Among northern Sudanese families, slavery continues to be a taboo subject, even though this history has shaped the Sudans for centuries.
In the 1940s, my grandfather wrote a poem about his mother. She was from what was then southern Sudan. She was brought to Khartoum as a slave, where she was eventually married off to her Upper Egyptian master, a wealthy landowner who had settled in the city. She gave birth to several children, one of whom was my grandfather.
In the poem, my grandfather re-imagines the moment of his mother’s capture in a slave raid in southern Sudan. Though he himself had been born in Khartoum – inheriting his father’s name and elite status as well as his religion (Islam) and his language (Arabic) – he was open about acknowledging his mother’s slave ancestry. This was quite unusual. Among northern Sudanese families, especially around Khartoum, slavery was and continues to be a taboo subject, because to acknowledge slave descent in one’s bloodline is to acknowledge one’s lineage is “tainted”.
But slavery, of course, is a defining feature of the region’s history, dating back thousands of years. Under Turco-Egyptian rule of Sudan beginning in the 1820s, the practice was entrenched along a north-south axis, with slave raids taking place in southern Sudan and slaves transported to Egypt and the Ottoman empire. Under Mahdi rule between 1885-1898, the trade flourished. Anglo-Egyptian colonial authorities (who ruled Sudan between 1898 and 1956 under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium) officially abolished the practice in 1924, though it continued, unofficially, for decades after.
I am intrigued by this history not only because it has shaped my own family heritage, but also because it sheds light on some of the inequalities that have characterised the relationship between the two Sudans. In the north, to this day, the derogatory term for a South Sudanese is ‘abid – literally, “slave”. This not only points to the kind of discrimination that South Sudanese have had to suffer at the hands of northerners, it also indicates the extent to which the legacy of slavery continued to inform structures of economic, political and social inequality long after the official abolishment of the practice in 1924, and the country’s independence in 1956. It provides a context for why most South Sudanese felt that there was no place for them in a larger Sudan in which they would always be looked upon as worse than second-class citizens.
Indeed, there were claims that the practice was revived during the north-south civil war, though whether the practice constituted a directed policy of “enslavement” overseen by the Khartoum government against southern Sudanese, or whether it constituted war-related hostage taking, has been a subject of controversy. On one side, groups (primarily of a Christian bent), publicised the plight of the southern Sudanese they said were taken as slaves, particularly during the peak of the war in the 1980s-1990s. They organised slave redemption drives targeted at freeing slaves through monetary compensation. On the other side, activists, researchers and others argued that these slave redemption drives made things worse by creating a market for slaves where there hadn’t been one to begin with. Yes, hostages were taken during the war, but “hostage taking”, argued those like Sudan specialist Alex de Waal, was a very different thing from slavery. These more sceptical voices also questioned whether there was indeed a coherent government policy underpinning the practice, something that the slave liberationist groups claimed.
This controversy around slavery during the Sudanese civil war is an example of how difficult it often is to separate fact from fiction when talking about the two Sudans. At the crossroads of the Arab Middle East and Africa, and of Islam, Christianity and indigenous religions, the Sudans channel all kinds of conflicting agendas and narratives, both locally and internationally.
The Sudans, however, always prove to be more complicated than any of these narratives assert them to be. Which brings me back to my own family history, for it is a history that sets into relief the complexity of identity in the region. The significance of my great-grandmother’s legacy lies in the fact that it reflects the historical division between north and south, while also complicating it. On the one hand, her slavery is emblematic of the exploitation that many South Sudanese (and other marginalised groups) have suffered at the hands of ruling elites – whether colonial or postcolonial. On the other hand, as a progenitor of a “northern” Sudanese family, her legacy also suggests that the easy distinctions that are often drawn between groups (northerners and southerners, Arabs and Africans, and so on), are not always as simple or straightforward as they may appear at first glance. Though my grandfather did not inherit his mother’s southern Sudanese name, or her religion, or even her language, he was her son – something which no amount of patriarchal cultural “cleansing” could erase.
It is for this reason that it is necessary to remember and reclaim stories such as my great-grandmother’s. These stories allow us both to reconstruct historical legacies of oppression, and to deconstruct the myths of cultural and ethnic purity and “difference” on the basis of which much of this oppression has been justified in the region.
Fatin Abbas is one of the 2015 winners of a Morland Writing Scholarship which will allow her to research and write a book on contemporary Sudanese identity.