Anxiety and Darfur (January 2021)

I can’t be the only one who feels that this whole Covid malarkey feels a bit unfair. It doesn’t seem right that the school I’ve been working on since before you were in Year 7 should be going through an existential crisis, struggling to keep open day to day. We did all that in 2014 – now we should be going from strength to strength: lessons sparkling in their scholarship, societies demonstrating first class student leadership, extra-curriculars varied and vibrant in their enthusiasm. It doesn’t seem fair that you should have to be toiling through your sixth form in these unfortunate circumstances; it doesn’t seem fair that you should be listening to this online rather than sitting in Westminster Abbey. These were meant to be the years where you explored your city, where your horizons were broadened, where you made things happen, where you began to shape your own lives – not where you’re stuck in your rooms, watching teachers doing their best to make online learning as much fun as they clearly believe face-to-face lessons to be. Even Boris Johnson, for whom I have very little sympathy, I imagine feels that this is all so unfair – he was meant to be basking in the glory of a Brexit got done, not wading through a pandemic that seems impossible to control.

This sense of unfairness can make us feel sorry for ourselves; our inability to shape our world can make us feel out of control and anxious. These are difficult times. How do you snap out of your self-pity? How do you manage your anxiety? I’m not here to talk you through that mental self-care (although I think you need to do it and if you haven’t yet thought through the answers to those questions in a strategic way then I suggest very strongly that you latch onto one of the wellbeing support programs we have – start by reading Ms White’s email on the subject). I’m not even going to share my own approaches – I don’t think my experience is sufficiently universal to be particularly helpful, although if you sometimes worry that the inside of your head might be similar to the inside of mine I’m happy to have a conversation on the subject. What I will do is pass on one piece of advice – and it is that one way of managing our introspection is to look outwards, think of other people, do something to help other people; if we try to address someone else’s needs then our brains have less opportunity to be tangled in our own.

It is in this spirit that I would like us to approach Resilience for a better Tomorrow this year. This season is an opportunity not just for us to stand up together for what we believe in, to say yes to kindness and no to prejudice, yes to scholarship and no to oppression; but also for us to engage our troubled minds with the needs of others, both near and far.

This means two things – that we should think about our community, our families, our locality and be actively kind: say the generous thing, help someone in need, support community values, pick up the litter someone else left, do more than our share of the washing up – and also that we should learn about other communities, listen to other stories, think about the needs of people we will never meet and absorb the lessons of their situations.

There’s a line from a Simon and Garfunkel song that’s been knocking around my head as I’ve put this assembly together: it goes like this -

"Hang on to your hopes, my friend. That’s an easy thing to say, but if your hopes should pass away then simply pretend that you can build them again."

That’s a dispiriting line – it’s a gloomy song and it emphasises everything I’ve been saying. Disappointment can lead to self-absorbtion and despair as we think our hopes have all passed away and all there is left is to pretend. I’m also struck that it’s hardly a new story – I quote from Simon and Garfunkel a lot: I love their music and know it well, but this is Resilience for a Better Tomorrow and it’s a time for us to learn things together – for me to tell stories that are new to me rather than the ones about two New Yorkers from the 60s.

So I did a bit of reading about Darfur. This is also a dispiriting story – it’s one that makes Paul Simon’s grumble that it’s a bit wintry and he doesn’t have enough vodka seem pathetic – it’s one that makes me realise that my worries and disappointments are straw in the wind. It’s a story that doesn’t yet have a satisfactory resolution, although there is hope, and I think there’s a lesson for us all. I’ll skedaddle through the history and geography to get to the present day, although I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) skip it entirely – I hope that some of you will be interested enough to do some reading of your own.

Darfur is a region in the west of Sudan and in the 19th century it was an independent Sultanate that covered a land-area the size of Nigeria in a semi-arid plateau on the edge of the Sahara. The Darfuri people were agricultural Black Africans and have more in common with the communities of Nigeria than with the nomadic Arabs that lived elsewhere in Sudan. In the late 19th and early 20th century there were a series of conquests that shaped the future of Darfur.

Firstly Egypt (an Arabic state) conquered Darfur, then Britain (which had already occupied Egypt) conquered Sudan and returned Darfur to semi-independence, then the first world war came and Britain thought that Darfur was being too friendly with the Ottomans and reconquered it, adding it to Sudan. In the 20th century, both under British and independent Sudanese rule, Darfur was poor, provided with less resource and investment than the rest of the country and its people felt increasingly marginalised, that they were unfairly treated and that the government preferred its Arabic citizens.

In 2003 – when I guess some of you were being born – the unrest became rebellion to which the government responded with airstrikes and by supporting an Arab militia called the Janjaweed to make ground attacks. What followed has attracted the phrase “The first genocide of the 21st century”. The Janjaweed didn’t merely make military attacks, the oppressed citizens and then started wiping out villages – murdering the men and boys, raping women and girls. Hundreds of thousands of Darfuri people have been killed, millions displaced (up to half of the eight million inhabitants of Darfur have been directly affected in some way). Refugees from Darfur have found their way into camps as far away as the Calais Jungle.

This is a story where differences in skin tone, religion, language, and culture; and bad decisions that have tended to divide and promote a sense of injustice, have brewed over decades to create horror. I don’t know what you think when you hear about refugees in tiny leaky boats picked up, or drowning, in the English Channel, but what I think is what awful places must they be escaping from to take such risks to leave it, and how self-absorbed I must be not to realise the privileges I have just by living here.

But I promised you hope – and I think those refugees starting new lives away from the war are a kind of hope, but even better than that is the news that in August 2020, when we were all grumbling about having our summer holidays curtailed by Covid, a peace treaty was signed to stop hostilities between the rebels and the government. I doubt that solves the problem completely but it’s a step in the right direction. And I think there is longer term hope right here at Harris Westminster - there is hope that people of different skin tones, religions, languages and cultures can come together and form a single community; and there is the hope that each one of you will have power – you are intelligent and hard working and basically amongst the most amazing people I know and so you will have power - to make the world better in each of your varied ways.

So let us now practice kindness, let us take active steps to forgive old wrongs rather than dwell on them, let us decide not to allow prejudices and unfairness to create new ones. Let us also remember our blessings and those whose troubles are worse than our own and allow those thoughts to overcome our worries and anxieties. That song I told you about finishes on a more cheerful note – the singer says

“Seasons change with the scenery, weaving time in a tapestry, won’t you stop and remember me. Look around, the grass is high now, the fields are ripe, it’s the springtime of your life.”

This winter will pass, spring will bring better cheer and the summer lies ahead. We need to be resilient and that can feel hard when hopes are dashed, but we have each other to look after us and to care for ourselves. Tomorrow really will be better.