If you’re to maintain your sanity, then “Third World Africa” or whichever politically sensitive term you wish to use has to be accepted with all its muddy streets, electricity shutdowns and taps that suddenly offer no life for hours on end.
This is the comforting epiphany that hit me during a moment of numbness last week — a little over a month after my arrival in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. It came as I was struggling to get out of bed, not because of muscle pain or after becoming entangled in the bed sheets — I just couldn’t stand up straight because there was this heavy feeling inside keeping me down.
I arrived in Khartoum on July 1 this year and a month later I was still cursing myself for choosing the torture of what feels at times like a sub-standard existence. I wanted to get on a plane that evening and head back to my familiar, to Cape Town, to South Africa. Eventually, hunger forced my limbs to separate from the bed.
First things first: brushed my teeth, had a quick bite, logged on to Facebook to connect with friends and laugh my head off. Then I wrote an encouraging email to a South African friend, on a parallel path, as a reporter in Senegal. (Despite generally being overwhelmed by Khartoum, I’ve been blessed with rapid internet access.)
My friend tells me about encounters on the muddy streets of Dakar, of the scamsters who want to milk her because she’s a “lighter-skinned African” whom the locals also expect is loaded and most likely operating on US dollars. She also tells me that the language barrier means that she’s since signed up for French lessons. And that the foreign correspondent set that she’d just stepped into is disappointing — an all-white, non-African, yawn-some experience. She says she’d hoped to meet more African women on the beat, telling the continent’s stories, but that’s not the reality.
I reached out with words: “We need to just get on with it and be strong for ourselves.” I wrote, somewhat therapeutically, reminding myself of a billboard that reads: “Africa is not for sissies.”
Prior to that moment, I was mind-mapping my future and it looked as confusing as the path taken home after dinner every night in Khartoum. The forecast seemed as messy as this chaotic city’s streets after one of those bursts of rain during the current rainy season: muddy, unlit and crowded with dodgy drivers gripping the steering wheels of buses, minibuses, cars and noisy rickshaws.
The streets in my neighbourhood have no lights. I feel like I’m living in a South African township 24-7. One gets used to the darkness of the streets, though.
I had no idea that living in Khartoum would be this hard on the soul. I moved here to fulfil a long-held dream of studying Arabic. I arrived at my modest new home; a decent-sized room with a bathroom attached, on the property of a Sudanese family in Arkaweet suburb.
Interestingly, my balcony is larger than my room. Perfect for braais of inviting people over for socialising on warm nights. My place is comfortable. I have a bed, fridge, basic furniture items including a small coffee table, couch and cupboard. I’m grateful because it’s more than what most Sudanese people have.
I don’t have a kitchen, but that’s hardly a problem. Local food is cheaply available from small cafés and there are various restaurants available. And, just like the locals, there are days when I can’t go without my dose of fuul. The latter is the staple food for almost every single Sudanese citizen and its basic ingredient is boiled beans.
It makes for a tasty and healthy meal once mixed with cheese, a boiled egg, chopped onions, spices and a splash of sesame-seed oil. One can live on the cheap, like the locals, or opt for the fattening foods such as pizzas, burgers and chicken deep-fried in oil. It’s a mix of both for me, depending on the budget, not necessarily the stomach’s requirements.
Ideally, I should do more of the el-cheapo-style grub since I was, after all, stepping into the student life again; the life minus the flashy accessories and hold-me-down materialisms. Earlier this year, once I obtained a bursary from the International University of Africa. I quit a fairly comfortable gig as an arts and entertainment reporter based in Cape Town and called up Etihad Airways for a return flight ticket to Sudan.
Of course, a hedonistic stopover week in Dubai prior to landing in Khartoum did more harm than good. Dubai offered malls, miles of coffee shops, top-notch restaurants, lazing on the beach and full view of what Arab oil riches can build. “Bling deluxe” is an understated description for a city that at times seems worlds apart from the real world.
This trip isn’t my first to Khartoum and I knew that living here wouldn’t be like living in Dubai or Jo’burg or Cape Town, or even Cairo. I expected less materialist clutter and a minimalist existence to ease the much-touted quarter-life-crisis-mess I was facing.
In October 2004, while reporting for the ill-fated, Nigerian-owned daily ThisDay, I headed to Khartoum and Darfur on a cargo plane with a South African aid agency delivering relief assistance. Darfur’s conflicts had erupted to an unexpected height and the peacemaking attempts seemed to be limping along wimpishly.
But here I am now in Sudan, which is falling apart as the American government barks threats of more sanctions against an already dilapidated economy. Economic sanctions, first implemented under former US president Bill Clinton in 1997, included “prohibiting commercial transactions with the government”.
Since then, top personalities in Sudan have faced asset freezes, American businesses have been prohibited from doing business with Sudan and President George Bush has rallied for a UN Security Council resolution to impose new international sanctions on top of the existing financial barriers.
