How Becomining a Diplomat's Wife Gave Me a New Career
In Cairo, where my husband Alan Goulty was Deputy Head of Mission in the early 1990s, I found myself with time on my hands when the manuscript of my book about China’s relations with the Middle East was at last sent off to the London publisher. Seeking a sabbatical from intellectual activities, I decided to do something which would be stimulating but entirely different. But what? At lunch a couple weeks later, two British women friends gave me marching orders.
“Start the Samaritans here in Cairo,” they said, pointing to the evident need and to my past experiences in London. Befrienders Cairo began in early 1992. Within a short while we had several score Egyptian, British, American, and other volunteers and by telephone and face to face were helping people hold on to hope through use of “listening therapy”. By the time I left Cairo two years later, I was exhausted and exhilarated and had turned my back forever on academic endeavours.
Although I still sometimes mourn the loss of a professional identity, it was the beginning of a journey which would enrich my life. I had become a member of that vast group of unpaid workers whose efforts around the world save lives, safeguard the future, fight poverty, protect the environment, empower women – just to point out what immediately comes to mind. In short, I am no longer a China historian. Since then, although I have written other books, they are about suffering and injustice.
In 1995 we moved on to Sudan. Emboldened by becoming an ambassador’s wife (if people persist in assigning rights and privileges to you, use them for good!), I decided to educate myself about displaced Sudanese women. But the wives of government officials warned me off at one of the first dinners we gave in Khartoum.
“Don’t go there,” they advised sternly when I asked about the miserable squatter settlements inhabited by some two million people on Khartoum’s outskirts. “Those people are dirty thieves, diseased, ignorant, drunken and immoral. You can do nothing for them.” Nonetheless, shortly therefore in the company of a Catholic priest I visited Jaborona camp where in hovel after hovel we came upon emaciated, hungry, even dying, people. It was another step in my introduction to suffering, a journey which has enriched, enraged and empowered me.
At first it did indeed seem that there was nothing which I could do to help. What could one person do for thousands of people who urgently needed clean water, food, medical care, education, and hope to hold on until somehow peace was arranged and they could go home to southern and western Sudan? I backed off for I had yet to learn that if we look long enough and with compassion on the suffering of others, eventually we will “see” God and a way forward will be found. But a seed had been planted in my heart.
Some months later when Alan and I were travelling in the Nuba Mountains with a visiting British bishop, other women helped me begin to put pieces of the puzzle together. In the first incident the mother of a girl who had, unusually for a Nuba, completed secondary school, asked if I could possibly help pay her daughter’s university fees. Having been helped through university by others when my parents were unable to do so, I had long thought of doing the same for one or two other needy women. So I agreed to help for at least a year. Easy enough, I thought.
The second incident occurred during the same trip. The Episcopal Church of Sudan bishop in whose diocese we were travelling took us to Delami, a village whose people had experienced death and devastation in many forms over more than 20 years due to the ongoing civil war. There, in a flimsy shelter used as a church, Bishop Mubarak asked me to speak to the women. I refused. What could I presume to say to these emaciated, seemingly hopeless women who held up their sick and dying children to me in expectation? No, I said. There is nothing I can say which will help. But as others among the visitors spoke words of recognition and comfort, I realised that I, too, must reach back.
So I told them that when I was a child and a Taiwanese woman asked my mother who was her favourite among the six children, my mother replied without hesitation that the sick child, the hungry child, the troubled child was always her favourite, always had her attention. God, I said, to the Nuba women is like that mother. Then the woman began to hug me and to weep with me. There would be no turning back. I had stepped, all unknowing, into a new world of spiritual enrichment and fundraising exhaustion.
In following weeks before I could say, “Hold on! I can’t possibly manage all this,” not only were other Nuba mothers signing up their daughters for university but the mothers were organising literacy classes for themselves and expecting me to pay the teachers. The Bishop Mubarak Fund, known today as Together for Sudan, was born in 1996. Meanwhile, I had shocked the Khartoum Rotarians who, when they asked me to be Lady Speaker of the Year, were told yes provided I could discuss suicide. Befrienders Khartoum opened its doors in 1997.
About that time a group of well educated Sudanese Muslim women asked if I would find some Christian women to whom they could talk about the need for peace and reconciliation. Although the Christians were initially reluctant, being in the minority, the group quickly bonded through the use of listening therapy and then began to hold outreaches into the IDP camps. Everyone was allowed to tell her story.
“Men want power,” the women told me, “But women want peace.” The British Residence seemed to the women a neutral and safe venue and soon the Women’s Action Group was born. As facilitator I was expected not to take sides, to make certain everyone was allowed to speak, to settle the rare arguments. And I learned more than I had ever hoped to know about women’s lives in modern Sudan.
A WAG women’s centre was established before Alan and I were withdrawn from Sudan in the aftermath of the American cruise missile attack on Khartoum in August 1998. During the next nine months of waiting to return to Sudan to collect our heavy baggage and our dogs, I went back to Khartoum once. Shortly after return my visa was cancelled and I was expelled. Both Befrienders Khartoum and the Women’s Action Group collapsed after five or six years as the result of poor management and the changing political climate. But Together for Sudan has been a registered English charity since 2000 and as director I now visit Sudan two or three times a year.
During this past year we had over 240 women at university in Sudan, some 50 women’s literacy classes, a scholarship project for AIDS orphans, and a teacher training and support project involving 25 schools for displaced and marginalised children. Our AIDS Awareness and Eye Care projects reach close to 40,000 people each year. And this summer Together for Sudan began women’s literacy training in Darfur.
“Speak for us,” Sudanese women told me when I was forced to leave in 1998. “Don’t let us be forgotten.” I owe them more than I can say. Someday they shall live in peace.