In a crowded United Nations conference room in a southwestern Sudanese town called Wau, an exchange of sorts took place between two men of very different worlds who had more in common than they might have thought. At the front of the room was Constable Charles Obeng, a Canadian originally from Ghana, on Africa's west coast.
One of the students, a young Sudanese man, was a local police officer who had lost several family members during the brutal war. During a break, the Sudanese police officer approached Obeng with a question: "Did you know Scott before you both became officers?"
"No," Obeng replied. "The first time I met him was during our induction training in Ottawa."
"But you look like you've known him for years," the Sudanese responded. "You're always laughing and joking together." "In my culture," he continued, "if you're from the north and I'm from the south; if you're Muslim and I'm not, we don't like each other very much.
"How can you get along with him when you're not both from the same culture?"
Being on a United Nations base in southern Sudan is a bit like taking a trip around the world. In any given office, you'll find people representing a handful of different countries – from the Philippines to Bolivia, Zimbabwe to the United States. And among that mix is a group of Canadians who are just as diverse as the UN itself.
"As far as I'm concerned, our contingent is the only multiracial, multiethnic contingent here," says RCMP Inspector Wayne Hanniman, commander of the Canadian contingent of police officers serving in the UN Mission in Sudan. Among the five other Canadian police officers currently deployed with Constable Obeng are an officer born in India, and one with Portuguese origins. Inspector Hanniman says this diversity is not being lost on the Sudanese people with whom the officers interact.
"We should never underestimate or sell short that those may seem small things, but small things can be very important."
Both geographically and culturally, Sudan sits along the dividing line between Arab North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa. According to some estimates, more than 300 different tribes exist across the country. But for decades, Sudan has been torn apart by civil war.
Canada's contribution to UN Mission in Sudan, which aims to help rebuild the now semi-autonomous southern region, takes a couple forms. Canadian police officers are assisting in the training of local police officers and Canadian Forces personnel are serving as observers in the implementation of a deal that finally brought peace in 2005. Together with its contribution to the UN Mission in Darfur, as well as investments in aid and diplomacy, Canada has budgeted up to $275 million for Sudan in this fiscal year (2008-2009).
But Hanniman says Canada's multiculturalism might be one of its biggest contributions here, especially in an environment where ethnic and tribal divisions have had fatal implications.
"One, you're modeling behaviour and two, you're holding out a promise or an ideal of what racial harmony, ethnic harmony, multicultural harmony is. You know it's possible. Some people will say it's not. Canada is demonstrating it is."
And the Sudanese are not the only ones learning the lesson.
Constable Obeng came to Canada in the early 1980s as a political refugee. As a student leader in the Ghanaian capital Accra, he was persecuted by the government following a coup d'état that left dead bodies in the street. His first job in Canada was at McDonald's, serving burgers to pay his way through school. When he finished law enforcement studies at Seneca College in Toronto, he worked as a Toronto court officer for several years before joining the RCMP. After five years with the force, he began working as a personal bodyguard for Canada's prime ministers. He has protected Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and current Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But while his story may seem impressive, people in Sudan are often incredulous. Obeng says Sudanese police officers often do a double-take when they see a black man with a Canadian flag on his uniform.
"The first reaction is, 'You're one of us'. Some of the students call me Sudanese," Obeng says. Then he tells them he is Canadian. "The next question that usually follows is: 'Oh, we didn't know there are black people in Canada. Is it just you or are there more?'"
"[There are] not too many countries that you can come to as a refugee and end up protecting its Prime Minister," says Burge, Obeng's fellow RCMP officer in Wau. "Makes me proud."
Obeng's story has also opened the eyes of many Sudanese to what they might achieve. Burge says it has helped them see that Africans too can reach great heights.
"They are drawn, I believe, to the idea that they could have that life."
Obeng too is proud, and hopeful that his and Canada's presence in Sudan will have a positive impact. His gratification will come, he says, when one day, the young Sudanese man he trained becomes a presidential bodyguard. Until then, he hopes the example of intercultural cooperation that Canadians have set will leave its own mark on a fragile country with new hopes for the future.