There are places in this world that you never imagine you will set foot – the forbidden list, taboo for cultural, religious, or diplomatic reasons. For Americans, Sudan figures high on that list, a response to the strict economic sanctions leveled against the country in response to President Omar Al-Bashir’s war against his own people and perpetration of genocide in the Darfur region. This mean that few Americans will be able to get a visa to visit or work, and American businesses are strictly prohibited from conducting operations in the country. This doesn’t just mean no McDonalds – it’s a country without ATMs (Visa and Mastercard can’t do business there) and after logging into Upwork while in Khartoum, I received a probationary message that my freelance contracts would be suspended until I could prove that I was not in Sudan as the online portal would not risk retribution for paying someone working in Sudan.
This is to say – it is not a country you visit flippantly, offhand for a weekend adventure. In May, I spent ten days in Sudan, joined by the other two Rwanda ELFs to help the EL Fellow in Khartoum to conduct a five-day teacher training workshop. It’s hard to write about places like this – those that have had such a significant impact on me, that have left me with such overwhelming positivity. It comes as a happy burden to attempt to illustrate the vast difference between Sudanese politics and Sudanese people – that Sudanese people are not their politics, that I left feeling blessed to have been a receiver of their warmth and generosity. So here, among a few frames, are my observations from this place.
Wandering the streets of Khartoum
Sudan straddles the Sahara, the bridge between Muslim north Africa and the sub-saharan subcontinent, somewhere between our visions of the middle east and the heart of darkness. The bottom swath of the country transitioned to statehood as South Sudan in 2011; it’s independence indicated below on a large map at the National Museum in Khartoum. This means that the country is a diverse spectrum of skintones and cultures.
Sudan: Bordered by Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, C.A.R., Chad, and Libya.
The country is under a form of Sharia law (since there is not one sharia law and it looks different in each country where it is implemented). Basically, and most pertinent to my own life, this meant no alcohol and keeping covered. Western women and Christian women, I was told, were not expected to cover their hair, but needed to remain respectfully covered: legs and shoulders under wraps. Not all women covered: in our classes, we saw everything from full niqab (face covered) to hair flowing free. Wandering through shops demonstrated Budweiser is imported through some grey supply chains to be sold in the stores: NA, of course, stands for non-alcoholic, somehow making already awful beer even more horrific, a sort of oatmeal-piss flavour.
Probably imported from Saudi Arabia, another no-go zone for alcohol
Sudan is my first Islamic nation to visit for more than a few hours (thanks to an unplanned layover in Istanbul). This means corner mosques, quite a bit less touching in busy market situations, and foot washing stations at the school where we conducted the training.
Beyond these ultimately cosmetic differences, people are people – and even before landing on the ground in Khartoum, I was impressed by the kind, openness of the Sudanese people with whom I flew, worked, ate: a bright, gentle spirit that permeated the entire experience. I felt welcomed at once, appreciated for my work, engaged and connected with participants, one with the teachers there: the international camaraderie and motley brotherhood of educators worldwide.
Participants working on an activity with the beast swamp cooler in the background: a necessity in 120 degree desert heat
After work and on the weekend (Friday-Saturday given that Friday is the holy day) we experienced some of the city. In a country where Embassy employees take armored cars, we hopped bajaj taxis, those three-wheeled tripod-looking minicabs, better at the bob and weave of trafficked roads – never sensing danger for being four khuawaja teachers wandering the city streets.
We visited the market where Denise dropped down on a plastic stool for tea and we wandered in search of beads and Darfur baskets.
Tea station – tea, the national pastime
Dark alleys of the Omdurman market, the souq
An ideal Sudanese evening is spent sipping tea from glasses next to the Nile – Khartoum lies at the convergence of the Blue and White Niles. Boats motor by, spitting diesel fumes and young men line the bridges, laughing and chatting.
Given it’s geographic positioning, Sudan is made of ancient stuff. A walk through the National Museum tunnels back through time, a waltz through the kingdoms that populated my African civilizations classes: the Kerma, the Kush, the Meroë. Pyramids, sarcophagi, rough hewn bowls and more detailed scarabs – what I experienced in fourth grade at the San Jose Egyptian Museum, just closer to its source, directly outside the capital. Entire buildings are housed in wide warehouses, allowing you to walk through, to trace your fingers against the carved hieroglyphics, to inspect up close the painted reliefs.
From a museum to reality: on the final day, we trekked outside of the city with papers in hand to stop at four police checkpoints in search of ancient earthed from the sand.
Next up, down the road and one stop for Fantas and afternoon prayers (for our Sudanese companions) later, were the Nubian pyramids, the remainders of 255 structures constructed 800 years after their more famous Egyptian cousins.
Panoramic of the full site, with some pyramids reconstructed (middle)
The sand was so hot it melted my companions shoes: Jessica pealed off the sole of her Chakos, one of the Sudanese women watched her New Balance sole flap along. I drank three liters of water and still had a hangover-style headache; sweat evaporated off of me as soon as it appeared. And then Bob rode a camel, and the week in Sudan was complete.
Bob: glorious, wild and free
So there it is, my attempt to demystify this place, to maybe replace in your head the image of Sudan from starvation and massacre in Darfur, a smirking Bashir, sanctions and sharia: a place of scorched, impossible landscape, genuine people of kindness, a hot beating heart in the north of this continent that consistently, daily surprises me.
Love & salam –