love she received from her mother. What Martha experiences in Sudan will change her. How would it not!
(c) Vanessa Pearse
About Deniable Memories:
When asked why she is heading off as a volunteer to war-torn Sudan, Martha’s stock answer is, “I’ve had a good life, it’s time I gave something back.” But the truth is buried in a muddle of memories distorted by her so-called family.
From the moment she lands, trembling into the heat of a run-down Khartoum airport filled with armed guards, she realises that she is ill-prepared for the dusty, military-controlled Muslim country.
Amidst the unsettling, and at times terrifying, experiences that await her, the dignity, humanity and resilience of the Sudanese people who face unspeakable loss resonates with her. As she finds joy in an orphanage, witnesses unconditional love in bare hovels, learns to embrace new friendships and the possibility of romantic love Martha is drawn to face her memories.
Africa will change her, as is its way.
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