Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Grand Nubian

"Welcome to the Sudanese edition of 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' your first question is… Which country in the world has the best communications network? Is it

A. USA, B. France, C. India or D. Sudan."

This question actually appeared on a recent edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? here in Sudan. The contestant used his 50-50 which left him with USA and Sudan. He plumped for USA. Wrong. I am not sure whether this was an example of the most subtle of government propagandas or whether it is actually true. What I can say is that the communications systems here are amazing, considering the state and location of the country. A couple of nights ago in an isolated village in the north of Sudan I was lectured to by a Sudani guy for about an hour, trying to convince me to buy a Sudani mobile phone. As I don't even own a UK mobile phone I was not so enthusiastic but the key factor is that the phone and broadband networks stretch far across this country, and if we still can't get a good signal in Hainford but every village here has at least 3 bars, well maybe the question was not propaganda after all?

Regardless of whether it is true or not the point is there is a lot of conflicting and misguiding information concerning Sudan in the western media. Take the recent ICC arrest warrant issued in the name of President Bashir. I agree with Bashirs response, if they want to arrest him for war crimes then he will submit himself once they arrest the recent leaders of countries such as the US, Israel and even the UK who many people consider to be guilty of far worse crimes. I would not like to say he is innocent of any wrongdoing in the Darfur situation, however, there cannot be one rule for one leader, one rule for another. On the other hand his expulsion of all western aid groups and his suggestion that they channel their funds through his government was a despicable, barely veiled attempt at kleptocracy and just one example of the way he attempts to get up the nose of anyone he comes into contact with, be it friend or foe. Of course the main point is that the people of a country do not reflect the actions and views of its leader. The Sudanese people recognise this fact and have given us a warm welcome, in return all we could do is also recognize this fact and travel through their country with an open mind.

We boarded the ferry at Aswan at around 10am in the morning, which gave us front row seats for the spectacle that was about to begin. Sudanese families in the droves crowded onto the ship, dragging with them piles upon piles of luggage, bringing all manner of Chinese crap back from Egypt. Everyone jostled for seats and tried to squeeze their various packages into any available space. Golden Fountain 7-in-1 food blenders were very popular, almost every family had at least one. Some richer women lay across a bench designed for five people, as a line of small children sat on the floor staring boggle-eyed in wonder. Heated arguments raged between passengers and porters and signs of strain and stress showed on everybody's faces. Porters winced under the strain of giant air-conditioning units and women waved their new floor-standing fans around as if they were light sabres. According to Mr Mutaba, the chief engineer, the boat is virtually empty on the trip to Aswan, the same amount of passengers but they hardly take anything with them, apart from the few guys who are smuggling Sudani mobile phones into Egypt to sell! If a porter finished his work he had to move on to loading a truck with about 170 tonnes of cement that had come in on the ferry from Sudan. The others kept on loading bags and boxes onto the ferry. Many families were left with no room to sit or sleep as they had taken up all their space with their new purchases. Every passenger was given a meal ticket, which could be redeemed for a tasty meal of rice, bread, meat, salad and fruit, most passengers had used their ticket before we were ready to leave Aswan. At 6pm (the designated departure time) the engines started up and we shunted forward, but only so that the last 6 fridge-freezers and 3 gas cookers could be bundled on the deck at the back of the boat. We then close-moored and sat in the port from leaving by strong winds blowing across Lake Nassar. Actually I was quite relieved despite the delay, secure in the knowledge that there were adequate safety measures in place!

At some point during the night, around 2:30am, we left Aswan. We had lain of mats on the deck close to the bridge and at some point I looked over the rails and saw we were moving. The weather by now was very calm and only the odd shudder or roll reminded us that we had set out. We woke to more clouds and haze, which made spending time on the deck slightly more comfortable. The size of Lake Nassar was quite astounding, especially as it is entirely man-made, the feeling that you are sailing over ancient Egyptian sites and old Nubian villages was quite eerie. Some of the ancient sites had been relocated brick by brick before the lake was filled and during the afternoon we made a close pass of Abu Simbel, the advantage of making friends with the captain and his crew! Soon after we passed the 22 parallel, which marks the border between Egypt and Sudan, a small boat came to relieve the Egyptian military escort we had been carrying and delivered a couple of Sudanese soldiers in his place. And at 10pm, a full 36 hours after boarding the ship we arrived at Wadi Halfa. Perhaps the most dangerous part of the whole trip was fighting through the crowds of people, most of whom had just come to a halt on the jetty waiting for someone to pass them their blender.

