December 28, 2004

A Sudanese Christmas in Southern Minnesota

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- I had myself a very Sudanese Christmas. In Stewartville.

From 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. last Saturday, a couple of hundred Sudanese immigrants gathered at the Stewartville Sportsman’s Club to kick back and celebrate the biggest annual holiday in southern Sudan – Christmas.

Thanks to more than a century of missionary work, most of the population of Southern Sudan is Christian, and Christmas there has evolved into a hybrid holiday of Western religious ritual and African feasting and dancing.

So under the glass-eyed gaze of stuffed buck heads mounted on the Sportsman’s Club’s walls, young and old members of the Dinka, Bari, Shilluk, and a half dozen other tribes gathered to chat and munch on traditional Sudanese foods and boogie the Christmas night away.

Most arrived at the party after attending Christmas service at the Rochester Covenant Church, an evangelical congregation that holds a regular Sunday service especially for the area’s recent Sudanese immigrants. Around 3,000 of the total 15,000 south Sudan refugees in the U.S. live in Minnesota, according to members of the Sudan immigrant community here.

Family Reunion

“Christmas is a time when all the people of south Sudan forgive themselves,” said Khamis Dhien, one of the party’s organizers, who fled Sudan in 1993 after his name appeared on a list of college students targeted for arrest or worse. His route to Rochester, where he works at the Crenlo truck-cab fabrication plant, wove through Zimbabwe and Kenya before he immigrated to Fargo, N.D. and finally Rochester in 1995.

In south Sudan, the Christmas holiday extends from December 23 to January 3, during which time everyone returns to their home village from wherever they live to reconnect with family and friends. Work in the fields and in the cities comes to a standstill as people make the rounds from house to house in their home village to visit with neighbors, to share news, and to party.

“It’s like a big family reunion,” Dhien said. At the Stewartville bash, visitors from as far away as Australia, England, and from many states around the U.S. had flown in to reunite with family members they hadn’t seen for years.

Sudan has topped the list of countries suffering humanitarian catastrophes for most of the past 20 years. More than two million Sudanese, most in south Sudan, have died and 5.5 million uprooted by war waged by the Islamist government in the North against the Christian population in the south.

Tie-Died Dashikis

The recent genocide in Darfur, in which government-backed tribal militias have killed more than 30,000 and displaced 1.5 million, is the most recent chapter in this long war waged by the Sudan government which is trying to impose sovereignty – and Islamic shariah law – across a country made of a patchwork of many tribes, languages, and customs.

Every person at the Stewartville party had lost close family members and many friends to the war, and many had bullet and machete scars testifying to their own close escapes. But as Dhien said it was a night to try not only to forget but also forgive, and so, to a thumping African musical beat, the dancers danced to the dawn’s early light.

The moves on the dance floor varied from stately, to hips swirling in traditional African patterns that Elvis must have carefully studied.

And the clothes! The men in cream-colored suits and two-toned leather shoes, and the women in flowing tie-died dashikis with their hair swept up in blazing headscarves with silver-bangle earrings and shimmering necklaces.

Little children, born to their immigrant parents here in the U.S., bounced to the music right alongside their parents on the dance floor, while the teenaged boys and girls huddled around the periphery, preferring talk to dance.

"We Forgive"

One of the most active diaspora groups of the south Sudan resistance movement lives here in Minnesota. Leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the effective government of southern Sudan, travel to Minnesota frequently to explain the latest news to immigrants here and to encourage them to use the U.S. political system to the Sudan government.

There are two main tribes in the south, the Dinka and the Nuer, and decades of civil war have frayed relations between them badly.

For the Stewartville party, Dhien, who like most of the party’s organizers is a Dinka, invited every Nuer immigrant in Minnesota to come.

But only two did.

“We tried to get closer to them, but they kept themselves away,” Dhien said. “Yet we keep up a spirit of hope. We accept them with open heart, open doors to everyone. We forgive. Christmas shows its best for everyone to love each other. It’s the only way. We have to have a life in peace.”

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report