Sunday, September 03, 2006

Haboob on the horizon, and later, a dusty walk along the White Nile at sunset.

A weekend in Khartoum

It’s Friday afternoon, i.e. what would be a Saturday afternoon back home, and unfortunately I’m cooped up in my room here in Khartoum. I’d love to be out in the city, or walking down to the Nile which is apparently not far away, but it’s just too bloody hot. Generally we wait for sunset before going anywhere, if possible. When I had my shower at lunchtime, the ‘cold’ water was boiling hot after sitting in the tank in the sun.

So, I’m in my air-conditioned room, with the fan going. The curtains are open but the room just looks out onto a wall 6 feet away, so not much light gets in. Privacy is important here and windows don’t tend to look out onto the street. All the rooms in our office/guesthouse face onto the courtyard, which is surrounded by a high wall. Outside the high wall is a dusty scrubby patch, with a couple of half-finished buildings opposite. A family seems to be squatting in the unfinished bit. When the haboob (dust storm) comes in the late afternoon the buildings opposite nearly disappear and everything is shrouded in pinky orangy dust. It appears on the horizon like a mountain range, and then menacingly approaches bringing darkness with it. I was so amazed by my first haboob experience that I stood out on the balcony with it all whirling around me till the dust was gritty in my mouth and stung my eyes. I somewhat regretted that when I realised how dirty I was, and made deep footprints in the dust as I went back inside to wash my hair.

Donkey drawn carts and white UN vans pass by. People traipse past to go to the Mosque just next door. Kids play football in the dust. But generally not much happens. Even when we drive into the centre of Khartoum at night to go to the shops, or go to a restaurant, everything is pretty quiet. The traffic isn’t particularly unruly. There’s no music, no dancing, and of course no alcohol. The ice-cream place we wanted to go to last night was shut, with a sign up saying from now on it would be shut every Thursday night from 6pm. Apparently it was getting too crowded (on the equivalent of a Saturday night) so now it’s been forced to close for that one night a week, indefinitely. So no, it’s not a fun city, but hence it’s the safest city in Africa. That is, providing you don’t say something the government doesn’t want to hear.

I’m just starting to get an inkling of the prevailing paranoia here. I’m not even sure what I can write in my blog – I don’t want to write any details of who I am, where I live, who I work for, or anything which might make it possible to locate me. Perhaps I’m being over-cautious. But speaking to Dad on the phone the other night (and he knows a bit about this kind of stuff) he was speaking in code, using euphemisms for the police force here, talking about what was happening out in the ‘west’, in case someone was listening in. I’ve heard stories of NGO workers being called up for questioning and presented with a file full of internal emails which have been intercepted by the authorities. Out to dinner with a friend last night she was speaking in hushed tones, and using French as opposed to English whenever possible. She’s leaving in a few weeks and so doesn’t want to give the authorities any reason to suddenly delay her departure unnecessarily. Which they could do. The Sudanese authorities can delay things for as long as it suits them. Everything is political. My whole visa scenario now makes perfect sense, and was just a taste of things to come.

I’m glad to be in Khartoum for another week or so, before going out ‘West’. This seems to be a crucial time, and I’d like to wait at least for the UN resolution and the Sudanese government’s response to it. People are hopeful that it may well be accepted by Sudan. Yet meanwhile the arms and government troops are flooding into Darfur everyday. Or so we hear, though who really knows? There are very few journalistic reports from Darfur. Hence the NGOs send information out, and so are considered as spies here.

Well, how to spend the rest of my weekend? Maybe finish 1984, which is turning out to be a very apt choice of reading material. Then to complete my Khartoum weekend experience there’s an NGO party tonight, don’t know whose party it is but I’ve kindly been put on the list. We’ll see what that’s all about then. Think I’ll stick to the ‘mocktails’ though, that’s for sure.