Sudan is often described as a country rich with many different ethnic groups, languages, religions, and tribal affiliations.  I recently witnessed how true this is when I attended a USAID-sponsored session for young women from different areas of Sudan, held at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.

The students visiting the temple at Naqa, a ruined ancient city of the Kush Kingdom, north of Khartoum. The exchange included field trips to great Sudanese historical sites to teach the students about their common identity and culture. Photo Credit: USAID/Sudan

The session focused on the options available for graduate study in the United States, but I took a different message away.  As I listened to where these women came from and what they were studying, I realized how different they all were in background, and yet how similar they were in their aspirations, hopes, and desires.

These young women are students at several Khartoum universities, as well as Assalam University in Babanusa, Southern Kordofan state.  They were brought together as part of a USAID program that is enabling Sudanese to tackle issues of identity, history, and culture in their country.  The exchange was designed to help these young women leaders explore and better understand the rich cultural plurality in Sudan and to engender a sense of strength from the diversity in Sudanese culture.  Issues of identity and ethnicity have proved highly divisive in Sudan over the last two decades, and still pervade Sudanese society in the post-war era.

Over the course of the week-long exchange, students began to grow a greater appreciation for the many cultures present in Sudan.  They discussed common history and identity across different groups and got to touch their history first-hand through trips to local historical sites and museums.

Throughout the exchange, the students became increasingly aware of their own tendencies to stereotype certain groups.  One young woman stated that she and others once “unconsciously, practice[ed] social exclusion,” but after the 5-day training, she now “knows what it is and will stop.” Another participant commented, “I used to hate history. After visiting the historical sites and knowing how great my history is, I now love it.”

The students concluded the workshop determined to carry what they learned back to their communities. Several participants stated that they would hold discussions with their peers at their universities on both the commonalities that exist between cultures in Sudan and the rich diversity that they represent. By the last day of training, the participants, most of whom met only five short days earlier, were referring to one another as friends.  The students from Babanusa even hope to host the Khartoum students at their university for future events to foster further understanding.

Some of the most important work that USAID does in Sudan, in my opinion, works to address intolerance and exclusion in a country with such strength through diversity.  I hope that many more Sudanese will get to experience the diverse cultures within their own society, as these young women did.  Such experiences will very likely be the foundation of healing in a country that has had a painful past.