Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 9 July 2008

Remembering Professor Ambrose Ahang Beny Acuar

By Laura Nyantung Ahang Beny.

July 8, 2008 — In the quiet tranquility of the beautiful village of Panebei in Yirol, Sudan lies in a deep eternal sleep a humble soul. He rests peacefully beside his beloved Mother, Kulang Mou Kacuol, in a place he never really left, free at last and unencumbered by the burdens of our physical world. There is no running water there as of yet, but it is his home and my home, too. He is Ambrose Ahang Beny Acuar, my beloved Father.

My Father was born around the year 1938 in Aturok, Yirol, Southern Sudan into an Atuot Dinka family. His father was Beny Acuar and his mother was Kulang Mou Kacuol. He had five brothers—Madol, Macar, Kon (deceased), Ahou (deceased), and Cieng—and one sister—Acuoth. My Father left home at an early age to attend school at a time when the schools in southern Sudan were run by British colonialists. In what I believe was a compromise, my Grandfather, Beny Acuar, had selected my father from among his siblings to attend school. At the time, Dinka families generally preferred boys and young men to be reared for a life of cattle-herding. Boys spent many days of the year in the cattle camps and it was an honorable thing to do. Curious, I often asked my Father why Beny Acuar chose him and not another sibling. I believe that his Father recognized his brilliance and wisdom from an early age and thus sent him to school.

Although my Father was the only person in his immediate family to receive a formal education, he never forgot where he came from and he did not view himself as superior to those who remained in the village. Instead, my Father had a rather complex understanding of his physical and existential journey from home. It was part blessing and part curse, he once told me. He never fully elaborated on this point but I understand it thus: his journey was a blessing in that it exposed him to a wide variety of intriguing ideas, people, and worlds and it was a curse in that it came at the cost of frequent alienation, loneliness, and deeply missing his parents and siblings as well as the simplicity of life in the village and cattle camps. Remembering his childhood, my Father often reflected on the “foreignness” of the southern towns where his early schools were located and his experience of “culture shock” being worlds away from home, even while physically close by modern standards of transportation. My Father also humorously shared how he loved school holidays because they meant a homecoming during which he would drink fresh cow milk to his heart’s content, rid his system of the “awful” food of colonial boarding schools, and shake off the pretenses of town life with a deep sigh of relief, relaxing back into Atuot society, culture and song as if he had never left them.

My Father first attended Akot Primary School, and from there went on to Loka Intermediate School and Rumbek Secondary School. From the beginning, he excelled academically, finishing at the top of his class at each level. He absolutely loved ideas and learning, more for their own sake than for any instrumental purpose—he probably would have been at home among the Greek philosophers. Indeed, he recently lamented to me how education is increasingly viewed instrumentally and students choose majors based on potential monetary remuneration rather than passion and genuine curiosity. By his final year, Rumbek Secondary School had been relocated to Khartoum because of the outbreak of the first civil war in the mid 1950s. It was his first time to travel North, creating yet another “culture shock” for him. However, he quickly adjusted to life in Khartoum and indeed quite enjoyed it. After all, his early years were a study in dramatic contrasts, adjustments and seamlessly straddling multiple worlds and imaginations.

Because of his exemplary performance at Rumbek Secondary School, my Father won a coveted spot at the University of Khartoum, affectionately called the “U. of K.”, at a time when admissions were extremely selective. Thus, he was among the earliest southern Sudanese students to attend the university. Once again, he excelled academically, winning the University Shell Company Prize for the best all-around intermediate year student in the Faculty of Arts, U. of K, in 1962. My Father had a fascinating and memorable experience at the U. of K. It was the first time for him to experience such profound intellectual cross-fertilization born of the convergence of some of the Sudan’s best young minds from every region of the country.

