The revolutionary writer from Sudan shares her story. “Like the fire that comes from a little bit of flames. We were that spark for ourselves, for our spirits, and for others.”
In April 2019, in a space known as one of the most dangerous places in Sudan, more than 800,000 people gathered outside of army headquarters and demanded that the military rulers of Sudan — led by the genocidal dictator Omar al-Bashir — relinquish control of the government.
Out on the streets, people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities spilled out onto the surrounding boulevards. They sang, chanted, and cheered. They made art, hosted discussion circles, and camped on the tarmac. They erected makeshift tents, dragged mattresses into the street, and refused to budge.
It was a culmination of several years of organized protest, followed by four continuous months of demonstration in the streets in every major city in Sudan. And on the sixth day of the non-violent sit-in, Bashir was removed from power. With their critical mass, the people toppled a regime that had overseen three decades of horrific misogyny and violence, including the ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
In that brief moment of victory, direct action prevailed. But in that same moment, as the people of Sudan celebrated and took the next step towards building a new government, one protester — an acclaimed journalist and novelist who goes by the pen name RaMa — was unable to cheer alongside her countrymen.
After years of organizing resistance committees in her community, she was targeted by the regime and forced to flee. And as Bashir was imprisoned, and the tides of change swept through Sudan, she and her young children had only just arrived here in Pittsburgh — where she’s still living today, in exile.
Today, RaMa finds sanctuary at City of Asylum, a non-profit on Pittsburgh’s North Side dedicated to providing safety for persecuted writers. With the ongoing instability back home, RaMa and her family have remained at City of Asylum, where she lives as a writer-in-residence, giving voice from afar to the people of Sudan.
Since RaMa’s arrival in Pittsburgh, Sudan has failed to successfully transition into a civilian-led government, sustaining challenges from military leaders and economic turbulence. This past October 25th marked the one-year anniversary of the most recent coup d’état, when the military seized power from the civilian-led transitional government — reigniting protests in the streets in what RaMa refers to as a longstanding “cycle of oppression and control.”
When asked about how it feels to watch from a distance, RaMa describes a sense of frustration and horror at the ongoing violence in the street. According to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, in the past year, since the military’s coup, at least 118 people have been killed in the act of protest.
“They are just killing people and killing all the youth,” RaMa says. “It’s hard to be here in Pittsburgh because I’m scared, not for myself. But I’m afraid for my friends. They are killing the young people, 18-, 20-, 21-year-olds. And those are the new generations. They have the new ideas. They have new hope. They have new energy to rebuild this country. And they are just hunting them like bears on the street.”
Today, the fight for democracy continues onward and RaMa continues using her writing and activism to advocate for Sudan, working to build a foundation of equity and justice for women and for young people, for those who continue to raise their voices in the streets — and those who have laid down their lives in the fight for democracy.
Over the course of the past two years, a small group of University of Pittsburgh students from Sampsonia Way Magazine have spent time speaking with RaMa, learning about her life in Sudan, her love for literature, and her role in helping to organize the grass-roots revolution. What follows is a conversation that’s been edited to preserve RaMa’s anonymity, telling the story of the revolution that continues to this day. (To read her first English-language publication, please read her poem “How Dare I?” — inspired by the Maxo Vanka murals in Millvale.)
We wanted to start at the beginning. How did you discover your passion for writing and literature?
One day, when I was 12 years old I was walking with my friend — not a very close friend — but a neighbor or someone like that. And she said, “I wrote a story last night.”
I said, “Yeah? You wrote a story?” And when I reached home, I said to myself, “Yeah? … I can write also.”
Then I grabbed a piece of chalk, and I wrote my first story on my kitchen wall. In Sudan, there’s a common kind of architecture called Rakoba. It has pillars and open space, with only one wall. So your friends and your neighbors can see inside your kitchen. So I wrote it, and the title was “The Three Friends.” Of course, it was about kids my age and their friendship between them and their loyalty and how they protect each other and that kind of stuff. That was the first thing I wrote. After that, I just loved to write.
But before that, I read a lot. I was like a rat who ate anything. I was just eating the books, reading the books, even if it was for an older age group than me. I think all of this reading helped me to say to my friend, “Yeah, I can write a story.” And then I went and wrote the thing. You know, instead of thinking, Can I? No, I can’t. What do I write about? Who are the characters? It wasn’t like that. It just came in one package.
It sounds like there was a sense of community around you. Was there anyone who encouraged your writing as a young girl?
No, no. In that community, actually, our class, the middle class, mostly doesn’t care about culture, writing, or reading. To go back to the story on the wall, just one person saw it and said, “I think this is a good thing.” He was my brother’s friend and our neighbor. Some of the people just looked at the wall and left. Some of them would say, “What is this? Did you make that on the wall?” And so they didn’t care. But after, when I got to high school, we had a neighbor who was working at a local TV and radio station, and he was also a journalist. He had a huge impact on me because he was the only one who was concerned. I could go to him, and he could give me his opinion. I was going to him and showing him the notebooks that I was writing in, and he encouraged me a lot. Even now, I see him like a teacher. When I got into college, he introduced me to the writers in the city. All of them were men, and I was the youngest and the only woman there. So he was a gift. He was a very huge help.
