A year or two ago I was asked to participate in a writing project, a collaboration between Fighting Words, a creative writing centre in Dublin with which I’m involved, and an organisation called Front Line Defenders. The project paired seven Irish writers, all women, with seven human rights defenders, also women, from Egypt, Kuwait, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia and Turkey.
Pleased to have been asked to be part of the project, I agreed – and then put it to the back of my mind while I got on with the business of living and working. My autonomy, and freedom to have my voice heard continued uninterrupted, bar the occasional mild hangover.
Then I got an email inviting me to meet a young Sudanese human rights lawyer whom I subsequently learned to call T. (I still can’t use T’s real name – her anonymity is a thin veil of safety that she uses to protect herself, her colleagues and her family from reprisal.) So, one rainy morning, I took a train to Blackrock and walked up the pretty main street to the offices of Front Line Defenders, an Ireland-based organisation which supports those who work non-violently to uphold human rights.
I sat across the table from her, an empty notebook in my hand, and wondered how to begin
In a quiet room in an otherwise busy set of offices, I talked to T, who was nearing the end of a six-month stay in Dublin, where she had been availing of a respite service offered by the organisation to human rights workers who have been subjected to extreme stress.
I sat across the table from her, an empty notebook in my hand, and wondered how to begin, how to connect with, how to start to understand the life and work of this well-educated, homesick, displaced, 30-year-old lawyer. A beautiful, diminutive, careful woman, she was being asked to tell her story to a total stranger in a cloudy, impenetrable country very far from her home.
I didn’t know how much T would be prepared, or able, to say about her arrest, imprisonment and subsequent flight from her home place, Darfur, because of her work representing women and children, many of them refugees, who had been raped and sexually abused by the Sudanese military.
I offered myself that day as a conduit, a pen, a keyboard, at T’s disposal to tell as much of her story as she wished to share. I learned about her life growing up in Darfur, an area of western Sudan with a population of seven million, and about the genocide that began there when T was a teenager.
Rebel groups had begun fighting the Sudanese government, demanding greater political and economic rights for the region, and that conflict would lead to the first genocide of the 21st century, with an estimated 200,000 civilians dying from violence, disease and starvation, and more than two million men, women and children being displaced from their homes.
I learned about T’s journey to becoming a lawyer and about how her work ultimately led to her losing her homeplace and family.
T’s is just one of the stories in Yes, We Still Drink Coffee!, an anthology of essays and artwork by and about women human rights defenders, curated and edited by Dr Orla Lehane. The book, which includes essays by Catherine Dunne, Lia Mills and Melatu Uche Okorie, and artwork by Rosa Devine and Niamh Flanagan, will be launched at this week’s Dublin Book Festival.
Getting to know T – her vulnerability and lionheartedness – was a powerful emotional experience
Working on the project was, as Mills writes, a salient reminder to “use our freedoms and our democracies consciously and well. We take so much for granted ...We think we are safe, here; but how safe are we?”
The book took time to make, largely due to the difficulties in communicating with women whose lives are so often perilous and erratic. However, as Dunne writes, “I became aware, more than anything, of the similarities of women’s lives everywhere, rather than the differences in culture and religion that might separate us”.
Getting to know T – her vulnerability and lionheartedness – was a powerful emotional experience. Living in another country now, she is back at university and has friends and a community and a place to call home. When we met recently, her vibrancy and confidence were new to me; her courage and determination to continue representing her countrywomen was not. It has been a privilege to be a small part of her life.