19 May 2020

A life-changing decision: Fleeing Darfur

Munzoul Assal could have ended up as a rebel in Darfur. He is still grateful to his father for making the decision that changed his entire family’s life.

By the mid-70’s, conditions in Darfur were already deteriorating and armed robbers started tightening their grip on the Darfurian countryside. Unrest and violence spread and slowly started to force people out of their homes. By 1979, the situation was deteriorating quickly. That’s when Munzoul Assal’s father made a dramatic decision. 

-I come from a nomadic family. We owned sheep, goats and cattle. Our house was like a fountain of milk, and was situated just off the road, so there was a constant stream of people coming to get milk. Every day upon coming home from school, I used to throw my schoolbooks in a dark corner and run out to look after our cattle. I and my siblings went about our daily activities as usual and without much worry. But my father saw what was coming. He sold all of his cattle and we left to start a new life in the city, says Assal.

It quickly turned out to be a wise decision. The situation in the countryside kept getting worse, and in 1983, famine broke out. In Al Fashir, the city in which the family now resided, they were shielded from the violence and hunger that plagued the countryside and Assal could continue his education.

At the time, more than anything, the move was something that forced them to leave a way of life behind. But in retrospect, it is the single thing he is most grateful to his father for. The move did not merely feel as a loss. It also changed their ambitions and opportunities. Had they stayed in the village, Assal is convinced that he would have been recruited by the rebel forces that were getting a tight grip on the countryside.

Instead, Munzoul Assal became a proper city boy.

-I found city life very exciting. During the school vacations, I used to cell cigarettes at the bus station, getting to meet and talk to a lot of people, says Assal.

But his goal was never to sell cigarettes. It was to go to university.

Banker dreams
As a teenager, Munzoul Assal never had any interest in social anthropology. He dreamt of becoming a banker, and that was the dream he pursued for the first few years as a student: Numbers were going to be his game. But then he met social anthropology professors Abdel Ghaffar Ahmed and Sharif Harir at the University of Khartoum. Their inspiring lectures about peoples and cultures changed the trajectory of his life.

-To be perfectly honest, there was not a single spark for mathematics in me, he laughs.

And so Assal, like so many others in the circle surrounding Abdel Ghaffar Ahmed and Sharif Harir in Khartoum, and Fredrik Barth, Gunnar Haaland and later Gunnar Sørbø and Leif Manger in Bergen, got sucked into the world of social anthropology and the long-lasting cooperation between academics in Khartoum and Bergen. On 14 August 1998, he boarded the Lufthansa plane to Bergen. The first time travelling to Europe took him to the wettest and coldest place he had ever been.

-It was tough the first few months. Not only weather-wise, but also socially. People seemed very reserved. They would say hi at the most, and then leave you to yourself, he says.

Things changed though, and life in Norway became every bit as commonplace as in Sudan. In some ways so much so that people started questioning his choices, especially his fellow anthropologists. He did his PhD on Sudanese refugees’ experiences with coming to Norway. At the time, doing your fieldwork in the country you live in was quite an unconventional choice for social anthropologists. And perhaps even more so; how could a social anthropologist do fieldwork in, of all places, Norway?

-It was a struggle to convince Norwegian anthropologists that it was important to do fieldwork in their home country. But it all fed into a larger and lively debate on cultural relativism and about anthropology in general that was both timely and important. Now, fortunately, we are passed this debate. Doing fieldwork in your home country is no longer controversial, he says.

As for his informants, Sudanese refugees in Norway, they struggled to take him seriously at first.

-‘He is from Sudan himself. How can he study his own people? Surely he knows what the Sudanese are like’, he laughs.

The Darfur heart and soul
There undoubtedly is something about knowing where you come from, and feeling it in your heart and soul, no matter how far you have gone and for how long you have been away. In 2002, when the crisis erupted in Darfur, Assal was in Bergen finishing his PhD. He decided to go back to Sudan, and people thought he was crazy. But he couldn’t stay.

-Coming from Darfur defines you. It defines your relations, he says.

Some of his family members never left the countryside, not even during the uprising. They ended up as internally displaced persons in and around Al Fashir.

Leaving Darfur and coming back to Sudan to live and work in Khartoum has not made him feel any less Darfurian. Both in terms of his family and his research interests, the bond is still there. A quick glance at his research projects and publications will tell you that the pastoralist tradition of Darfur is still close to heart. And he is very grateful that many of his family members come visit him frequently.

-Family is extremely important in Sudan. The family system is one of the key factors in keeping the country together, he says.

Finally a silver lining for Sudan?
Even though Assal since finishing his PhD has travelled all over the world, Bergen is still, weather-wise, the most unwelcoming city he has ever been to. By far. But it has also become his second home. Assal is one of the driving forces of the Assisting Regional Universities in Sudan (ARUS), a collaboration between a team of researchers at several universities in Sudan, CMI and the University of Bergen. 

-I’m very happy to be part of this and that we keep the close ties through the ARUS programme, especially in light of last year’s developments in Sudan. Norway has always been an important country for Sudan, both academically and in political terms. And now, with the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir, there is both an opening and opportunities. What has happened needs to be documented and studied. This can only be done properly through research. We have cooperated closely with our Norwegian colleagues for a long time, and it is only natural to reinforce the cooperation now, he says.

The Sudanese Professional Association came to spearhead the uprising against al-Bashir’s government after the first protests erupted in December 2018. Many lawyers, doctors and academics are members of the association, and several professors at the University of Khartoum played a key role forming a staff initiative calling for al-Bashir to step down.

Following the developments closely and not being afraid to speak out, Assal quickly got an important role on tv as a commentator to the developments in Sudan, and his blunt and intrepid speech was noticed. He was even considered for a post in the transitional government, but declined.

-I have never been aligned to any of the political parties. Maybe that’s why I have gotten away with speaking openly and critically about the political processes that have been taking place. And that is the way I prefer it to stay. I strongly feel that my place is in research.