It was during his undergraduate studies that my Father came to deeply appreciate the significance of “being Sudanese”. He made many sincere and lasting friendships with classmates from every region of the Sudan, including colleagues who held vastly different political views. Many of these friends, most of whom had not seen my Father for many years, have graciously and heartwarmingly reached out to me in recent months to offer their condolences and share fond memories of my Father. Ibrahim Ayoub, for example, kindly shared with me that “[h]e was intelligent and hardworking. He was one of the first students from the South I dealt with….Both us recognized in that early stage that we belonged to what is now known as marginalized parts of our country and we were sure that one day we would be treated on equal footings with others after we regain our rights as suppressed peoples.” And Professor Abdullahi A. Ibrahim, another U. of K. colleague wrote, “I will keep the memory of Ambrose as a Sudanese gentleman and an elegant Dinkaman.” Indeed, it was as a young man at the U. of K. that my Father simultaneously embraced the universality of “being Sudanese” and intellectually articulated southern Sudanese aspirations for equality and respect in their country.

In 1965, my Father graduated from the U. of K. with a B.A. in English Literature and Economics, First Class Honors. Although he was a double major, his primary passion was literature, a subject in which he would pursue further studies. He won a fellowship to study in the USA from the African Graduate Fellowship Program (AFGRAD) of the Africa-America Institute and he pursued post-graduate studies in English Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he earned a Masters Degree in the subject. It was an auspicious time because my Mother was a sociology student there. My Mother’s Kenyan roommate enthusiastically exclaimed, “There is someone very special I want you to meet.” After they married, my parents returned briefly to the Sudan in 1967 before moving to England, where my Father was a University of Khartoum Senior Scholar at Leeds University and earned an M. Phil. in English Literature in 1969.

In the early 1970s, Africa called my father home yet again and he joined Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda as a lecturer in literature. Makerere was a very exciting place to be in the 1960s and 1970s because many renowned African scholars and literary giants, including several southern Sudanese, had converged upon the university—proudly referred to as the “Harvard of Africa” at the time. African literature had just burst onto the global literary scene with Heinemann’s African Writers Series and post-colonial literary criticism was vibrant and provocative. Although my parents very much enjoyed their life in Kampala, they were eventually forced to depart Uganda due to the infamous political crisis under Idi Amin’s presidency. The family’s next stop was Toronto, Canada, where my Father began his doctoral studies at York University in African and post-colonial literature. He interrupted his Ph.D. studies in the late 1970s, however, to return to the Sudan to serve as Deputy Director of the Department of Culture in the Ministry of Culture and Information. For southern intellectuals, the 1970s were years of great optimism and promise, because of the 1972 Addis Ababa Peace Agreement and the many aspirations contained therein. Many southern professionals, my Father among them, had enthusiastically returned home to participate in nation-building. At the Ministry of Culture and Information, among other things, he was instrumental in creating the first amateur dramatic society and the Nyokuron Cultural Center in Juba and helped to compile a national folklore that celebrated the Sudan’s cultural diversity.

My Father next joined the nascent University of Juba (the “U. of J.”), the first university in southern Sudan and a creation of the 1972 Addis Ababa Peace Agreement. There, he taught African, British and post-colonial literature and served as the Dean of the College of Education, the first southerner ever to hold that position. It was an exciting, yet tumultuous and often difficult, time in the life of the U. of J. Perhaps not surprising for a university that was born out of political strife between the “center” and the “margins” of the country, student activists and their faculty supporters conflicted with faculty and administrators—the latter dispatched mostly from the “center”—on issues such as whether the university was fostering the growth of a “homegrown” intelligentsia, among others. Many students felt, for instance, that insufficient numbers of students, faculty and administrators were from the South.

As a dean and a revered faculty member, my Father had to carefully navigate these conflicts. This was not an easy task, especially as he was sympathetic to several of the students’ grievances, many of which were identical to the grievances of the university students of his generation. As Professor Bakheit shared with me, “[h]e was one very strong Dean who always stood strongly for the defense of southern students’ rights in the Senate and the Deans’ Board meetings.” And, a former student and protege, Dr. John Mairi Blackings, recently suggested that egalitarianism—award of merit—was my Father’s approach at the U. of J.: “If today, graduates of the non-honours-offering college of Education are being recruited as TAs, it was because of the vision of Ambrose who wanted the college to had builds its own staff base, and in the process give southerners a chance to be part of the higher education in the Sudan. That is the Ambrose I remember; a visionary and a fighter for social justice.” Here, I only add that egalitarianism was my dear Father’s general approach to life and humanity.

