There are many rituals shared, with subtle variations, by all of humanity. They cut through the man-made barriers that have arisen over time – borders, skin color, amount of wealth – and remind us that we are much more same than different. One of these rituals is school-going. In a refugee camp set in the Chadian desert, every school day children get dressed, pack their books, join their friends and set off to school together. We were fortunate to join as insiders today.
As the school came into view, we saw that many kids were playing in the compound. Ah, that beloved time right before the start of school when great childhood storylines are played out. Some kids caught sight of us, and started coming towards. Within a few moments, it seemed like the entire school population was swarming around us. Everyone was very friendly and greeting us, but I still felt a bit uncomfortable being the object of curiosity for so many people! After a bit more walking we reached the principal’s office, and he brought out chairs for us. So there we were, sitting outside his office, with a few hundred students standing right in front of us. Then with just a few words and hand gestures from the principal, everyone dispersed. Respect of elders (and maybe authority) is clear here, even though it is often at odds with pure youthful exuberance.
After the assembly, which included the singing of songs about Darfur, the kids filed off inside to await their teachers. Connie and I spoke with a few older-looking boys right outside their classroom. One was 18, another was 21 (though he looked more mature than that). They spoke very good English considering they had only started learning it upon arriving at the camp a few years back, but they were all in grade 5. The day before, we spoke to a former Darfuri teacher who said that the government had not spent money on Darfur for a long time. Recently I came upon the average literacy for Darfuri refugees in a group of camps. It was significantly lower than the overall Sudan number. While these statements are by no means solid science, one thing is clear: there were legitimate triggers for the dissent in Darfur, so for there to be a true and lasting peace, there has to be a commitment by those in power to give Darfur its share of physical and human development.
Later, we interviewed four students who had been selected by their teacher to speak with us in English. Two future teachers, a future professor of languages, and a future president of Sudan. Gabriel asked them about the songs they sang, and the boys sang one to us. I thought the lyrics were very moving, so here they are again as translated by Assad, the 18 year old boy:
We love our Sudan, we love our Sudan
But we have desire to return back in our Sudan
But we not have any free, how can we return back, how can we return back in our Sudan
How can we return back in our Sudan
We never have any education, how can we return back in our Sudan
We love our Sudan very much, very much
He really sounded like he meant it. Almost everyone we’ve spoken to, despite the atrocities they experienced, wants to return to Darfur. How many of us can claim so much love for our country? Why should not a government reciprocate this love and by doing so achieve progress through true partnership? Yes, I hear, things are “not so simple”.
As guiding principles, I believe they really are.