Allison Young 17 December 2007 ANTH 133A: Culture and Power in Africa Working with the Sudanese Education Fund While I have been familiar with the collection of paintings currently in the possession of the Sudanese Education Fund for almost a year now, the experience of working directly with the SEF over the past few weeks helped me to understand the implications of the seemingly endless conflict in Sudan, as well as the importance of these works in communicating individual experiences. As part of “Sudan Comes to Lincoln”, SEF’s recent fundraising effort that took place from November 29-December 2, 2007, paintings and photographs by Sudanese refugees were showcased in the Lincoln Library and in the Cambridge Trust Company bank. Visitors were privileged with the unique opportunity to hear about the paintings from Sudanese refugees themselves, who knew some of the artists and could give first-hand knowledge of any traditions or culture- specific details and images embedded in the paintings. The event was a learning experience for me in a few different ways. First of all, I found out that I went into it knowing more than I thought I did. At the library, when members of the Sudanese community were busy with something else, I found myself stepping in as a docent to some visitors who knew nothing about the history of these paintings. As I repeated the background, of how the paintings were produced in Kakuma Refugee Camp, brought over with the intention of sending money to the artists, and later preserved as cultural documentation, the story began to actually set in. Reading about a conflict in a distant region such as Sudan can often turn it into something borderline- fictional, and is just one piece of a diverse current-events collection so far away from us here. But actually standing in front of a painting, being able to touch the exact canvas that was touched by an individual going through something few Americans could survive is extremely humbling. Later in the week, I helped Susan Winship wrap and pack away a few of the paintings I’d almost become an expert on by now. As I spent an afternoon alone with about a third of the collection, I really started to think about the weight of this all. In order to preserve the paint on each fragile canvas that seemed to barely be held together by a few staples, I had to make sure to apply a sheet of acid-free paper that the SEF could hardly afford. This single sheet that had been reused more than once was one important step in making sure that the contents of these paintings don’t disappear. The paper was a bit wrinkled by now, the paintings were obviously not being professionally handled, and I realized an unqualified college student was responsible for at least a fraction of their fate. Maybe it was the fact that I had a few hours alone to overanalyze the situation but it seemed a bit too metaphoric. The acid-free paper was the inadequate protection of Sudanese culture and history, as survivors of the civil war in Sudan are trying desperately to preserve what they remember as time passes and erodes both the paint and the richness of Southern Sudanese traditions. Each painting represents one facet of the Sudanese experience that we are trying to record and protect in order to raise awareness and promote change. The wooden panels behind each canvas seem as though they may be handmade, perhaps by Atem Aleu who brought the supplies to Kakuma. This backbone behind their culture was built with passionate hands but lacks the finished, industrial security of the West’s powerful nations. And there I was, in Susan’s basement, doing my small part to help out, while small NGOs and NPOs and clubs on college campuses try to do their part, campaigning for peace, hosting Sudanese teens, and sending fuel-efficient stoves to refugee camps. Susan recounted her experience of finding an evicted apartment in Lincoln to house at least three refugees, invoking the impact that working on a local, micro level can have on at least a few lives. These local events obviously help to build a platform either for expansion or for the creation of larger organizations, keeping in mind that it is often effective to start at a grassroots level. The Sudanese Education Fund is setting more than a small precedent though, and through fundraisers and donations they have given out over $460,000 in scholarships and grants for refugees primarily in the New England area to pursue higher education. While there are many refugees without aid, the SEF is making a world of difference by putting the silver lining on what has been such a traumatic journey for many of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan. It is extremely unfortunate that so many Sudanese individuals were forced to leave their homes due to a violent civil war, and embark on an intimidating escape to an unaccommodating Western World. However, with the help of the SEF and its donors, some of our Sudanese community members are granted exposure to Western education and can return with the capacity to seriously make a difference, or build a better future for descendant generations. At “Sudan Comes to Lincoln”, a few of the programs were geared towards children and educating youth, including an example of what school is like for children in Sudan. A few restless boys squirmed around the logs they were forced to sit on, without realizing that these logs were a luxury, a sign of privilege while the girls had to stand in the back. David Chanoff, in his essay, “Education is My Mother and Father”, explains that schooling was not a top priority in Dinka society, and successful young boys were given responsibility over the family cattle, which was the true source of pride. I wondered if the children of Lincoln were actually taking any of this in. They were taught a few Sudanese songs, which were surprisingly difficult for them to repeat due to the completely foreign musical cadence. But the Sudanese man teaching them was so passionate when teaching his culture, as were all of the members of the community teaching the children how to make cows out of clay about an hour later. While the event may have been executed to raise funds, sell patron-rights to the paintings, and raise awareness in order to get more people involved, the act of simply celebrating Sudanese culture is such an important one in this context. Many of the individuals portrayed in the film “Dinka Diaries” feared that as they assimilated into Western culture they would lose their traditional values and beliefs. A few of the Sudanese in Boston I’ve spoken with admit that they are starting to see this happen in their own lives. Through remembering a childhood hobby, they are able to tap deep into their memories and keep an aesthetic record of what life used to be like. As strong, grown men molded each little cow with precision, a room full of Americans just watched; We were amazed at our own failure to create such a simple piece while the Sudanese men completed beautiful and smooth sculptures in only a few minutes. They explained that they had been making the clay cows since their childhoods, out of mud in the ground wherever they could find some. I thought about what I had made as a child...friendship bracelets, snowmen, magazine collages. Would I take those memories with me if I was forced to live somewhere completely new? We tend to look at the refugees and see their journey away from home, try to help them fit in here in America, but years ago these exact individuals sat in the ground as children participating in a culture that now may depend partly on acid-free paper and overpriced clay for survival. And as much as we try to understand, to participate in their traditions and try to make cows of our own, we did not walk in their footsteps and it is impossible to really understand what this must have been like. I will not be able to make a perfect clay cow because I was not taught the craft as a child, and the cow does not bear as much significance in my memory. This does not mean it’s not worthwhile to try. While working with SEF it occurred to me that these efforts do tangibly make a difference on our lives as well. I plan on continuing to work with Susan; She has a few projects lined up for me next semester involving recording descriptions of photographs taken in Sudan and a few other organizational tasks related to the collection of paintings. I’ve written analytically about these paintings before, more than once, but I feel as though I really know them now. I’ve held them with my bare hands, I’ve told their stories to strangers, and I’ve tucked them away until the next time we wish to use them. These paintings have really taught me about culture and power in Africa, and in Sudan. Culture and power are more fragile than we think they are when we have a hold on them, but none of us can imagine something like our history or our cosmology being jeopardized by the socio-political climate over just a few decades. Power used to be something that was organized within Dinka society (relating to gender or age) but it has become something external and much more dangerous. I don’t want to conclude this experience, however, with a pessimistic realization on the infirmity of traditional culture in our modern world. I think that since we cannot change what has happened thus far to the people of Southern Sudan we can only look ahead at the world of opportunity some of the refugees have stumbled into. Hopefully together we can use educational and financial resources to continue campaigning, and promote a shift in power at this local level...they should be our teachers since we have been fortunate to hear their experiences first hand. Although I had intended on committing time to the Sudanese Education Fund for only the end of this semester, I plan on embracing as many opportunities as I can find to help, teach, and learn with the SEF for at least another semester, and hopefully I will feel that I have individually made a difference at some point.