Religion plays a role in recovery of Sudan

I rarely bang a gong for the God squad, but it looks as though US-inspired international Christian group Samaritan's Purse has had a good idea for helping conflict recovery in Sudan.

Let's ignore the group's past problems, such as supporters inserting evangelical literature into Christmas gifts for impoverished children in eastern Europe. Sudan is today's issue and, while conflict persists in Darfur, peace just about holds in the war-torn south, which is more African and Christian than the mainly Arab, Islamic north.

Samaritan's Purse wants to rebuild 500 destroyed churches in the south.

That is unlikely to be a priority for other agencies, but not as self-serving or contentious as some might suggest.

An age ago, when I frequently reported from Sudan, southerners fleeing war began collecting in horrendous conditions in the scrub-desert hinterlands around the twin cities of Khartoum and Omdurman.

Politics hampered help: Sudan's government found food aid problematic, water supplies were costly, and the refugees were not gathered in a neat camp but were a disorganised mass of displaced people living in demeaning poverty. In such chaos, it was hard to assess needs, let alone offer a coherent response; cultural recovery, however, was clearly necessary if the community was to be restored.

Tea with one agency boss produced two simple ideas to help start reviving community cohesion so other support could follow.

First was building a chiefs' meeting place to help restore community leaders' lost authority, offer a channel for communication and provide a focus for the people's own efforts in health, education and more.

Second was the construction of drums to allow resumption of traditional Sunday drumming and dancing, draw together fractured communities and restore some pride and self-respect.

Let's hope Samaritan's Purse sticks to paying people to rebuild as simply as possible with local materials, and remembers to include non-denominational facilities so everyone benefits. In this way, faith-focused construction could do some good in restoring the bonds that bind communities together and enable them to help themselves.

As aid agencies and donors now acknowledge, interventions need a context in which to work, and giving cash can be an empowering and creative input for recovery. After all, money is money, whoever provides it - Samaritan or sinner.

Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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