This leads us to a question we had about the culture of sexism in Sudan and the difficulties for women. Could you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be a woman in Sudan?
If you are a woman in Sudan, especially prior to the revolution, you don’t have a voice to express yourself or to even argue with your older brother, or your father, or your husband. You just have to be polite and obey everyone. You have to obey your father, to obey your brother, even if he is younger than you. You have to obey your husband, to obey the governor, to obey God, your mother. Everyone. It is like you are not there. Yes, you are physically there, but for women and girls in Sudan, it’s like you don’t have a voice.
When I was reading, my older brother wouldn’t like that. He would fight with me or scream at me. And sometimes he would hit me. It was not because I was a girl. It was because I was reading, so I would read secretly and, of course, write secretly because if he found that I was writing, he wouldn’t be pleased about that. He wanted me to just focus on studying. I can’t say that I had a good childhood, or even a teenage life, because so many times of the day, I would be afraid he would come and find me reading something instead of the books for school. Or I would be afraid that he would find my notebook, where I was writing about love and this kind of stuff. So, It wasn’t an easy life.
How have these hardships informed you as a parent today? Is there anything that you want your daughters to learn and that you want to teach them based on how you survived your childhood?
Yes, I want them to be strong. To get strength from themselves, not from others. Not to lean on a father or a brother. Because in Sudan, a woman, most of the time, will learn that someone has to protect her. Not because she wants to, but because the society and the system makes it so. Even if you want to travel outside the country, for a girl, she has to have a reason to travel, either for study or medical or work. But if she wants to go as a tourist, they ask for a brother to go with her, or a husband or a father. She can’t stand by herself. Not because the women are weak in Sudan, but because the system asks them to live in a certain way.
Fortunately, there have also been organizations working to empower women, to just give them strength, and calling to change the rules for the marriage laws and working to educate women. For instance there’s SORD, the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development. An example of the kind of law they’re trying to change is the Muslim Personal Law, where a father can marry his daughter to someone, even if she is 10 years old. So, these organizations wanted to remove this and change the age for the girls to be married to at least 18 years old or so. They did workshops, talking about laws and how this will affect the girls because whenever she has her period, even if she just turned 10, she could get married, even to someone who could be 40 or 50 years old. They don’t care about the age of the man.
Going back to your writing, can you tell us a little bit about your growth as a writer? What kinds of literary inspirations did you have along the way?
My writing developed even before I participated in any writing workshops. It developed as I grew, as my awareness and my thinking and my reading and my experience in life grew. At 12 years old, of course, I didn’t know about many things. I knew about school, friends, and family. But when I grew up, for example, in high school, I started writing about love and things like that. So the development just came with age and with my experiences in life. And the more I read, the more things opened up for me. In high school, my teachers supported me. They would say, “You write even better than us.” So the Arabic language teachers would support me and give me comments about what I’m writing. There were two of them, and both of them were women.
And, one of my influences, of course, is Tayeb Salih, one of the greatest writers in the Arabic world and even in the whole world. He is a Sudanese writer and wrote Season of Migration to the North. There is also Naguib Mahfouz and Eisa Al-Hilo. And, others, for example, when I was in my late 20s, I was reading Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, and other writers.
We’re interested in your political activism, and the work you did to help fight for democracy in Sudan. When did you start to become more politically aware of what was happening in your country as you were reacting to it?
You know, when I was young, my friend and I would say “I wish I was born a boy,” so I could come home at midnight or 11 p.m. and no one would ask me where I had been. We were wishing to be someone else. That was the root of this. Seeing that, no, I’m not someone else. And I don’t accept the situation as it is. And the injustice, of course, it was for women. But, moreover, it was for everyone.
There were three different situations under Omar al-Bashir’s regime that made me more politically aware. One was the Civil War between South Sudan and North Sudan. In 2005, there was a peace agreement that both sides signed. And depending on this agreement, they give the people in the south the right to vote for unity or separation from Sudan. And they voted for separation in 2011.
Then, there was the Darfur genocide. It started in 2003 when the government armies were starting a war again. The people then armed themselves and started fighting each other. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. And millions have run away and become refugees, either in neighboring countries next to that area or other countries all over the world. And finally the third situation occurred in the Nuba Mountain and Blue Nile regions, when the government started to bomb the people and the villages there. It started at different times between those regions. For example, Blue Nile was attacked in 2011.
But all of those places, over the last 30 years, have never had a very long time of peace. So all of this military rule, I couldn’t just watch and not say anything. This is what led me to start doing things, just to create change to make life better for women, of course, and for everyone else.
So my friends and I were asking ourselves: “Why have past revolutions failed?” And we figured out it was because there was no planning for it. There weren’t leaders for it. So we sat, and we said, “Okay, what can we do?” and then we formed this resistance group. Maybe fewer than 10 people would meet in my house. For many years, from late 2013 and till 2018, that root became a tree.
We were writing flyers and distributing them secretly. We were writing very short and very intense messages. We would distribute these flyers at mosques, at markets, and everywhere. Whenever there was a gathering of people, we would throw them the flyers, preparing people just to know that some people were working for the revolution and justice.
