This is a journal entry of mine dated February 2011, hardly a month since the creation of a new state South Sudan to the south of Khartoum. The situation hasn’t changed a great deal, but a few of the facts might have. I request readers to ignore those that aren’t relevant in today’s context, and view this from the shoes of those who were present in Sudan during the ongoing struggle – late 2010 / early 2011. Photos from the trip are missing as my BlackBerry was stolen during the trip.
The recent conclusion of what appeared to be a perennial civil war in Sudan, after the referendum favoured the creation of a new state, South Sudan, has forced me into penning down my memories from Khartoum last December.
Watching from afar, it was difficult to visualize and understand the intractability of the conflicts in Sudan. When I was informed at work that I had an assignment that would span close to a week in Khartoum, I could only think of the referendum that was to be held the following month. Such sobriety seemed beyond my reach.
Tales about the perversity of Sudan’s political system were well documented. In hindsight, I probably ended up thinking that it wasn’t the best way to prepare for a trip to an unknown, but unique land. With my yellow fever vaccines intact, I found myself on the flight to Khartoum via Dubai.
The only bright note during the journey, otherwise unspectacular, was the nascent joyous moment of viewing the Nile, after hours of flying over the desert as we approached Khartoum. The city of Khartoum is where the Blue and the White Nile converge. The Nile flows through 10 African nations, with Egypt and Sudan (now, additionally South Sudan – making the tally 11) having the major share of the river waters.
Endless debates between the Egyptians, who claim that ‘Egypt is the Gift of the Nile’, and the Ethiopians who retort with ‘If Egypt is the Gift of the Nile, then the Nile is a Gift of Ethiopia’ made me snigger as we slowly descended.
Any pretense of an anticipated ‘aha’ moment on my first trip to the African continent seemed to evaporate on touchdown at Khartoum’s International Airport. The International airport had three, or maybe four, gates in total. Not surprising, yet underwhelming.
I felt as though I was in the midst of a raucous environment, a feeling that I’ve often got when I have been stuck at Chennai Central Railway Station during peak hours. I couldn’t help thinking that any attempt to exploit a new found prominence, if that time ever came, would hardly be envision-able.
The airport was barely larger than an average sized mall in India. Perhaps, the most striking aspect of the airport was the presence of a single duty free shop, one that resembled a typical Panwallah joint in India. I thought this represented a deeper trough of an already existing, perpetual misery of abject infrastructure and instability in this nation.
The cab driver, who picked us up in a Hyundai Elantra, narrated tales, in broken English, of how the relations with their then-President remained tense, and corruption, endemic. For a country that is often portrayed as under-developed, there were signs of feudalism – an offset of the privatized Oil & Gas, and Construction Industries, owned largely by the Middle Eastern States, and in some cases, the Chinese (I also came to gather the fact that around 6000 Indians resided in Sudan, out of which 5000 were Gujarati).
The bridge between the rich and the poor, much like India, was very broad and fast expanding. It isn’t an uncommon sight to see beggars on the streets banging their fists against your car window for money. But given the refractoriness of the situation there at large, we were advised by our cab driver never to open the windows. I didn’t want to think why. The only downside being that I couldn’t take clear pictures without opening the windows as we drove through the narrow streets of Islamic Khartoum.
We were put up in one of Khartoum’s better hotels, Coral International, located along the road parallel to the Blue Nile. In truth, till date, I have no idea why it has been referred to as the Blue Nile. The colour certainly didn’t give it away. At least not in Khartoum. Neither did its majesty.
That the recent conflicts in Sudan have caused severe implications on infrastructure was confirmed soon when the hotel receptionist handed us a paper, on entry, stating that the hotel would witness a power shut down for two hours every day. He did not regret the inconvenience, a very clear message that hinted about the situation being far worse in other areas of the city. Having had a glimpse of the roads and the infrastructure in general, on the way to the hotel, this was hardly inconceivable.