Wadi Halfa is a small and dusty but pleasant town and we received a warm welcome to Sudan. Many of you may remember the episode of Michael Palins 'Pole to Pole' (I think it was) when he passed through Sudan. The town does not look much different now, although there has been a road building frenzy and most of the route south is now paved. Whilst waiting for our registration to be completed we had tea with the local army sergeant and soon after we found a space on a pick-up going south. An Egyptian guy had chartered the pick-up, filled it with his farm labourers and offered us the front seats. This was the first of many journeys we made coming from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, stopping in the villages of Abri, Kerma and Dongola. Each day we would get up, find a boksi (converted pick-up with a roof rack) heading to the next village, throw our bags on and go for a jebbana (coffee spiced with cardamom and ginger) whilst we waited for the vehicle to fill up with passengers. The journeys from Wadi Halfa to Abri and Abri to Kerma were long, about 7 hours each. The second journey was very cramped, about 15 people in the back and one small boy vomiting in the corner. Once we arrived we would find a bed at the local lokanda (inn) where we would either pitch our tent in the yard or take a whole room, whilst the locals would just sleep on charpoys out in the yard. We would have preferred this, due to the heat, but females are usually not accepted in the lokandas at all so we were glad with any shelter we could get. The weather was not so bad as we expected. The week before we arrived it was pushing 50 degrees every day and the people could do nothing, however starting from the day we left Aswan a dust cloud formed over Sudan, keeping temperatures down, albeit at the cost of breathing easily! In all of these towns we were given a warm welcome and we met a lot of friendly people. Incredibly social, I loved watching the guys greet each other with special handshakes and welcomes as if they had not seen each other for weeks. We would sit in the restaurant (usually the only one in the village) eating fuul (mashed beans) and falafel and watching the towns come to life. The delicacy as you follow the Nile is of course fish and in every town it is fried in batter, accompanied with a dangerously spicy chilli sauce, perfect for breakfast! In the evening everything slows down as the sun sets, generators chug into life and the donkeys respond to the call to prayer with their rasping eye-ore.

We arrived in Dongola on a Friday morning and, after a big plate of fish we went to rest for a while. When we returned to the streets just a short while later in search of water they were totally deserted. Of course we are used to Fridays being very quite in the Middle East, it’s the Islamic day of rest, but this was deathly quiet. In the end we had to resort to waking a guy up and asking him to make us tea before we returned to our room and used our stove to make more tea. I can now confidently state that all English mothers are wrong, tea most definitely does not 'cool you down from the inside'!

The manager at the Lord Hotel proudly informed us that there are now luxury air-con coaches, "with refreshment services", almost hourly from Dongola to Khartoum. Of course when we arrived at the 'bus station' all we found was a crowd of people, milling between piles of luggage. Enquiries at the four 'offices' prompted gruff responses, the first unfriendly experience we had in Sudan. In the end we paid 30SP each (about $22USD) to ride in the back of an open pick-up for the 440km, 6 hour journey. The driver and the other passengers were friendly and took care of us though, they bought us tea and bottled water and offered us their lunch to share.

The dust and haze had become worse and worse and by the time we arrived in Khartoum a massive dust storm was in full flow. We pitched our tent at the Blue Nile Sailing Club, which is nowhere near as posh as it sounds, where we met Lee, a British guy who had been on the ferry with us. There were four westerners on the ferry, Monika and I, Lee and a Japanese guy called Shinichi. Apparently this is the average week-on-week. Anyway, we went out for dinner with Lee, burgers seem to be the only food anyone eats in Khartoum, usually accompanied by a fried egg and some tangy sauce. During the night the storm reached dangerous levels, as we were huddled in our tent, wondering if we would be blown away we could hear the sirens of ambulances wailing from all corners of Khartoum.

We would be in Ethiopia already but their embassy in Khartoum has been closed for several days, with all the staff at an 'important meeting' in the Eastern Sudanese town of Kassala, maybe they will return tomorrow. Passing the time in Khartoum is not very easy as there is nothing to see or do here, it’s a typically ugly, dusty African city. We went to the Al-Mogran Family Park yesterday, a ramshackle collection of decrepit amusement rides on the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers. We stopped for a burger, a quick photo and returned to town. Two of my favourite moments in Sudan happened within five minutes of each other in Khartoum however. The first was when a guy tried to sell his glasses to Monika. Regardless of the fact she does not wear glasses he handed them to her and started telling her how great they magnified everything. Handing them back we walked into a shop selling electrical goods. We have been looking for a small radio/alarm clock for weeks now and we saw one here. When we asked the guy about it he soon got sidetracked onto a monologue about the differences between African and European cultures and how they welcome foreigners here and all about the plus points of each of his wives, who was the best cook, who had the best voice etc. We finally got to ask him the price of the radio, he told us $120 US (!!) for a radio I could pick up on Norwich market for less than a fiver. He didn't want to sell us the radio at all, he just wanted someone to talk at!

Perhaps the most interesting facet of travel in Sudan is watching the culture change from Middle Eastern to African. The language is still Arabic and the food is reminiscent of the cuisines of their Arabic cousins but there are many features of Africa, for instance many of the women are bigger, louder and dressed in bright colours and everyone is more relaxed here.

We did meet an interesting guy yesterday, John Yobo, who works for the St Vincent DePaul NGO close to the Ethiopian embassy. They help street kids in Sudan, mostly a product of the 21 years of civil war in the south (but now more of the kids are coming from Darfur). They house, feed and educate them, and when they leave their care at 17 they help them to find a job. We spent a bit of time at the centre, observing the various actions of the organization, but just as we had to eave a call came through that one of their chief drivers, who operates the mobile clinic, had died in a bus crash during the storm along with 17 other passengers. Which put our embassy frustration into perspective.


  1. wow!!!

    we are so enjoying reading your travelog, Allan!
    I love british sense of humour.

    I introduced you and Monika on my blog saying we met these travellers on the road and some people showed interest and asked your blog address.

    Can you tell me if it would be okay to put your blog address on my blog so that other people can share your experience?

    Nice to keep up with your travel, I think we will be there this time next year...

  2. We want an update! ... We need an update! :)