How to change the law

Khartoum via myAsylum

Sooner or later, bureaucracy bows to reality.  Here is an example, from Sudan 30 years ago.

At ease in his fan-cooled office in Khartoum, the Sudanese official had a document of about a dozen pages to show me.  He slid it across. What did I think of it?

Not my place

Luckily, for my Arabic is non-existent, it was in English translation: a piece of legislation for the creation of a new national library.  Without thinking, I drew out a pen and clicked it.  As my hand descended towards the text, the official squawked in alarm.

“You can’t change that,” he hissed, “that’s a presidential decree!”

The president was Nimeiri, who had imposed Sharia law and who imprisoned and even executed people who spoke up against him in the mosques. Vexed, I put the pen down but then picked it up again.

“Tell you what,” I said, “this translation is very good, very clear but – how can I put this? – the English could be tweaked here and there…with your permission, of course”.  He nodded reluctantly. I leafed quickly through the text, to a paragraph proclaiming that the entire cost of the new library would be paid for by foreign aid.  Deleting this confident assertion, and substituting a phrase or two such as “contributions from foreign aid sources will be welcome…”, I handed it back.

He smiled. They would get some money.  Honour was satisfied. Shortly after, Nimeiri was deposed in a coup. The unneeded facility was never built. We gave our money to other, worthy causes.

It was not the first or last time I was asked to ‘improve’ a piece of national legislation. I have in my time drafted ministerial replies to parliamentary questions in two countries, but I like to think of that day in Khartoum as one of the first markers in my career as a wordsmith, much of which has been anonymous, but very satisfying.

About rimboval

Writer, thinker and proud grandfather
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