When the second civil war broke out in the early 1980s, Juba Town became increasingly unstable and it became nearly impossible to feed a family on a professor’s salary. By the early 1990s, my Father had left the Sudan for Canada. His life of exile in Canada was challenging in many ways. I often wondered if we would ever return home, since the war dragged on, seemingly without end. Nevertheless, despite financial and other hardships, my Father remained intellectually engaged. He attended academic conferences—such as those organized by the Sudan Studies Association, the African Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, etc.—as much as possible, presenting papers and enthusiastically engaging with his intellectual peers, often having a blast. He emphasized the need for southern scholars to write the history of southern Sudan, indeed of the Sudan as a whole, to reflect the reality that southern Sudanese are participants and not mere subjects in the history of their region and country. He considered issues of higher education and curriculum development in the Sudan, with a special emphasis on multicultural education in a diverse nation like the Sudan.

My Father also fearlessly traversed controversial intellectual terrain. Among other delicate issues, for instance, he explored the hitherto dominant meaning of “being Sudanese” through an analysis of the imagery and character portrayals in the works of Al Tayeb Saleh, like the infamous Mustafa Sa’eed in Season of Migration to the North. My Father’s analysis of this work angered several northern Sudanese intellectuals. However, he patiently and gracefully explained to them that literary criticism is not personal, but rather is a sociopolitical-cultural analysis that aims to understand where the work is “coming from” (i.e., standpoint epistemology) and what it tells us about the wider society that produced the author and, ultimately if less obviously, the author’s work. My Father, I quietly observed at the time, relished the challenge with all the adrenaline of an intellectual maverick, a profound love of his country that defied words and, above all, a rare and courageous sense of honesty. As Professor Charles Bakheit reminisced, “his frankness was such that he would inadvertently upset some people. But he never ever went out of his way to do so.” Professor Malik Balla echoed a similar sentiment, “I’ll always miss him in the meetings and gathering that he enlighten with his deep thought and yes with his sarcasm….We’ve lost a great man who can say many things that we can’t.” And Professor John Mairi Blackings wrote, “he was a man who was far ahead of his time and contemporaries. He is one of the rare serious academics the South has ever had.” The sharpness of his wit was matched, if not surpassed, only by the depth of his frankness and intellectual honesty.

My Father was also “political through and through”, as Professor Abdullahi A. Ibrahim recently remarked. During his years of exile, he remained politically active in Canada, participating in Sudanese community groups and joining the young men and women in political activism (e.g., protest against the Canadian oil concerns in the late 1990s). Felix Dumo in Canada lamented, “[w]e have lost one of our greatest fighters against Talisman, one, uncle Ambrose Ahang.” Importantly, my Father also tried to bridge the divide between northern and southern Sudanese community groups in Canada. As Amir Zahir shared with me, “[h]e profoundly understood the deeply-rooted mistrust of many Southerners, and the short-sighted, and ethno-centric views of many of the northerners. He, however, was almost above it all.” All the same, as H.E. Lual Deng remarked, he “was a southern nationalist of the first order.” My Father demonstrated to me that there is no conflict between loving one’s own and loving others, cautioning me often against the dead-end road of the “politics of hate”.

In May 2007, my Father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Of course, I was devastated and afraid. However, my Father did not pity himself, nor did he show any fear. In quintessential Ahang Beny fashion, he told us not to be afraid or despair, because "I won’t be the first person who ever died, or the last." Like that, for as long as I can remember, my Father reflected on the general human condition and never set himself apart for special consideration or pity. It is that magnanimity and borderless universality that gave rise to the following moment I recorded in my Journal on November 1, 2007, after a doctor’s visit before what was to be his final visit to the Sudan:

