Khartoum, Sudan: An Ignorant Tourist
By Ben Bulmer
I sit on the street and drink a coffee. It’s a few degrees over 100 Fahrenheit, and the water for the coffee is being boiled on a charcoal fire, so it feels about twice that where I am sitting. I sit on an up-turned Nestle powered milk can, and it’s a good stool. The coffee pot is also an old can, one that's had a spout welded onto it. The coffee is good; it’s not too sweet and has been flavored with ginger and cardamom. It has a bite and clears my sleepy head. Frankincense burns in a small pot, and the air smells sweet. The "Tea Lady" who makes my coffee is beautiful. She is tall, dark and elegant. In fact, she one of the most elegant people I've ever seen. Her hands and feet, and maybe more, are painted with henna, but not in the Arabic designs I've seen before. This is different; this is African. She makes tea and coffee for the passersby, and I wonder why she's here.
I feel more like an ignorant tourist than I ever have. This city is a sea of different-looking people, few of which I can understand. The story of the Tea Lady could be tragic, could rip your heart out, and put tears in your eyes; it could be the fodder literary success is made of, but for now she just a Tea Lady, and a very elegant one at that.
Sudan seems to have suffered more wars than most places, and twenty one years of civil war have clearly taken its toll. At the present, there are humanitarian disasters in east and west, and especially in the south of the country. ‘Millions’ have been displaced, I'm told, although nobody has given me an exact figure. As I wonder the streets of Khartoum, I can't help feel how detached I am from all of it. I must walk past the likes of murderous soldiers and SPLM rebels, but I am oblivious to it all.
I have breakfast with a Sudanese friend. As an ex-member of the British Labour party and a one-time Redditch United player, he's great company. As I eat a huge Nile Perch washed down with Pepsi, he tells me alcohol is widely available in Khartoum. My ears prick up. Sharia law has outlawed alcohol, and I've been three weeks without a beer, but thankfully the black market will always triumph over political or religious ideology. He points out where everyone in the restaurant is from. The waiters are Ethiopian; the guys behind us from the south; the table opposite us, Darfur. He explains the government is committed to the peace agreement, but certain factions of the SPLM aren't, and they've started fighting amongst themselves. He says the government is taking steps in the right direction on certain issues, but that they are condemnable on many others, and almost everybody wants them out. He tells me that the Sudanese are very tolerant of each other’s religions, that Mosques and churches sit side-by-side, and explains that wars are over poverty. He questions why oil and gold revenues can't be used to fund education and health care. We drink more coffee, and I learn a litany of other things I didn't know about Sudan, an hour before.
Displaced people and refugees are everywhere: some dark, some light, some colorful, others earthen. Scar's of the cheeks of some and the heads of others, indicate tribal affiliation. I find out that there are 265 languages spoken in Sudan and thousands of different dialects of these languages. Khartoum is made up of over 50% displaced people and refugees. It used to be less, but the recent problems in Darfur now mean there's more "foreigners" than Khartoumers themselves.
My most difficult decision of the day is whether to have fresh mango or a guava juice, and I opt for both. Later, I eat fuul, and it’s fantastic: mashed beans with onions, tomato, and cheese; throw in some chilis and eat with fresh bread that resembles a ciabatta. The fish from the Nile is delicious, and the recent bird flu outbreak doesn't seem to have stopped chickens being grilled in the street. To an ignorant tourist, it’s all delightfully cheap.
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