Split of a soul: when politics shoots at culture

The 2011 referendum granting South Sudan independence served as a decisive verdict on the history of decades-long civil war as well as the foundational tenets of the modern international community. Adil Babikir evokes lost narratives of national unity that once resounded in both Sudan and South Sudan through a single name: Mongo Zambeiri.

To thousands of Sudanese in the 1940s-1960s, Mongo Zambeiri was an icon, a symbol of the people and of national unity in Sudan - one of a kind. He was not a politician in any sense of the word. Nor was he a religious leader, or an ethnic or military figure. Yet, few celebrities in the entire country were as famous as he was. Unlike the case of politicians, religious and ethnic leaders, whose popularity rarely transcended their constituencies, strongholds and geographical territories, affection for Mongo was unequivocal, consistent, and universal.

Sitting in his village in the outskirts of Yambio, itself a small town in the southernmost part of the once united Sudan, he was proudly conscious that millions of pupils across the country knew him by name. His name echoed through classrooms in all parts of the expansive country- from Geneina in the west to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, and from Wadi Halfa on the border with Egypt to Nimule on the border with Uganda. Having come to know him through a lyrical poem that was part of the Arabic language curriculum in Sudanese schools, they thought he was a fictional character.

Of the very few privileged to meet him in person was Abdel Lateef Abder Rahman, a primary school teacher from northern Sudan. They met in the early 1940s in Bakt elRuda Teachers College in Ed Dueim, White Nile Province, then the central institute for training teachers.  It was a time of heightened nationalistic sentiments when northeners and southeners were coming together against the Anglo-Egyptian rule, particularly their infamous "South Sudan Policy", designed to pre-empt any rapproachment bewteen the north and the south of Sudan. As part of that policy, Mongo was transferred to Malkal in Upper Nile. The abrupt decision was clearly aimed at preventing the educated elite in both parts of the country from joining forces against the colonial power. At a farewell party thrown in his honour at the Alumnae Club in Ed Dueim, Mongo was so moved by the warm feelings of his colleagues and friends that he burst into tears. That touched the poetic cord of his friend Abdel Lateef, who improvised the poem:

We are two souls united in one body,
Say Mongo: Cursed and doomed he who divides us,
Say with me: Cursed and doomed he who splits us.

 Little was heard of Mongo after his return to the South, but the poem continued to enflame nationalistic sentiments through the years to independence in 1956. Mongo was a symbol of a dream: that the two parts of the country will remain united. The lyric eloquently captured an optimistic mood, and reflected the strong aspirations for unity that prevailed ahead of Sudan’s independence in 1956. It was an antidote to burgeoning separatist calls amongst the southern intellectuals, nurtured by decades of colonial rule.  

The spectre of the South seceding from the North had loomed high since the 1940s. The British colonial authorities had been particularly keen on creating a schism between the two parts of the country. Through a host of ‘divide and rule’ tactics, the British worked hard to foster mistrust between the north and the south. In the build up to independence, however, the northern leaders managed to win the southerners on their side when they vowed to support their demand for autonomous rule upon independence from Britain.  

Unfortunately, the successive national governments did little to meet that demand and hence prove that the deeply entrenched distrust of their countrymen in the South had been ill founded. On the contrary, the ensuing civil war that has crippled the country for the most part of the last 60 years after independence, only served to deepen those sentiments.

The only exception was the period from 1972-1983, when the South enjoyed 11 years of uninterrupted peace, thanks to the Addis Ababa Agreement which gave the Southerners their long awaited autonomous rule. The signing of the accord in 1972 was a successful culmination of years of hard work that began in 1964, right after a popular uprising that toppled the military regime of General Ibrahim Abboud (1958-1964). Ironically, it was another general, Gaafar Nimeiri, who stole the limelight by inking the Accord which was almost ready when his tanks seized control of the country in May 1969.

Nimeiri’s success in holding on to power for 16 years was largely attributable to his success in silencing guns in the South. As if that simple fact was not clear enough in his mind, he committed a fatal mistake by introducing structural regulatory amendments that effectively abolished the autonomous rule. That act was more than enough for triggering another violent episode in the country’s turbulent history. John Garang took arms against the centre in 1983 and by 1985 Nimeiri’s regime collapsed. A brief democratic regime followed before another coup brought the Islamists to power in 1989.

It was under this latter regime that the conflict took its most dramatic turns. The Islamists waged a ‘holy war’ against John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the conflict escalated to unprecedented levels, prompting international intervention. Under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the Southerners were given the choice between remaining as part of the Sudan and establishing their own state. Their selection of the second option raised no eyebrows.

Throughout these ups and downs, however, Mongo has never lost his glamour amongst the successive generations in the North who continued to chant his name with an unfaltering zeal and reiterate their pledge to remain united against all odds. So deeply entrenched was the lyric in the young souls that, 60 years later, millions still memorize it by heart. The guns may have the upper hand on the ground, but it is culture that always wins at the end. 

I can’t forget a video footage of jubilant young southern ladies who took to the streets of Juba in celebration immediately after the results of the referendum were made public. I watched with a broken heart. They were in tears, screaming, jumping, overwhelmingly excited at the fact that at last they were going to have their own independent state. In their confused flurry, sentiments against the North inevitably surfaced. But looking at their dress, the henna tattoo on their palms and arms, their makeup, their fluent Arabic, I sought solace in the fact that at least those ladies were taking with them something that no guns can silence, no border checkpoints can detect, and no chemical process can wash out or obliterate.

The conflict between politics and culture is perpetual. At one point in history, that conflict prompted Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to say “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun”. In Sudan, we seemed to have gone steps further; Goebbels’ gun has been put to use, effectively cutting us into two.

But will it wipe out that lovely lyric from our hearts? Will it muffle our fervent appeals to Mongo Zambieri?

Sudanese: that’s what we both are – you and I,
We were born on this very soil,
Breastfed by the great Nile.
Who can separate us?
Who will dare try?
Together we‘ve lived in peace ever since,
Cherished by a bountiful valley,
Bonded by love,
As two souls united in one body,
Say Mongo: Cursed and doomed he who divides us,
Say with me: Cursed and doomed he who splits us.
About the author

Adil Babikir is a Sudanese writer and translator based in the UAE.

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