Not being familiar with Sudan, South Sudan or Sudanese culture before reading this book, it was daunting to write a review of such an eminent scholar and human rights advocate. I had some frame of reference, having lived in neighbouring Uganda previously; having worked with refugees for more than 20 years – as well as being Muslim and having married cross culturally myself. However, reading the Invisible Bridge was an unexpected gift.
It is a deeply personal account of the early life and formative years of the author, Dr Francis Mading Deng, as well as a detailed introduction - an autoethnography if you will, of the Dinka peoples, through the recall of his life experiences.
The author describes navigating the challenging landscape of being born the son of a widely influential and prominent chief, into a household dominated by the overarching personality and presence of his father who exerted control over some 200 wives, extended family networks and kinship ties.
The author constantly demonstrates and yearns not just for approval but expressions of love from a distant and intimidating, powerful father and key role model, trying to live up to the expectations (both explicit and implicit) of the family and himself.
He demonstrates a flair for mediation from a young age, whether on behalf of a transgressive and alienated brother in line for succession, with a prejudiced Italian neighbour, with the chair of the international student association in West Germany, or with strict headmasters on behalf of politically active fellow students.
Not one to shy away from speaking up in overwhelming situations and possibly put forward unpopular or unwelcome views, this is clearly the training ground of a successful career in the UN. Towards the end of the book, we have the example of the author having to delicately tiptoe around and sometimes firmly negotiate with an inexperienced yet zealous and heavy-handed military officer in charge of security forces.
The author is surprisingly forward thinking and cosmopolitan by nature, and we follow his education around the globe which takes him to many places, including (former) East and West Germany, Italy, England and then the US, all the while attracted by a modernity new places have to offer. He experiences culture shock or crisis of faith, interestingly, not on first arrival in Germany, his first time in Europe, but in England - on threat of exile.
Aptly named Invisible Bridge: An African Journey Through Cultures, we follow author’s path through education - both informal at the hands of parents, grandparents, traditional elders and extended family members - as well as formal institutions of the British administration and higher education in Khartoum and abroad.
The author was born in 1938, in a border area between the African South and Arab North of the former Republic of Sudan. He is Ngok Dinka - a people who, although identified as Southerners, were historically administered by a Northern province.
Traversing timelines and spanning across generations, the young Francis crosses at every point an invisible bridge to the next sphere of learning and influence, whether Christian or Muslim, North and South, East and West, traditional and modern - and also often crossing the distinctions between African, Arab and European. It begins where the long shadow of slavery still lingers in collective memory, on the cusp of nationalism and the independence movements which proceeded to sweep across North East Africa. It provides a glimpse into the political climate of the time - and foreshadows the tragic events to come.
We encounter these moments, his world, and the rites of passage that took him from the village near Abyei in Kordofan, all the way to New Haven in the US. While trying consciously to avoid over-sentimentality or nostalgia, it presents a view of home and homeland so clearly dear to him, as a legacy for others.