For the little guy like me, this means I haven’t been able to access my Standard Bank account via its Maestro ATM facility. It’s the first time that this has happened to me anywhere worldwide. It also means that the cost of many goods is more than back home. Getting the goods is sometimes hard for local businesses and that pushes up prices. With some goods there’s also more demand than supply, also raising market prices.
Needless to say, I’m learning to live with the certainty of necessity and without the luxury of choice. But life offers more than what the eyes can see. So I’m not leaving, just yet.
I’ve stopped moaning and my status updates on Facebook are less traumatic. No more “I miss you too” emails or lengthy lists of “Everything that’s wrong with this place”. I’ve realised that it would be just plain dumb to leave too soon.
Besides, my stomach is beginning to withstand the tap water, and the traditional food is yummy. And I haven’t yet come anywhere near to understanding the mix of Africa and the Arab world that’s so evident in Sudan. This is a master’s degree in, and of, itself.
And besides, there’s still the reason I moved to Sudan: Arabic classes. The latter has so far been a somewhat painful experience and I haven’t progressed as much as I had hoped. While the university’s title (the International University of Africa ), has some wow factor on paper, in reality it’s not that inspiring a environment in which to endure daily classes.
For starters, the lessons are in Arabic only. According to the head of the course, “Not everybody understands English.” I didn’t bother telling him that the Indian, Chinese, Turkish, and various African and South-East Asian characters in class with me didn’t understand Arabic either. So we’re left to our own dumbness in learning this eloquent tongue.
Visual aids are almost unheard of by the course designers. But, the course head did promisingly mention that a new curriculum is planned for this year.
For now, the Arabic lessons might not be progressing by leaps and bounds, but I’m learning tons about Africa first-hand. And it’s great. It’s an education I’d never get in Cape Town with its café lattes, movie nights and semi-First World connectedness. Khartoum, with its tattered buildings and international bad-boy reputation, is desperate for a shape-up.
Safety is another gift handed to me on a silver platter. There’s poverty in Khartoum, but nobody is going to kill you for your wallet. On some warm nights, I’ve gotten used to watching the moon from my balcony, with my door wide open. I simply drag my bed out on to the balcony and sort of count my lucky stars. I do feel lucky to be exploring another part of the continent and its people. And I do feel lucky to be in such a safe environment, despite all the few nagging voices that yapped on about Darfur .
Talking safety, theft is a reality in Khartoum but there’s an unspoken respect for life around here, which might sound weird, considering that figures on the Darfur conflict indicate that thousands have been murdered in this battle. Then there has also been the bloodshed in the country’s southern region, which recently formed an alliance with the Khartoum government, including adopting a singular currency.
Sudan feels like it has been cut off from the rest of a world that carries on with a fast pace and push for economic progress. This isolation has resulted in both negative and positive repercussions. The slow pace has meant lack of structural, economic and political progress.
During Khartoum’s peak hour, it’s commonplace to see donkey carts making their way alongside vehicles and the growing number of white UN vehicles that seem to be delivered by the truckload to the capital on a weekly basis. Sandy streets also outnumber tar roads. After heavy rains the roads are filled with soggy, shoe-swallowing swamps.
Khartoum has no effective drainage system either. Trenches are dug on either side of streets and water accumulates there, along with the ubiquitous litter. Pollution caused by the traffic build-up induces heavy coughing if you’re new to the congestion. Khartoum’s population is also swelling due to urbanisation and the influx of citizens fleeing the ongoing conflicts across Sudan.
And yet Africa ’s biggest geographical state is growing on me. I suppose it’s the attitude shift, but also just getting used to working within the bureaucratic time zone of it all. Unsurprisingly, I spent weeks going back and forth to the immigration office to complete my residency application. I prayed for patience every time I left empty-handed.
One thing I haven’t gotten used to, though, is self-censorship. I don’t take out my camera to capture a moment — even a greatly fantastical moment — when in public. I’ve been frowned on by locals and angrily told not to take photos.
Thing is, most locals don’t trust foreign-looking folk with cameras. And of course taking photos in public, even at places such as the upside-down environs of the Souk al-Arabi open-air marketplace, could lead to an undesired trip to the nearest intelligence office if spotted by a cop or plainclothed intelligence officer. Yes, this really happens. So I’m cautious.
Another freedom I miss is having a conversation for two hours straight without needing to translate what I’m saying with gestures or explanatory notes every few minutes. But there are things that cushion my pain: digital music downloads from the internet, succumbing at times to satellite TV talk shows, news and movies, as well as having met locals through Facebook.
Despite the atrocities in Darfur, the Sudanese are getting on with life as they do best: with a smile and hearts filled with patience. Try getting lost in Khartoum. More likely than not, the person trying to help you will be willing to escort you to your destination. And, if he happens to be busy eating, he’d invite you to share his meal.
There is humane warmth exchanged among the Sudanese that makes up for all the tumultuous headlines of the tribal conflicts over resources in places like Darfur. And it makes the political power clashes seem even more senseless as the average Sudanese on the street doesn’t seem like he’s got it in him to harm even the most irritating mosquito. I have learnt to love this place because of its people. All things considered, I think I’ve got a good thing going for now.