Awadeya Mahmoud Koko shouts orders to her staff, raising her voice to be heard above the protest chants that fill the air of downtown Khartoum. She sits in a plastic chair on Gamhuriya Avenue by the main gate of a mass sit-in outside Sudan’s military headquarters — the epicenter of an uprising that led to the ouster of 30-year autocrat Omar El-Bashir last month.
“Hurry up, we don’t have much time left!” Koko orders three men, who scramble to pick up huge cooking pots as thousands of demonstrators from Khartoum and neighboring towns stream in toward the protest encampment. “No, don’t take that pan, we need to deep fry with oil.”
Young volunteers in orange vests search people on their way in. Sunset is approaching and, with it, the breaking of the Ramadan fast. Koko oversees the preparation of some 5,000 iftar meals, which will be distributed for free inside. This is rush hour.
Koko arrived at this site over a month ago and never left. The shaded sidewalk adjacent to the main gate of the sit-in has become her headquarters, furnished with a few thin mats and some tarp. “When I arrived on the first day of the sit-in, I didn’t find human beings, I found lions determined to fight for their rights. And I saw they needed my help,” she says, draped in an emerald-colored thobe. “For the first 11 days, I stayed here day and night to prepare tea, coffee and offer zalabya (sweet, ball-shaped fritters) because the revolutionaries had nothing to drink or eat. Then they asked me if I could cook meals,” she says.
Feeding the demonstrators became especially critical in keeping the sit-in alive during Ramadan, when temperatures soared and a standoff in negotiations dragged on between Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and protest leaders headed by the Coalition for Freedom and Change.
Koko now runs the biggest street kitchen of Sudan’s revolutionary sit-in. She even convinced her reluctant, apolitical husband to join in the protest and “do anything to help, even if it’s just chanting and clapping against the regime,” she says.
Unlike her husband, Koko is no novice when it comes to political struggle. Now approaching her 56th birthday, she is a veteran organizer and a legendary street tea seller who spent years challenging the authorities in one of the world’s most oppressive states.
Born in the Nuba mountains of South Kordofan during Sudan’s first civil war (1955-1972), Koko’s family fled to Khartoum when she was a young girl. She took part in her first demonstration in 1985, when a mass uprising led to the overthrow of then-President Gaafar Nimeiry in a bloodless coup. She got married soon afterward and took to the streets again, this time as a tea seller to support her young family, which was hit hard by worsening economic conditions.
Armed with nothing more than a few stools, glasses and a teapot, she began what she assumed was “the simplest job with the least investment.” But the police made her job anything but simple. “They repeatedly raided my stall and seized my equipment. When I tried to retrieve it, they would fine me,” Koko says. She labels this regular police harassment as kasha, a colloquial term that refers to a massive government campaign to forcibly repatriate rural migrants from the capital based on racial profiling in the 70s and 80s.
As the Sudanese economy continued to spiral downward during the late 80s and early 90s, thousands of women began selling tea and simple meals in the streets of Khartoum and set al-shay (“the tea woman”) became a common expression. Yet within Sudan’s conservative society, these women were often scorned and received little sympathy when they were subject to public humiliation and beatings at the hands of police.
“None of the existing workers unions defended us because they cared more about working with the government than speaking for regular people,” Koko says. “So I decided to do it myself.” In 1990, she established the first Women’s Food and Tea Seller’s Cooperative in Khartoum. The group offered legal aid and confronted local police authorities, often successfully, to help return confiscated equipment. “The pressure worked when they knew I was coming to their office as president of the women’s union,” she says.
The cooperative grew and Koko looked to expand the business. But her plans were cut short in 2007 when an unsuccessful investment landed her in debt, and subsequently in prison. Under Sudan’s infamous Article 243, debtors can be detained until the outstanding debt is repaid. Koko spent four years behind bars.
Prison did not stop her activism. She set up a makeshift shop inside prison to help other women detainees. Upon her release, she was forced to sell her house but remained undeterred. In 2013, she was named president of the Multi-Purpose Cooperative Union for Women for Khartoum State, a group that ran three community centers in Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri. An umbrella organization that brought together 13 associations when it was founded, it now boasts 20 associations and 27,000 members, according to Koko.
The community centers offer a wide range of workshops, from farming to automotive engineering, as well as a women-led restaurant. “We wanted women to learn skills other than serving tea,” says 45-year-old Faiza Abdallah, one of the union’s first members who helped set up the community centers. “We have kids who study agriculture and electrical engineering, and they can help us now. They will develop the country with us, after Omar al-Bashir let it stagnate for three decades.”
Koko’s achievements were even recognized by the US State Department, with former Secretary of State John Kerry awarding her the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2016. “I always wanted to be famous and appear on television,” she says mischievously, recalling invitations she received from the US, Kenya and Lebanon over the last couple of years.
Among protesters, Koko is a deeply respected figure. “She is my mother,” says demonstrator Nisr Eddin Terab, referring to Koko by what has become a common nickname. Terab commuted for over an hour to reach the sit-in to volunteer on a guard shift. “I admire her because even when she is ill, she defies her own sickness to come help our revolution.”
Koko’s sons work in mines located far outside Khartoum but she says everyone at the protests calls her “my mother, the mother of the revolution , or sometimes Kandakat’s mother” — the latter a reference to the Nubian queens who ruled during the Kingdom of Kush in ancient Sudan.
Up until recently, Koko — a mother of four children — could not afford to buy her own medicine. Yet through the women’s union, she managed to successfully raise 14,000 Sudanese pounds (US$310) — 10 times the average monthly salary for a civil servant — to contribute to a fund run by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) to maintain the sit-in.
As a member of the SPA (the organization leading the protest movement), Koko has addressed the crowds of demonstrators from the main stage at the sit-in. And she intends to be a part of Sudan’s new government. “I want a position either in the new civil government, or in Parliament, in order to be as close as possible to the decision-making process and to make sure that women get their rights,” she says.
She says that her top priority will be to abolish Article 243, the legal provision that landed her, and thousands of other women, in prison. She also wants to provide shaded kiosks for her former tea seller colleagues.
Although Sudanese women have been at the forefront of the mass protests in Sudan since they began in December 2018, and despite being specifically targeted by security forces, their full political participation in post-Bashir Sudan doesn’t appear to be guaranteed. While the SPA has not released a list of proposed names to fill government posts, a leading SPA official tells Mada Masr that women make up just 40 percent of the posts in an initial draft. “It sadly reflects a lack of political will so far,” he says.
Koko remains hopeful. “I am optimistic because, unlike in the 1985 revolution, all of Sudan is participating. The new president will have to be fair with men and women,” she says.
For the time being, negotiations between protest leaders and the military council remain unresolved over the composition of a sovereign council that will rule the country during the transitional period. Meanwhile, an attack on the sit-in by armed security forces last week raised alarm. Yet Koko is resolute and says much has already been achieved. She points to the disappearance of the kasha police from the streets of Khartoum as an irreversible sign of victory in the ongoing third Sudanese revolution.