Perception vs. Reality in Darfur


Professor George Bond, a wonderful man and great anthropologist at Columbia University Teachers College, sadly passed away earlier this month. Related to me through extended family, we spent much time together while I was living and studying in the USA. During that time we bonded over our shared interest in Africa and international politics and I benefited immeasurably from his guidance, thoughts and recommendations. My appreciation for the field of anthropology, and arguably all of my reading in this field, I owe to George. I miss him deeply and will always regret not making even more of the valuable time we had to share together.

When we met last he asked about whether I was writing (ever unhappy that I had not started my PhD yet) and he extracted a commitment from me to blog about my (then) recent visit to Darfur; most specifically about how perceptions and reality differ for highly politicised spaces such as this. While this post is so long overdue, the promise is kept even if I can no longer send it to him.

But before I can examine about the ‘reality’ of my time in Darfur, I have to revisit with some honesty where my ‘perceptions’ of the region were borne.

I first heard about Darfur when I started my African Studies degree in the US. My naivety about the country and the situation it faced was unavoidable. Just as I was grasping new disciplines with unadulterated intellectual enthusiasm, arguments were being made in Washington DC that the conflict in Darfur was of a ‘genocidal’ nature. With the haziness of the past I feel that Darfur was omnipresent in my studies. In classes we endlessly debated the responsibility faced by the United Nations, the African Union and the American public, I interviewed John Prendergast for the Yale Journal of International Affairs, took part in ‘Brown Bag’ discussions, had the privilege of being taught by the great genocide scholar, Professor Adam Jones, listened to endless lectures, read countless articles, and in the end felt I had some grasp on this complex situation I heard was taking place over five thousand miles away.

My mental image of Darfur was inevitably based on the constructed image portrayed by the media – deserts, banditry and poverty. It was only years later that I finally read Mamdani’s excellent critique of the politics of violence surrounding the use of the word ‘genocide’ and I finally recognised the limits of my exposure to alternative views on the political implications of how such campaigns are run.

When I finally made it to The Sudan in person there I was asked a question by my SudaneDarfur 2013se colleagues that was remarkably similar to that posed by George a few months later – what surprised me while I was there? By this time I had greater exposure to the reality of life in IDP camps and so the ‘shock’ they may have expected did not materialise. However the question did force me to reflect on the paucity of the image presented by the campaigns and news compared to the reality. Hence when I speak about Darfur, even now, I cannot help but find myself emphasising facets that I feel may disrupt stereotypes – the Darfuri universities (Al Fashir University and Nyala University are both based in Darfur), the size of the region, and just how green it can be…

As for me, if  am honest, I was most surprised by the pigeons. Seeing birds I associate with my home city in such different surroundings was not something I had expected and their image is still one of the first that comes to mind when I think of my time there. If nothing else, they reminded me of how complaisant we are to ascribe ‘difference’ to other places.

Reflecting on that conversation with George I am humbled by his continuing wish for me to explore the world with challenging eyes, to reflect on the limitations of our experience. Only now am I fully appreciating how much he must have left for me to discover myself, when I so often exposed my ignorance borne of opinions formed far from their source. This blog is in no small part dedicated to him, without whom I would not have appreciated how much nuance is hidden from my view.



Categories: in pursuit of nuance

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