Sometimes a book can be astonishing. Acts of Faith, a story of relief agency work in the misery of South Sudan, is such a work. In one fell swoop, it clears the mystery surrounding the actual state of affairs in Sudan, and makes a compelling case for the uniqueness of the situation. Nobody comes off as the good guy in this book, and not many as the bad guys.
Sudan is one of those places, like Rwanda a few years ago, where you only hear bits and pieces of a catastrophe unfolding. Whenever you hear something, there is a bit of truth to the lies on both ends, and you are none the wiser. On one end, a repressive regime is trying to ethnically and religiously cleanse the country of blacks and Christians; on the other end, a terrorist militia is recruiting children for the dirty work of attacking a sovereign government.
Somehow nothing makes sense, except for the eternal stream of misery that is reported. Villagers in Darfur, for instance, are consistently represented as being (a) poor, and (b) in miserable conditions.
Acts of Faith takes sides. It takes sides with black Africa, a semi-continent that has been ravaged by everyone to the North: Arabs, whites, everyone. Some of the Arabs are not evil; some of the whites aren’t. All in all, though, one finishes the book with the clear impression that black (or sub-Saharan) Africa would be best off without external intervention.
The arc of the story weaves three ethnically different plots. There are the Africans (by which I will mean black Africans) of the Nuba, a mountain region inhabited mostly by Christians and pagans in a sea of Arabs. They are poor, miserable, and infinitely patient. Then there are the whites – relief workers, mostly, trying to proselityze, missionize, make a living exploiting the formers’ misery. Finally, there are the Arabs from Khartoum: united by a strong faith, ready to do anything, but in part wary of war.
That same arc of the story bridges an incredibly interesting story; one in which we do not get lost (as is usually the case) in similar fates that require constant checking of the table of protagonists in the beginning. The arc evolves logically and moves from its bright and luminous beginning to its tragic end in a smooth path.
The book, as usual, was decidedly too long and should have been dramatically shortened. One cites this in particular because the story and the plot are compelling, and the constant diversions cause one to skip to the next item of interest. I wonder if some of the impatience would have been avoided if the author had spent less time with the character build-up in the beginning, making for a slow motion in the first 200 pages.
As it stands, Acts of Faith must be recommended for as wide an audience as possible. You may not like the book as much as I did, but you sure will learn a lot about a place that we really don’t know well, and should. The 21st century and its trajectory will be decided in Sudan.