Sudan and Thailand may seem an unlikely pair upon first consideration. The two countries have dissimilar climates, predominant religions, geographic location and government systems, just to name a few differences. But in reality, they are more alike than meets the eye and the partnership that is currently being forged by the first Sudanese Ambassador to Thailand, H. E. Mrs Sanaa Hamad Alawad Gourafi, will most certainly bear fruit for both nations. I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Mrs Gourafi and learn more about her role as the first Sudanese Ambassador to Thailand.
For those who haven’t had a geography lesson in a while, Sudan is the third largest country in Africa, bordered by the Red Sea and seven other nations, including the newly formed South Sudan. With a population of roughly 39 million people, and an area of 1.8 million square kilometres, the population is not dense with approximately 80% of people working in agriculture. Sudan is known in the media for the recent civil war and separation of South Sudan. More recently, Sudan has been seen in the news for the military coup and subsequent deposition of the president, Omar al-Bashir, who had served for 30 years despite widespread criticism for electoral fraud and human rights violations.
However, as Mrs Gourafi explained to me quite passionately, the harsh political conflicts of Sudan do not reflect the hearts of the Sudanese people and the overwhelming kindness of the population. Mrs Gourafi was an excellent example of the welcoming nature of her people; upon arrival, I was greeted warmly and given fresh juice and sweets and for the duration of our time together, Mrs Gourafi and her staff could not have been more accommodating and genuinely kind. Halfway through our meeting, her staff served us traditional coffee spiced with cardamom while Mrs Gouarfi explained to me how Sudanese people drink this universal beverage.
Mrs Sanaa Hamad Alawad Gourafi was born in Sudan, but spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia as her father was working as a professor there. So that she would be able to study, she returned to Sudan and lived with her grandmother, who was an extremely accomplished, strong woman in her own right. When she was just 15 years old, her father passed away and she became the head of the family. She explained that Sudan has a long history of queens and a matriarchal structure so regardless of whether you are a man or woman, as the oldest child of the family, it’s expected that you step into a leadership role when the time comes. As a result of her father’s untimely death, Mrs Gourafi became a leader very early in life. “His death made me grow fast”, she reflected.
She attended the University of Khartoum, the oldest and best university in Sudan, which now has a student body of 55% women. In university, she was active in the nearly 16,000 member student body and became the head of the student union and also the largest organisation on campus for Muslim students. She studied economics and political science and further pursued a diploma at London University. She later earned her Master’s and PhD in political science from University of Khartoum and published three books specialising in foreign policy. Mrs Gourafi’s draw towards leadership was strongly influenced by her late grandmother, who had sadly passed just a few days before our interview. Her grandmother was the leader of the Sudanese Women’s Union and always impressed upon her granddaughter that she was no less than any man. She instilled the idea in young Mrs Gourafi that, “you should fight for the rights of others because they push you along and support you and then you all gain your rights together.” As a side note, her aunt was the first Sudanese Ambassador to Kuwait. So needless to say, Mrs Gourafi comes from a family of strong, educated women who serve their people rather than serving themselves.
Mrs Gourafi held many positions before being appointed Ambassador to Thailand including University Lecturer, Undersecretary to the Minister of Foreign Relations, the youngest ever Minister of Information and Media and most recently, Deputy Ambassador to the UK. There had been plans fifteen years ago to open an Embassy here but they kept changing and it never came to fruition. In 2017, after spending a year preparing back home in Khartoum, she was tasked with opening the first ever Sudanese Embassy to Thailand. From the sounds of it, this time they got it right and things have gone quite smoothly under her leadership.
While there is a small population of Sudanese expats residing in Thailand, just 150-170 families, there are nearly 15,000 Sudanese tourists in Thailand each year, 6,000 of whom come for medical reasons. She often goes to visit Sudanese families in the hospital and spends quality time with her community at her home and at other outside events. As Islamophobia spreads across the Western world, the number of Sudanese tourists coming to Thailand continues to increase because they find that they are more welcome here.
However, her main mission in Thailand and the focus of the Sudanese Foreign Ministry is economic. She has been tasked with establishing a strong economic platform for future collaboration between the two nations. Seems like an odd pairing, as I mentioned earlier, but this is where I found the connection between the two countries to be particularly interesting. With the separation of South Sudan in 2011, there has been a large shift away from oil and gold and towards agriculture. Sudan has 80% of its population working in agriculture and they are in need of simple, inexpensive but effective technology. As it turns out, Thailand is well known in this area. On top of that, with a large coastline along the Red Sea, twelve rivers and 67% of the Nile River basin, fisheries are a huge source of income for Sudanese people. Thailand is one of the top countries in the world for fisheries and food processing. With such a major economic shift in her home country, Mrs Gourafi has been placed here not only to make economic connections but also to learn from Thai people about their food processing industries so that she can take it back to Sudan and help her country develop these industries.
Outside of work, the Ambassador has really enjoyed her time in the Kingdom and hopes to stay for a while. After two years in Thailand, she has had the chance to visit several provinces and became enamoured with the beauty of Phang Na and hopes to return there, soon. The sweltering humidity in Thailand was an adjustment for her but she keeps cool by swimming regularly. Thai food was also a big change since the primary protein in Sudan is lamb but she is embracing all of the changes with a big smile and an open mind. Luckily for me, after our interview, her cook prepared a lunch of traditional Sudanese food. What a treat! Under the skilled leadership of Mrs Gourafi, rooted in kindness and service, the blossoming relationship between these two not so dissimilar countries will surely be fruitful for all involved.