Sudan′s young people roll up their sleeves

Sudan′s younger generation has already faced all manner of crises, from the conflicts and struggles of a country in the process of breaking apart, economic crises, to problems in health and education. It′s a generation that anticipates the worst and has no concept of peace. But idle? Hardly. By Abdul Salam al-Haj

By Abdul Salam al-Haj

While the older generation in Sudan enjoyed a settled life and permanent jobs, in which the civil service and the public sector flourished, today′s youth are experiencing everything that′s wrong in the way of economic decline and a 19.6% rise in unemployment in 2017. The military coups which Sudan has witnessed reflect an accumulation of these factors, pushing society towards insubordination. They can either be seen as an attempt to assert power by force or, at the very least, as a repudiation.   

"Six years ago, I was someone with simple and run-of-the-mill aspirations, but after I began volunteering, my ideas changed considerably." With this confident statement, Khaled Siraj, the 20-year-old, begins his voluntary work. Khaled works for Education without Borders (Sudan). In recent years, voluntary work has become very popular among young people in Sudan. There are volunteers currently operating in over 4,000 organisations and voluntary groups in a host of fields across the country – education, health, culture and arts, emergency relief and disaster prevention. There are also many agencies, associations and youth centres which are active in the field of capacity building among young people, including the Bridge to Development Centre, the Youth Forum Organisation and Yalla Sudan.

The Voluntary Associations Law in Sudan was promulgated in 1957 in order to regulate and register voluntary charitable societies. With the development and diversification of social life, the volunteering movement expanded and grew, leading to a multiplicity of associations, organisations and initiatives.

Everything changed, however, when the Islamists came to power in a military coup in 1989. In the years that followed, voluntary activities were cut back, as the government shut down a number of organisations involved in Sudanese civil society. Now, however, it would appear that voluntary work in Sudan is enjoying something of a golden age. It enjoys wide support across society and is proving successful in engaging Sudanese youth.

Voluntary work in Khartoum, Sudan (photo: C. Faris Elshegil)
Voluntary work sows seed of action among the younger generation: "it′s just one way for young people to restructure Sudanese society," says Education Without Borders volunteer Khaled Siraj, who doesn′t believe the intergenerational struggle is a major problem

Generally speaking, however, life in Sudan has taken a turn for the worse. The institutional and political structures continue to deteriorate from year to year, driving young people to look for alternative lifestyle solutions, including voluntary activity. In terms of social media, however, it has been possible to make significant advances for little outlay.

Prosperity and growth

Some researchers into civil society regard volunteering as a sign of national prosperity. In this context, one of their number, Dr. Abdul Rahim Bilal, has observed that "Sudan is blessed with a huge reservoir of positive spirit and voluntary organisations, or what development literature these days calls social capital. The challenge is investing this social capital in an intellectual revolution, a revolution of technical and behavioural efficiency. This is essential in order to implement policies based on science and practical experience that serve the interests of the general public."Amid this boom and as a result of Sudan′s weak system of state education, Education without Borders emerged in 2011. It is one of the most prominent voluntary groups active in education. The group is based on the philosophy of social change movements. It aims to energise the population  towards education and towards engagement with it, the group growing and expanding to become one with society at large. Ultimately it should dissolve and disappear completely, leaving behind a society that is convinced that nurturing education is a vital issue.

Education without Borders has more than ten different projects. "We undertake voluntary youth work, with the aim of introducing this model into society and getting it fully integrated," says Ruh Nasir. "For this reason, the group needs to operate in a simple, uncomplicated way which reflects the way society works.″

When discussing voluntary activity in Sudan, it is impossible to ignore the Hawadith Street Initiative, which provides treatment and care for sick children. This initiative produced the intensive care unit at the Mohamed Alamin Hamid Hospital for Children in Omdurman in 2015 with a budget exceeding one billion Sudanese pounds. Its voluntary activities have since expanded to more than twenty cities across the country.

The reality of daily life and the importance of children′s health have made them ever more eager to spend all their spare time helping sick children, said Yusuf Hindusa, a member of the Hawadith Street Initiative. "The volunteers are distributed according to their availability across a schedule that covers every hour of every day and every day of every week, to ensure that there is always at least one volunteer when needed." As for material support, he says: "Needs are met by donors who follow the Hawadith Street Initiative page on Facebook."

Crowd-funded hospital ward in Sudan, courtesy of the Hawadith Street Initiative (source: Facebook; Hawadith Street Initiative)
Sudan, a country rich in social capital: "the challenge is investing this social capital in an intellectual revolution, a revolution of technical and behavioural efficiency. This is essential in order to implement policies based on science and practical experience that serve the interests of the general public", says civil society researcher Abdul Rahim Bilal

The struggle for control and leadership

Some believe that the intergenerational conflict in Sudan revolves around control and leadership, with the older generation holding firm to the reins of power and politics, whilst the younger generation is largely shut out. This has exacerbated the situation and compounded the conflict. Since the 1960s, only death has led to a change in the leaders of the main political parties, whilst some of them remain in office to this day.

The photographer Khalid Bahr believes that a delusion of "age superiority" affects a very large segment of the Sudanese population, which makes them behave in a condescending way with anyone younger than them. "Most of them who grew up and lived in the golden age in Sudan deal with the present as a ′historical ghetto′. They think that it will break down sooner rather than later and they regard the young people of today with pity."

Differences in perception

The relationship between generations in Sudan is sometimes characterised by a kind of obstinacy, resulting from cultural and social boundaries which are more stringent and tied up with religion. On the one hand, it relates to the limits of what is permitted and not permitted in Islam (halal and haram), but it also has to do with the fact that older people still have direct authority over the young. The extent of the differences is evident in the perceptions and social values, as well as in the nature of the customs and traditions in society which the young are trying to overcome by whatever means at their disposal. At the same time, as modern communications have developed, so the gulf between old and young has widened. An increased awareness of other cultures is also a source of potential friction.

Young activist Malath Abdulkadir describes the struggle between the generations as a difference in perceptions. The younger generation usually views the ideas of the old as belonging to a different age and as incompatible with the changes being felt by individuals and groups today.

As for Khaled Siraj, being productive and getting involved is integral to voluntary work.

For his part, the young director Musab Hassouna, founder of an initiative to train children in filmmaking, is of the opinion that the previous generation enjoyed better opportunities and circumstances. Hassouna believes that the current generation can put its mark on Sudanese society in cinema: ″In three years we independently produced more than 40 short films as part of the Children Filmmaking Initiative Sudan, which goes to show that the current generation has much to offer Sudanese society."

Khaled Siraj doesn′t believe the intergenerational struggle is a major problem, but it shouldn′t be a hindrance in life, either.

Hassouna believes that creating common points of understanding will contribute to bringing the different generations together in Sudan.

"Voluntary work in Sudan has created awareness and sowed the seeds of action among the younger generation. It′s just one way for young people to restructure Sudanese society," says Siraj. But Hassouna believes that the older generation "must let go of the reins of power and arrive at a better understanding of the younger generation. And for their part, the younger generation should accommodate the older generation, so that there′s a mechanism for dialogue between the parties in order to develop a fruitful and constructive relationship."

Abdul Salam al-Haj

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton

Abdul Salam al-Haj is a freelance journalist from Sudan, interested in cultural and social affairs and specialising in digital media. He works as an adviser to a number of websites. His writings have been published in a number of newspapers and websites, both in and outside Sudan.