Conversations with some of the hotel’s personnel seemed convincing enough to nail the idea that the Government was a toxic fungus implanted on the banks of the River Nile by fate. Their opinions were almost as astonishing as the sentiment, but the moment of injustice seemed to have passed for them. The fast approaching elections, back then, left most of them anxious with hopes of bringing the civil war to an end.
I questioned a few of them on how they foresaw the results. They replied meekly, insisting that it was difficult to predict such things. American intervention, one said, seemed imminent after the US had promised to remove Sudan off its black-listed nations if they listened to their demands, or advice, as they had diplomatically portrayed it. It was a no-brainer to guess that the oil fields of South Sudan were the points of immense interest.
Listening to their problems aside, I encountered my first brick-wall in Khartoum: food. A strict vegetarian, I was left with hardly anything to choose from the menu –a quick glance indicated that they served lentil soup and vaguely had something that resembled a vegetable sandwich. Not willing to risk anything beyond the obvious, I stuck to a couple of bowls of lentil soup to get me through the first few evenings.
I would later be introduced to a chef named Abdul Qadir, who was of Indian origin. I was ecstatic to find out, as we introduced ourselves to each other, that he was from Thanjavur and therefore, very much a Tamilian like myself. We exchanged stories, gripping enough to make him relive his memories from South India, where he had spent a large part of his childhood. My memories from the southern region of my state were limited to the annual pilgrimage trips we make as a family to visit our native deities.
He mentioned that he’d been associated with the Coral International group for a while and had stints in Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, UAE and Kuwait before moving to Sudan. It was a norm for chefs to spend two years in different branches of their hotel chain. He’d been residing in Sudan for a little more than two months.
What followed after our first meeting, and then subsequently a routine, was a sumptuous meal consisting rotis, dal, rice, sambhar and three vegetable curries. I couldn’t thank Abdul Qadir enough for this! He promised to make something special for every course during my stay there. We even managed to get a complementary evening snack of pakodaslater that day. I guess, deep down, he was as thrilled as I was to meet a fellow Tamilian.
With business hours in Sudan being significantly shorter than the ones I’m used to, I thought I would have enough time to explore the city, which however, given the circumstances, didn’t seem a great idea. The cab driver, however, had promised us to drive me around safe zones within the city.
Campaigning was at its peak, given that the elections were a few weeks away. Posters adorning politicians filled streets, signposts and any object that seemingly had the ability to display a message. Locals, along the banks of thee Nile, conducting their own versions of a Panchayat, reminded me of similar sights from India. Fortunately, the mosques were spared.
I came to understand that it was considered a criminal act if someone was found photographing the place where the Blue and the White Nile joined. I managed to sneak in a photograph from the cab, while shuddering within when I tried to imagine the plight of prisoners in Sudan given the un-amusing conditions of five-star hotels themselves.
The nature of my business trip, being short in duration, virtually brought an end to it before it could start. The fact that Lonely Planet has no recommendations for tourists whatsoever in Sudan made it easier for me to convince myself that I couldn’t have done much anyway.
A nervy encounter with a security guard on my way out was my last memory of Khartoum. He though he’d chance his luck trying to convince me to pay him a bribe of ‘a few American dollars’, a situation virtually unheard of in ‘clean’ Sudan.
Nevertheless, Sudan was a great experience in terms of having had deep, engaging conversations with locals (those who knew English – hence a very small sample set) on their perspectives regarding governance and hope. And education. Nigeria, Pakistan and Sudan ranked above India by their sheer size of volumes in having kids out of school at an early age.
When the flight to Dubai took off from Khartoum Airport, I managed to catch one last glimpse of the Nile and recollected the thoughts shared by Audrey Hepburn.
People in Ethiopia, the Sudan, etc., don’t know Audrey Hepburn, but they recognize the name UNICEF. When they see UNICEF, their faces light up, because they know that something is happening. In the Sudan, for example, they call a water pump ‘UNICEF.’