Mothers of steel : the women of Um Gargur, an Eritrean refugee settlement in Sudan
This is an ethnographic study of the lives and experiences of Eritrean refugee women in Um Gargur, a settlement in eastern Sudan established in 1976. It is based upon fourteen months of fieldwork and builds upon the findings of my 1985 M.Phil, thesis, "A Preliminary Study of the Position of Eritrean Refugees in the Sudan", for which I conducted two months of research in Urn Gargur. While the M.Phil, thesis was a comparative study of Um Gargur and two other cases of resettlement in Africa, here I am concerned primarily with questions of gender, everyday life, and how processes of change and realignments of power impact upon women in displaced heterogeneous societies. After more than a decade in exile the people of Um Gargur continue to be fiercely nationalistic and as unresigned to remaining refugees as they are to assimilating into Sudan. There is also a growing trend towards Islamic conservatism in the settlement. This, coupled with the fact that Um Gargur is composed largely of mistrusted "strangers", means that women experience more restrictions in Um Gargur than they did in their communities of origin. The aim of the thesis is to examine the effect of displacement and exile upon gender roles, social infrastructures, traditions and perceptions, as people of disparate origins, occasionally with conflicting beliefs and mores, negotiate a way of living together. The title "Mothers of Steel" is taken from a riot instigated by women when charges were introduced for water. As the women revolted, their children shouted "Our mothers are steel, our fathers are monkeys!" This represented the main crisis point between men and women. Yet although the title derives from this incident, women, as they feed, nurture, socialise their children and keep their families intact, have clearly become "mothers of steel" in the eyes of their children since they have lived in Um Gargur. Chapter One introduces an overview of the settlement and shows that women's deliberate exclusion from all formal institutions leaves them at a disadvantage despite the fact that over 50% of them are household heads for much of the year. The following chapters examine how categories as diverse as politics, honour, health, and economics, impinge on the lives of the refugee women and their families, and argue that in contexts of displacement, where social realities are constantly being redefined, these categories all have a moral dimension. In Chapters Three and Four I show how limited employment opportunities in Um Gargur have meant that the majority of men continuously resident in the settlement have lost their roles as providers while women's roles have taken on a new symbolic significance. The society attempts to compensate for men's loss of status by placing greater restrictions upon women. Women's reactions to this are varied, but significant numbers of them have redrawn the parameters of "honourable" behaviour to allow themselves more flexibility. Women establish ties, not unlike kinship bonds, which traverse ethnic and religious boundaries and offer limited economic power and physical and psychological support. In Chapter Five I explore the tensions between traditional beliefs and practices and "Western" models of health care. While society's notion of what constitutes honour has calcified in reaction to a situation of extreme social dislocation and jeopardisation of "male" and "female" behaviour patterns, I show in Chapter Six that the women of Um Gargur have recognised their common plight and responded by renegotiating their identity, whilst at the same time being the primary agents - through myths, songs, names, and stories about Eritrea - in the construction of their children's identities as Eritreans. In the Conclusion (Chapter Seven) I introduce the story of the aforementioned water riot to illustrate how radically women's perceptions of their own power have altered, and how their children now perceive them. I suggest that though the process of change has been slow, the pressures faced by the community have meant that women's reconceptualisation of their own roles has been inevitable.