A Gift of Grace - Lillian speaks to AFRECS in the USA

I am grateful for this opportunity to introduce you to Together for Sudan, a small educational charity born some 15 years ago in Khartoum. Among our several objectives we seek to bring Christians and Muslims together in service to impoverished, displaced, uneducated and ignored fellow citizens, many of whom are also without hope for a better future. We are in process of registration as an American, as well as a Sudanese and British, charity.

Usually in speaking about TfS I have concentrated on how our work began in 1995 in respond to what Sudanese people, women in particular, said they needed. These included the wife of an Episcopal pastor in the Nuba Mountains who asked if I could help her daughter attend university. Soon afterwards other young women requested similar help. Then came requests for educational support such as solar panels and a mobile library. The small projects which were eventually integrated into a charity known today as Together for Sudan were not at all complicated although the work was certainly varied.

I remain astonished that while my husband Alan Goulty was British Ambassador to Sudan in the mid-1990s, I was able, with the help of Sudanese volunteers, many of them women, to set up six projects: The Bishop Mubarak Fund which sent young women to university, a mobile library, a solar lighting project, an English Language Foundation, The Women’s Action Group which eventually opened a women’s centre and, finally, Befrienders Khartoum which provided listening therapy to despairing and suicidal people. Returning to the British Residence in the evening Alan used to ask me “What new project did you set up today?”

I think of that time with wonder although I was too busy to understand what an extraordinary experience I was living through in the company of Muslim and Christian women. While it was happening I felt enormously grateful for the opportunity. Today, some 15 years on, I understand that time as an outbreak of grace in my life, a time of special support.

But the work which became Together for Sudan never belonged to me. When my husband and I were withdrawn from Sudan after the 20 August 1998 American bombing of a pharmaceutical factory at Shifa just outside Khartoum, I suffered intensely over the people and work which I had left behind. It is sometimes easier to work on the front line than to be forced to accept that the people you love must be left to manage on their own. Which they did very well! Meanwhile, I was consoled that behind the need which Christian and Muslim Sudanese women felt to reach out to one another, there moved the loving hand of God. And I count myself among those who benefitted most.

By early 1999, with me back in London, The Bishop Mubarak Fund (educational projects) and Together for Sudan (educational support projects) were incorporated as registered British charities and fundraising had begun. Eventually several of the projects failed, due mainly to lack of local leadership, although the Women’s Action Group and Befrienders Khartoum both remained active for several years. Meanwhile, a number of new projects such as teacher training, vocational scholarships, Eye Care Outreach, scholarships for AIDS orphans and HIV/AIDS Awareness Outreach were set up. The late Bishop Mubarak had inspired me to help Nuba women through education and relatives of the bishop initially agreed that we might use his name. Sadly, however, a desire to control the scholarship funding resulted in threats of violence against our Sudanese colleagues and in 2004 the educational work of the Bishop Mubarak Fund was folded into Together for Sudan. Our mottos remain “Power to the Powerless Through Education” and “Building Peace Through Service”.

Although I shall share with you some of my ideas about how to set up and run a small Sudanese-British charity – which is soon to be an American registered charity as well -- I cannot tell you how Together for Sudan has survived other than “by grace”.

Where are we now? Since 2001 I have been able to return to Sudan at least twice a year and today we have offices in Khartoum and Kadugli. We have no paid workers other than our eleven Sudanese colleagues in the TfS offices in Khartoum and Kadugli, no vehicles or property other than a few battered desks, chairs and computers, no access to the internet in the Nuba Mountains, periodic difficulties from “security” authorities and low funding reserves. But we are blessed with loyal and competent, although poorly paid, Sudanese colleagues and the friendship and trust of the underprivileged communities in which we work -- as I saw again when I visited Khartoum and Kadugli in May.

Together for Sudan projects have provided in-service training to hundreds of teachers, supplied over 500 university scholarships in Sudan, reached some 15,000 people with AIDS awareness information, helped over 10,000 people with eye surgery and/or glasses through our Eye Care Outreach, benefitted thousands of children over several years by paying teachers’ salaries as a means to keep 24 self-help schools open, supplied solar lighting panels to many schools and clinics, and, two years ago, launched a vocational training project. We do all this in response to local demand.

Practical Points

There are a number of practical ideas and objectives which have supported Together for Sudan through the years and which may be helpful to other small charities. Each of us can ask ourselves what we as individuals or as members of a small group can do to help others. In the Khartoum area and in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan many people are in great need of the education and other services which outsiders can offer. There are ways to find a role and ways to offer help. The following list reflects the Together for Sudan experience.

  • Listen to what women say they need. That was and is our starting point and the biggest key I can offer. The education of women is our first and most important priority. As women in Darfur recently reminded me, “Teach us to read and we will help ourselves!”

  • Look for niches of pain and suffering occupied by individuals such as the illiterate, orphans, widows, victims of HIV/AIDS. There are many current areas of need which, so far as I know, are not being sufficiently addressed among the poor and displaced in northern Sudan. These include cleft palate, diabetes (some 40 percent of the patients who attend our Eye Care Outreach), albinos (who need sun glasses and sun screen), disabled people, amputees and others in need of wheelchairs, and others.

    Remember, however, that education remains the greatest general need. You can’t go wrong there although careful management of funds is critically important.

  • Start small Make sure the project has a chance for sustainability when outside funding stops. For example, sewing machines are not a good idea if there is not a market for home made clothing.

  • Avoid putting temptation in front of impoverished people. Most are reliable but circumstances can change individuals. What would you do if your mother were dying, you had no money for medicine and a foreigner asked you to carry cash to the next village?

  • Remember that poverty corrupts, so be practical. If cheated, be forgiving.

  • Listen carefully to what community leaders describe as their difficulties and enlist them where possible as supporters.

  • Adhere to Sudanese law and be courteous to local government officials. Many of them are good people and may endorse or protect your work. But keep your ideas on local politics to yourself.

  • Never pay or accept bribes (If you think the gift may be a bribe, it probably is).

  • Insist on financial accountability. Transfer funding through banks, not through individuals, if at all possible. Remember that pooled funds seldom work in broken communities, as we have learned in the settlements for displaced persons outside Khartoum.

  • Keep alert and shut down projects/work which becomes unproductive due to changing circumstances.

  • Bring Christians and Muslims together in service to the poor. In northern Sudan this helps to safeguard project longevity and strengthens your organization’s position with the authorities. It is also – I am convinced – greatly pleasing to God.

  • Cultivate local patrons, including both Muslims and Christians. And, of course, wherever possible include both Christians and Muslims as beneficiaries.

  • Finally, northern Sudan offers a unique venue for Christian/Muslim reconciliation among the poor and the displaced as well as among northern intellectuals and other open minded Christians and Muslims.

    Working with Muslims can enables us as Christians to see the positive, constructive face of Islam, as well as the working of God through Islam. It can also allow Muslims to see God’s grace at work through Christians. As a Sudanese woman once told me, “What we Sudanese need is forgiveness upgrading”. And that is what we Americans need as well.

Lillian Craig Harris. Director, Together for Sudan - (click here to learn more)

Note In 2013 Together for Sudan was renamed the Women's Educational Partnership which is the name it is now known by.