In April 2012, after five years teaching English in Vietnam, the opportunity to work in Khartoum — the capital of the northeast African country Sudan — presented itself. I accepted immediately, and then the fear began.
Sudan… where is it? Near Egypt, God help me… Darfur, genocide, George Clooney keeps talking about the place, Jihadists running around in funny clothes with scraggy beards looking to behead infidels like me. Even Osama Bin Laden lived there in the early 1990s.
I boarded the flight there on Apr. 5, my 33rd birthday. The only positive thing I can say about this journey was that it was paid for by my employer in Khartoum.
After two 16-hour layovers — now entering the realm of mental illness — I started getting my first glimpses of the Sudanese, a people I would come to grow and love and respect with all my heart. As the time drew nearer to boarding the Istanbul to Khartoum leg of the trip, two things struck me about my fellow passengers.
First, there were absolutely huge physically imposing men onboard, and second, they all seemed to know each other. Without exception, every person greeted, shook hands, offered God’s peace or warmly embraced every other person boarding that flight. This aspect of Sudanese culture was something I came to cherish, though I couldn’t recognise it then.
It was 3am Khartoum time when I finally landed and cleared customs and saw my name being held by the promised driver. Being driven through Khartoum for the first time at 3am in a deranged mental state is raw on the nerves. In this state, my taxi slowed to turn the dirt red road corner where I was to live for the first two weeks, and a pack of stray dogs came leaping and yelping at the taxi, fearless. I wound my window up just in time. Visibly shaken, I turned to the driver and robotically stated, “Dogs.”
“Yes,” he said. “And tomorrow, people.”
The look of horror on my face must have been enough to make him decide to let me off the hook, and he burst into a wide-smiled laugh at my expense. I entered my room, lay down, and cried.
A Hard Century
Sudan is suffering. There is no way to escape this harsh reality. The country, which was once the geographically largest in Africa, was cut in half when South Sudan gained independence in 2011 after years of civil war — which in simplified terms, was a battle between the ethnically Arab Muslim powerbase in Khartoum and the Christian and Animist Africans of the south. The country split, which the majority of Sudanese I know mourn as a dark day in history. South Sudan has since degenerated into ethnic violence between the majority Dinka group and the minority Nuer.
When South Sudan seceded the financial ramifications for Khartoum were severe. The major oil fields are in the south, yet ironically the pipelines only run north towards Port Sudan and the Red Sea. What this really means is this hit the Sudanese people hard in every way imaginable.
It is impossible to write about Sudan and not discuss its President, Omar al-Bashir. He came to power in 1989 and has remained in control ever since. He immediately implemented Sharia Law and to this day, Sudan’s government remains a quasi-religious military dictatorship. Khartoum is in all but name a military compound masquerading as a city, due to the fact the regime is currently involved in three separate conflicts.
In Darfur, there is again ethnic conflict between Arab and African — the primary difference between the previous conflict being this time the Darfuris are Muslims who just happen to be African. There are also separate conflicts in the Nuba Mountains and in Kordofan.
There is no question that genocide occurred and is occurring in Darfur, and that the world at large remains for the most part ambivalent. To add to the already massive list of problems in a country ravaged by conflict and corruption, Sudan is labouring under a UN-imposed embargo. Sadly, the very people it is meant to punish suffer nothing. Average Sudanese citizens are the ones who suffer the main effects.
Sudan has no access to Visa or Mastercard cashpoints inside the country, a harsh lesson I would come to learn when I woke up broke, jetlagged, hungry and completely disoriented. I went looking for food on a Friday, the start of the Islamic weekend, and the city was completely deserted. Without another soul around, I walked around in 48-degree heat looking to withdraw money in cashpoints that didn’t exist for a sandwich I couldn’t buy. I went back to my room to begin plotting my escape when the phone rang.
Learning the Ropes
It was my manager calling, and thus began my two-and-a-half year teaching career in Khartoum. Learning how to deal with Sudanese students didn’t take me long. The first new thing I learnt about was the different concept of time.
A 3pm class may start at 4pm, or it may never start at all. People will filter in and out, talking on phones, throughout the entire duration of the class.
The first half-hour of the class is spent on traditional greetings. Males extend their right hand onto their left shoulder — they did the same for me. The women shake hands with the men and give each other a kind of high five, depending on their level of religious devotion. No matter if this class had seen each other the previous day, this routine is repeated by all Sudanese at all times. More amazingly, it happens in a genuine manner.
The second thing I learnt is the Sudanese love to talk — as one student pointed out, “It’s all we have.” Once I had established trust in the class, and was fairly sure who my learners were, my students began to talk about topics they were not free to discuss outside. This was perhaps one of my biggest joys, allowing the students to express in a second language what they are forbidden to in their mother tongue: topics ranging from politics to sex to marriage.
A Questionable Learning Environment
Khartoum is not easy on the eye. It is by far the ugliest and dirtiest city I have ever seen. The concept of waste disposal is ignored by the authorities, as is the idea of maintaining buildings and upgrading health facilities.
The government is terminally in a state of conflict with its people. Sometimes it takes action against perceived threats; at other times, it cracks down on the local population’s protests. If you have the audacity to publicly rally against something as apolitical as the price of oil — which I witnessed in my first Sudanese year — you might be shot by the police, in the street. Student friends of mine were killed in this manner.
There is also the desert heat, from a Sub-Saharan oven that transcends hot. During the holy month of Ramadan, my students, friends and colleagues would fast in these conditions, not a drop of water or a bite to eat from sunup until sundown. Out of respect, many of my foreign colleagues would fast as well. I did too, to the extent that it was possible, so as not to cause offense. But every now and then a student would say, “Teacher, go drink some water.”
You will lose weight in Sudan, there is no alcohol, it’s dirty and hot like no place on earth, the regime is one of the most oppressive on the planet and you will have no running water in your home for months at a time. So why go?
In my time in Sudan, I ate a camel, I broke a fast during Ramadan — believe me, no drink ever tasted so sweet — I learned how to converse in Arabic, I even managed to get hit by a bus and spend the night in a Khartoum hospital with a fractured leg.
But the real reason to go is summed up in a quote about the Sudanese, “If you put 100 of the nicest people in a room, 99 of them will be Sudanese.” And I can testify that this is true. A friendlier group of people, living the hardest lives imaginable, surely does not exist anywhere else in the world.
Shukran ya Sudan, Ma Salaam!