From both north and south Sudan they journeyed to Nairobi, Kenya to take on a system they could hardly comprehend. They were the average women of a beleaguered nation that had been in war too long. While peace talks were taking place nearby between northern and southern leaders, these women settled themselves in public places and attempted to use their traditionally insignificant voices to request reason from those very leaders. It had been over 20 years and the peace they had enjoyed in earlier years was broken, seemingly beyond repair.
This was back in 2005, and I interviewed some of the women. What struck me at the outset was their sheer determination that they would not leave Nairobi until they were heard respectfully by those involved in the peace effort. They were an average lot, most of them mothers or grandmothers seeking to build a better life for their young ones, but since no one seemed to be willing to correct historic injustices they felt the time had come to take something of a lead.
The second thing I learned about them was that they could hardly comprehend the complexity of it all. Sudan was the largest nation in Africa, full of riches and destitution, water and sand, slavery and elitism, tribes and religions. They had no idea how to solve the political conflict, let alone the military struggles taking place across the border region. In many cases they hardly knew the names of their leaders. They were ignorant of the depth of it all but innately understood the societal costs.. But they wanted the system to change, to “study war no more,” to persuade the elites to think of the common people. When they told their stories, they were all personal: my child is dying, we have no schools in the village, we can no longer afford food, our wells are running dry.
These were the women of Sudan – heroic in their simplicity, remarkable in their fortitude. The international media swarmed them, finding in such female exploits the kind of stories that turned humanity into a feat of nobility. When peace was finally negotiated they eventually journeyed back to their respective homes. They had trusted that others more connected would work out all the details. As the women of Sudan their job was to throw their weight behind the forces for change, little understanding what it would take. They remain largely unrecognized or acknowledged today, but for those involved in the peace process they had become the symbol for what it was all about. And they endured. And they won. Some of them came to be called “the voices” – the ones who kept reminding the negotiators that there were deep problems requiring solutions.
In certain ways they remind me of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. I read the logic of a local reporter yesterday, claiming that though they were surely sincere enough, those protesters camped in one of our main downtown parks were on their way to obscurity because they lacked a concrete agenda. Whereas the women of Sudan had been recognized for doing something similar, and praised for it in the media, the OWS protesters now must bear the obtuse rationale of observers prodding them to come up with a plan. Somehow they won’t be deemed successful unless they do. No one asked the Sudanese women anything like that because they were seen as what they were – citizens attempting to draw attention to systemic flaws that had devastating consequences.
Presently, the majority of Canadians are expressing their own fretfulness over the distribution of wealth in this country and how the middle class family is facing an array of financial pressures. They can’t see the new jobs coming, but witness everyday the old ones passing away. Many are middle-aged, unemployed, and in the process of consolidating their limited resources. They worry about healthcare and the costs for their kids’ education. Some wonder where their next meal will come from. Soldiers are returning from Afghanistan with no sense of future direction. The rich get richer. The gap between rich and poor yawns ever wider. And after all this, jaded observers question the protesters, not the conditions that have led to such challenges.
I have no idea whether the OWS movement will run out of steam or imagination, but their legitimacy was to be found in their willingness to alert Canadians to the dangers before us and some of the injustices of our present financial system. When the women of Sudan did something similar, reporters showed not only sympathy, but a growing curiosity as to what the true problems were in the land. Not here – at least not enough. I spoke with a man today who had visited the food bank and was just grateful that a group of concerned citizens were demonstrating for a correction of the system. He lost his job seven months ago and he senses they feel his pain. These protesters are somehow connected to every Canadian who has fallen through the cracks or worries about their financial future. To criticize that the protesters lack some future agenda is to make light of our national collective pain. Journalists need to resist the urge to move on to something else, but that would take work, humanity, digging for the real issues, and explaining them to Canadians. If these problems are indeed real, every Canadian should at least acknowledge that they are more aware of them because some dedicated people decided to camp in a park. That was the point of the protests anyway – to be the voices of concern. Their future isn’t our problem, but rather our present.