We would also write on walls. We knew that whatever we were doing there, of course, it would not change the regime in the capital, but at least this we could do. And eventually it just became a thing, and in any city, you can find a group like us. We came to call them resistance committees. Like the fire that comes from a little bit of flames. We were that spark for ourselves, for our spirits, and for others.
It’s really interesting to hear that the writing you did in the resistance committees was in secret, and that you grew up having to write secretly. It’s almost like you were training for it your whole life. What was it like at that moment of the revolution? Especially for women to lead this movement. What was that empowerment like?
Before the revolution, prior to 2018, we were just two in our group. Me and one other woman. I’m not sure about other groups. And later, in the revolution, you would find that women were more courageous than the men. They were the first in line. In the streets, there were more women than men. Although, women and girls could face very terrible situations; they could be raped or put in jail and tortured.
And, in the streets, when they would throw tear gas at us, the girls would ask the boys not to run. “Don’t run! Just stop.” For me, I was one of these girls asking the boys: “Don’t run. You have to stay.” When I heard that there were other girls around me saying the same thing, I was like, “Yeah, women are more brave than men.”
But this revolution is, of course, for all Sudan. Mainly it is for women so they can just be free and be themselves. And, I hope this will happen soon, but eventually, it will happen. Because to take all this toxic thinking or toxic thought from the collective mind, it is not easy. Even from some of the women’s minds themselves, because they see themselves as though they can’t do anything without someone to help them. Either their brother or someone else.
How did it feel for you to be so instrumental to such a huge movement? It must have been exciting and hopeful, but — you mentioned jail and torture — it sounds like there would be a lot of fear there, too.
There was a lot of fear and a lot of insecurity because before the revolution we would hold the meetings in our house, in my family’s house. So we had a very difficult time. When we had meetings, I would ask someone from our group to go and sit in the main street as a lookout because the security forces came in certain cars. If they saw anything, they would call me, so everyone could go very quickly.
At any moment, you could be arrested. Later, it got so bad that my girls and I had to go to live somewhere else for a while. We would walk on the street, and we didn’t know if we would come back to our houses or not. If we had a meeting somewhere, when we were finished no one could go by himself or herself. Even at door knocks we would yell “Go, go, go, and hide!”
From our group, four of us had been arrested. One of them stayed in jail for one month and endured all of this torturing. And of course, more were arrested during the street demonstrations. You could be jailed for anywhere from two months to several days. One of the men was a teacher in a city in the East. They impaled him with something, and he died in jail. We knew at any moment, this could happen for any one of us. There was so much fear, so much insecurity, so much unsafety.
Once al-Bashir was overthrown, how did the revolution change people’s lives in their day-to-day ?
When the transitional government took power, the people began to sense more freedom. They can express themselves. They can build this democracy that we didn’t have for 30 years. Life started getting better. It didn’t fully get better. Some laws have been changed for women. They stopped the female genital mutilation, and they were working to make changes to the laws that were against women.
There are also some negative things that happened. There is somewhat of an economic crisis. For a country that has been, for so long, a dictatorship, to go in the right direction you have to struggle just to move things from here to there until you get in the right direction. But yes, we had more freedom, we had laws starting to change for the benefit of women, and there is more freedom in the media. And, of course, people could go on the streets, and no one would kill them. This was so good. But now we’re going back again, to the same period, the same awful situation. In October of 2021, the military made a coup and regained power — and began the cycle of oppression and control all over again.
With the struggle carrying forward, how do you sustain the revolutionary energy?
During the time since the revolution, all of the resistance committees continued to build themselves. They spread and now they are in every city. So many neighborhoods have their own committees. The political parties are working behind the resistance committees because they are so revolutionary, even more so than the political parties. The minds of the revolutionary and the political are different. The revolutionary is radical, and the political will compromise. But the resistance committees have the revolution in mind. We will do whatever for however long it takes. We just want a civilian government. We are fighting for democracy, and we want to rebuild our country from the beginning, so the resistance committees have become stronger, more solid, and more organized.
We are not looking at just now. We’re looking forward to many years later. We want to rebuild this country from the beginning and get rid of any military involvement in the political life in Sudan. And, yes, we are struggling, but we are going forward. We say, “Okay, no more military, and we want our democracy, we want our civilian country. And we will do whatever to have that.” We will rebuild our country again and correct all the mistakes since our independence — and just get out of this circle. We call it the “evil circle.” Revolution. Transition government. Coup. Revolution. Transition government. Coup. We want to break this circle. This “evil circle.” Even to just have this idea in this collective mind. That is a huge benefit.
The following staff members contributed to this conversation: Hannah Woodruff, Sandy Fairclough, Olivia Orebaugh, Kate Rempe, Grace DeLallo, and Emily Rothermel.
Edited by Hailey Palubicki
Special thanks to Erin Roussel and Catherine Skolnicki from City of Asylum.
Special thanks to extra reporting provided by Hannah Woodruff.
And special thanks to Faiz Abubakr Mohamed for his photography. For more of his work, find him at @faizabubak.