Obituary: Yousif Kuwa Mekki

By Alex de Waal
The Independent (UK)
April 4, 2001

FOR 16 years, Yousif Kuwa Mekki led a guerrilla division of the Sudan People's Liberation Army in the Nuba mountains of central Sudan, and was the figurehead of the Nuba people's struggle for survival against the repression meted out by the government in Khartoum.

His life was dedicated to raising the Nubas' awareness of and pride in their own culture. Nuba traditions of wrestling, dancing and body-painting have been celebrated in the photographs of George Rodger and Leni Riefenstahl, but since the National Islamic Front seized power in 1989, successive governments of Sudan have considered these practices as "un-Islamic" and a source of shame.

Yousif Kuwa Mekki was born on a small hill, el Akhwal, in the Nuba mountains, during the rainy season of 1945, taking his father's name Kuwa and his grandfather's name Mekki, in accordance with Sudanese tradition. As with most rural Sudanese, his birthday is not recorded.

For two decades until his death, he was the most prominent and charismatic leader of the 1.5 million-strong Nuba people. Kuwa was an unusual military commander. Before joining the ranks of the SPLA he was a teacher and cultural activist, and served as an elected politician in the regional assembly.

He grew up in a milieu in which to be Nuba was to be regarded almost as a slave. In a memoir of his early years (which appears in The Right to Be Nuba: the story of a Sudanese people's struggle for survival, published later this month), Kuwa recounts how he started "my rebellion" at school. "There was a headmaster. Of course he came from the North [of Sudan]. And he was always saying, `Why should these Nuba boys be taught, they should go to work as servants in houses.' " At school, Kuwa was punished for speaking in his mother tongue, the Miri language, rather than Arabic, and for protesting when the religious education teacher insisted that in the afterlife, angels were pale-skinned and devils were black.

This experience of discrimination led Yousif to look to his cultural identity as an African. He read the novels of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, and the political philosophy of the Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, finding that their visions of African culture and African socialism echoed his own experience. He found anthropological studies of Nuba traditions. "Why are we not taught about this in our schools?" he asked.

Studying at the University of Khartoum and thereafter working as a teacher in the Nuba mountains, Kuwa was co-founder of an organisation called Komolo (meaning "youth") dedicated to restoring the Nuba people's faith in their own cultures and identities. Komolo was suppressed and its members forced underground; most of its leaders later took up arms as part of the SPLA.

Campaigning for a seat in the regional assembly in 1981, Kuwa traversed the mountains on foot and by bicycle, encouraging his people to resist the money and blandishments of the Sudanese Arab candidates, and instead vote for him. He won handsomely, but failed to get the Nuba case fairly heard in the assembly. By 1984, as Sudanese politics became more polarised and the country slid into civil war, Kuwa joined the southern-led SPLA. As a Muslim from the geographical north, but dedicated to a tolerant, multi-cultural Sudan, he was the embodiment of the "New Sudan" philosophy of the SPLA leader Colonel John Garang.

SPLA forces quickly gained control of much of the Nuba mountains, where Kuwa had the chance to put his principles into practice. His governorship was marked by a cultural renaissance, as Nuba musicians rediscovered their traditions. Kuwa always sought consensus and democracy, insisting that sound civil administration, functioning courts and religious tolerance were the foundation of liberation.

But these were also years of extreme hardship for the Nuba people. The war has brought 16 years of relentless attacks from government forces, with hundreds of villages burned, thousands killed, and tens of thousands subject to famine. Challenged by his hungry people, Kuwa responded, "I myself have eaten mukheit" -referring to a bitter berry eaten as a last resort in times of famine.

One of Kuwa's longest and most bitter struggles was to bring UN humanitarian aid to his people. But the Nuba never achieved the same recognition or support as southern Sudan, and the UN has yet to honour a succession of promises. This year's government offensive has left 15,000 Nuba burned out of their villages. There is no peace in sight.

Yousif Kuwa Mekki, teacher, soldier and politician: born el Akhwal, Sudan c August 1945; three times married (14 children); died Norwich 31 March 2001.