Shamsa* is far from home. Sitting in the silence of the library at the University of Cape Town, ensconced by books on the shelves surrounding her, she whispers about her life in Darfur. At the age of 23, Shamsa is an anomaly in her community. She has not only survived President Omar al-Bashir’s racist regime against non-Arabs, but she has pursued her education with a voracious tenacity, travelling to the tip of the African continent in the pursuit of her empowerment. It is her mother’s fierce tackling of the status quo that, Shamsa believes, has kept her alive up until now.
With a colourful head covering, bright earrings and an easy smile, Shamsa’s demeanour is one that is both young and old, both playful and heavy with past experiences and future responsibilities. She has been living in Cape Town for only three years and has been able to learn English from almost nothing while completing her Masters in Economics at the same time. She has lived most of her life under al-Bashir’s dictatorship in which 200,000-300,000 people have died and almost 3m have been displaced. This is almost half of Darfur’s entire population. Of those affected, half are children, with nearly 700,000 knowing no other life but one that is conflict-ridden.
My father only survived because he lay among dead bodies after the Janjaweed attacked our village
Shamsa is one of these statistics. “My story is very unusual,” she begins to explain. “My mother is one of 27 children because her father had many wives. She is the only sibling to have educated her children.” Shamsa and her siblings have grown up with the knowledge that education is their weapon. Her siblings back home are either finishing school or completing their undergraduate degrees at the University of Khartoum.
The men in Darfur are often forced to leave their families as they are considered prime targets by the balaclava-wearing, gun-yielding government militia known as the Janjaweed. “In fact, my father only survived because he lay among dead bodies after the Janjaweed had attacked our village. One of the dead bodies was my uncle’s, and my father had to lie there for three days with the corpses. He later told us how bad it smelled.”
Shamsa was 13 when her father fled. Her mother became a part of the 28% of women heading households in Sudan. Her father fled to Juba in South Sudan where the Arab population is smaller and the colour of his skin would be less conspicuous. He found work and sent money back to his family when he could, sometimes trusting strangers to deliver it safely. In the meantime, Shamsa’s mother would sneak out in the night to cut firewood from the forests, selling it at markets to feed and educate her children.
“We survived because of my mother. She would sometimes hide us in the toilets, or the roof, covering us with cloths when she left to get firewood, telling us to be strong.” F
rom a young age, Shamsa learned about patience, silence and blood-curdling fear. Their village was close to a city and Shamsa’s mother was able to observe the power dynamics that had created deep rifts between the Black and Arab Sudanese population. She drew parallels between those with education and those with control. “She knew that fighting for freedom was important, but that education is more powerful.”
When Shamsa speaks to her mother on the phone, they both struggle not to cry each time. “She calls my studies ‘levels’, and says I must keep going until I am at the top one,” laughs Shamsa.
“Even though my parents cannot read or write, they have always been open-minded.” This mentality manifests not only through their education. Shamsa’s mother had encouraged and supported her younger sister to get a divorce when she admitted she did not love her husband. Divorce is still seen as a taboo in Shamsa’s community. “She is looked at differently now, but my mother said she could not be with someone she did not love.” Shamsa flicks through the photos on her phone until she finds one of her mother’s younger sister, Shamsa’s aunty, who is almost her age. A young face with dark eyes and a shy smile smiles back from the screen.
Even though my parents cannot read or write, they have always been open-minded.
Shamsa has carried her mother’s strong opinions and ideologies into her life too. She lives with her husband, who had walked from Sudan to South Africa to seek education and employment. Now a PhD student and research assistant, he sent for Shamsa to build a life together in South Africa. “It was not an arranged marriage,” she explains. “I was the one who asked my father’s permission. This is also quite an unusual thing to do.”
As we speak about women in Darfur, inexorably, stories of rape bubble to the surface; an unavoidable topic when it comes to women’s rights in conflict zones. Darfur is no different, with mass rapes continuously reported. In February this year, Human Rights Watch released a 48-page report: Mass Rape in Darfur: Sudanese Army Attacks Against Civilians in Tabit. This report documents the rape of at least 221 women and girls in over 36 hours in the town of Tabit in North Darfur.
“There was a 75-year-old lady who was raped in my village by the Janjaweed. I took her to hospital but she later died, not from the rape itself, but from a plastic bag that was left inside her body that the militia used as a condom. I was 15 years old at the time…”
She stares into the distance. Moments of silence stitch together Shamsa’s stories, allowing them to drift and settle like specks of dust in the sunlight.
In 2005, when then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, labelled the massacres in Darfur as a “genocide”, the world’s ears pricked up. Now, for many, Sudan is just another conflict-ridden African country that flickers across television screens and newspapers now and then before fading into anonymity. Shamsa is determined to fight this reaction. She speaks of using her education to empower others when she returns home one day, and to share her story with as many people as possible.
At 24, she has survived in one of the most conflict-ridden countries of our time. And now, having moved to a safer space, she has begun to thrive. “I still cannot stop thinking of all the other victims,” says Shamsa, as a voice shrills over a loudspeaker to say the library will soon be closing. “Not all of them have mothers as strong as mine.” And in that moment nothing seems clearer; this is something Shamsa’s own daughter will be saying about her mother one day, too.
*Not her real name. Shamsa asked to remain anonymous for the sake of her safety.