African business, politics and lifestyle
Dancing to the last beats of a united Sudan
It was an engagement party thrown by a beaming, white-robed Khartoum patriarch with pulsing music provided by Orupaap, a group of mostly southern musicians and dancers.
The band was barely into its third song when the northern, southern and foreign guests swarmed on to the stage raising their arms and clicking their fingers in one of the few African dances easily mastered by awkward middle class Englishmen.
“Where is the band from,” I shouted at the host above the amplified music. “I think the musicians are Shilluk,” he replied, referring to a group with its heartlands around the southern city of Malakal. “They’re from here in Khartoum.”
Northerners and southerners have lived and fought and traded together for centuries — and over the last five and a half years they have been experimenting with an even closer form of cohabitation.
In 2005 they ended decades of civil war and signed a peace deal that set up a joint north-south government.
Southerners moved up to Khartoum to take up government positions and politicians made speeches about making unity “attractive” to both sides.
But behind the scenes — and sometimes way out in the open — northern and southern leaders bickered and stalled at every stage of tortured negotiations over the details of the peace deal.
Speeches and joint cultural events were easy. The actual business of living together and forgetting the centuries of bad blood proved too difficult.
The same night as the engagement celebration, the first results were emerging from a referendum on southern independence — a vote that was supposed to cement the peace deal and a revived enthusiasm for Sudanese unity. Instead, the people of Malakal, and all other southern regions, came out 99 percent for separation.
Back at the party, you had to force yourself to remember that this was not a typical night out in Khartoum. It was a glorious one-off, thrown to celebrate the engagement of two English people with friends from across Sudan’s wide cultural ranges.
The band, according to its website, was linked to a Roman Catholic aid group but adapted itself to Islamic sensibilities. When the guests were invited to join in for a second time, the band’s male dancers only pulled male guests up on to the stage and the female dancers targeted the women.
One Darfuri guest quietly presented the bride-to-be with a necklace from the region’s Fur tribe — a sign that she was “seriously engaged” — while the bridegroom-to-be got a metal pendant, traditionally worn on the forehead but adapted for the evening into a kind of corsage.
Miles away, the Darfur conflict rumbled on and further away still, southerners counted the days until they could declare themselves an independent nation.
Eleven p.m. came — the time when, according to Khartoum city regulations, all public music has to stop — and the band packed up its instruments and left.