“the doctor…filling in for Dr. Leighl was Anne, from Ireland. We asked Anne so many questions about Dad’s trip to the Sudan and what to expect in the coming months, what to do before we leave, and while we’re there in the Sudan, etc. And Dad was so brilliant, as usual, as ever; he was optimistic, but also realistic and when the doctor said that this disease (the cancer that eats Dad and that Dad fights with his mind of steel) is definitely changing and is in a process, Dad opined resolutely and courageously: ‘Yes, it’s not static’ and ‘I don’t come here looking for guarantees’….Then, Dad abruptly changed the subject to Ireland. He told Anne that he has always admired the Irish people, because they have a lot in common with his people, the Southern Sudanese, having been oppressed for ages and yet ever resolute in their struggle. Then, he turned to Yates, the Irish poet and James Joyce, the Irish Novelist, whom even the Irish run away from because he is so difficult to understand, writing in a stream of consciousness as he did. Anne, the Irish doctor, was amazed that this man, facing the challenge of his life, could deflect the dire situation to the beauty of the Irish people and their literature and even dissect their literature and explain to Anne that in order to appreciate and, more importantly, to understand James Joyce’s Ullyses, one must first have read his prior works, the Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was speechless and mesmerized. Here I was trying to get answers to practical questions about life and death matters concerning Dad and Dad is reveling in the beauty of a people, the Irish, their art, their ideas, and their history. He could not be as bothered by the mundane as by the beauty of art, life and humanity….And, [he] grinned, that beautiful and brilliant grin of his with the sparkle of brilliance in his eyes.”

My Father’s character through his illness gave me enormous strength and though I lamented his eventual passing, I found serenity in his extraordinary strength and dignity. He continued to read his fine books covering a wide range of topics from Shakespeare to the Israeli Lobby in the U.S. to Darfur to the Iraq War, which he opposed. He also continued to listen to his fine music—however, none more than music from all over the Sudan. I believe it deeply comforted him to sleep with the familiar and soothing sounds of home. It certainly comforted me to hear the music from my room. Most mornings of his final year, I brought his tea—shai bi leben or “white tea”, as he called it—to his room, pulled up a stool by the side of his bed, we drank tea together and we talked about everything from the mundane to the intellectually profound, much of it about the Sudan.

Daily, I considered myself enormously blessed to have his constant company, wisdom, love and support. During his final year, my Father shared my pre-tenure trials and tribulations as if they were also his. He encouraged me every step of the way. Often, we worked until the early hours of the morning, I in my room writing and he in his room reading, with the soothing sounds of the Sudan in the background. In a bittersweet turn of events, I was promoted to full professor with tenure on May 1, 2008, exactly the one year anniversary of my Father’s fateful diagnosis. He missed my tenure by less than three months, but I believe he knows and is proud. I could never have achieved it without his inspiration and support.

In March 2007, with the help of relatives, GONU/GOSS and members of the Yirol community, my siblings and I honored our Father’s final wish that he be buried beside his Mother in Panebei, Yirol, Sudan. It was the single thing that he asked of us upon his diagnosis on May 1, 2007. He drew a map of the area and we promised him that we would fulfill his wish. The entire village and beyond came to his burial, a three day traditional Atuot ceremony. There were prayers, song, traditional dance, remembrance of our ancestors, many tributes, and even humor, which I know my Father would have appreciated. Perhaps most touching, the children clamored for the limited prayer cards with our Father’s photo because, they told us, they want to follow in Ahang Beny Acuar’s footsteps academically and otherwise and the prayer card will serve as a reminder of that dream. (Beyond that, the nation owes these dear children the means to fulfill their profound hunger for education so that it is no longer a mere dream but a reality.)

Ahang Beny Acuar was a true Sudanese and a beautiful mind and human being. He is my guiding light and my soul inspiration.

Ambrose Ahang Beny passed peacefully on the evening of February 19, 2008 in Toronto, Canada.

Laura N. A. Beny is Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School at Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. She was born in Khartoum, Sudan, and raised in the United States. This tribute is part of a longer memoir-in-progress of Ambrose Ahang Beny’s unique life and contributions to his community and country. Professor Beny plans to establish a scholarship in her Father’s name for Sudanese students of literature, irrespective of regional or ethnic origin.