By Linda Bishai, May 22, 2014 (originally posted on USIP.org April 8, 2014)

Nothing prepared me for the coffee-black water coming out of the taps.  It happened just as a large and delicious breakfast was set out for us in a compound dining room and we were starting to wash our hands in sinks at the side. Sudden, dark, and a bit shocking, the water seemed like a betrayal of all the honest hospitality of our generous hosts. We quickly shifted to washing with bottled water and proceeded without further disruption.  Still, the image of that dirty water where clean water had flowed before seemed like a sign that something larger was badly broken.

I was eager to be back in Sudan recently after two years away. I was curious to see how the country had changed and whether anything would seem obviously different several years after the separation of South Sudan.  My USIP colleagues and I were visiting in part to help local partners present a conference on teaching peace studies at the undergraduate level in Sudanese universities.

Despite the three conflicts within Sudan that tend to dominate the news abroad, the country has substantial experience with research centers and graduate programs in peace studies. But the subject has never been offered as a formal course of study for a bachelor’s degree.

Colleagues and friends who welcomed me back inquired expectantly whether I noticed the negative changes that were so glaring to them.  If anything, Khartoum seemed at first to be reassuringly familiar – booming even. The banks of the Nile were lined with brightly lit cafes and boats, and new restaurants had popped up around the city.

But soon I realized what they meant — the deflated value of the Sudanese pound and the inflated prices of essential goods, though all that had been expected with the shrinking of oil revenues after the secession of energy-rich South Sudan. And then there was the black tap water.

As always, the Sudanese I encountered were gracious, thoughtful and talkative.  Civil society organizations, academics and students revealed continuing interest in working to nurture peace and understanding in the face of the country’s many challenges, even as they disagreed about how those goals are best pursued.

But now there is the added dimension of economic pain that previously had not been so visible. Also new was an emphasis on American sanctions as the cause of the stress. No U.S. citizen travels widely in Sudan without encountering some combative questioning of American policy. Accusations of failed promises after South Sudan’s peaceful separation and the failure to provide a visa for Sudan’s president to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year are expected topics of conversation.

But this time there was also an accounting – a listing of items lacking that were attributed to U.S. sanctions, even though those measures weren’t new. University officials particularly listed the shortage of computers and materials as damaging to their educational mission.

Also new was a request to remedy the problem.  Instructors asked for training on teaching peacebuilding. Administrators requested books, scientific equipment and even infrastructure such as libraries. Students wanted better access to U.S. cultural materials such as books and films so they could study English and learn more about U.S. politics and society.

In part, the new requests stem from some unusual encouragement — a slight relaxing of the U.S. sanctions against Sudan. In April 2013, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control approved an exemption to allow academic exchanges and other programs for university teachers and students. The exemption includes public universities, which are closely managed by the government and had been prohibited from participating in exchanges and similar programs.

Sudanese universities seem eager to make the most of the change, and participants at the conference discussed their offerings in peace studies, their identified needs and feasible goals for the future.

One professor eagerly asked for advice on a recurring problem she experiences. Some of the students in her classes have experienced the country’s violent internal conflicts and the resulting trauma. Her problem was getting the privileged students who’ve been sheltered from such violence — and even news about it — to be more sensitive to the experiences of those from conflict areas and to appreciate the relevance of peacebuilding within their own borders. Other professors at the conference had similar experiences and used various teaching methods to help students learn from the diversity in their classrooms.  One suggestion was to form mixed working groups that answered questions designed to elicit their various levels of experience with conflict.

Participants also raised concerns about whether the discipline of peace studies can bear the weight of bringing peace to a war-torn country such as theirs.  One participant asked the group whether academics could answer the complex questions that have become important for young people now: “Why has Sudan been engaged in war for so long?” “Is it in our mentality? Has it become our tradition?”

Most participants in the event felt that peacebuilding needs to be made attractive and relevant for young people at universities. They emphasized community engagement, grassroots activism (applied peacebuilding), conferences and international exchanges as possible means of drawing students to the field and helping it grow. U.S. universities interested in forming partnerships and exchanges with Sudanese counterparts will find great interest in a variety of fields.

USIP staff also presented an overview of the core elements of effective national dialogue processes, a topic that is currently on the minds of many Sudanese as a means of rethinking the nature of the state and how Sudan can manage its substantial diversity. The presentation drew the link between the skills emphasized by peace studies – critical thinking, public speaking, writing and communication skills – as the same ones needed for positive participation in a national dialogue. Revitalizing academic partnerships and emphasizing peacebuilding skills will be important components of this process.

The warmth and curiosity we received during our visit may well have been part of a charm offensive to persuade American academia to engage more actively and help ease their intellectual isolation and cushion their economic conditions. But it also presents an opportunity for the U.S. to be visible in Sudan in a positive way, using the appeal of education to benefit students and teachers in both Sudan and the United States.

Linda Bishai is a senior program officer in USIP’s Africa program.