Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mini-Break Sudanese Style

I’m having a Mini-Break in a small town lost deep in a big forest in South Sudan. When we get stressed out by our main office, we get sent to oversee the projects here, in a place that suddenly feels (it’s all relative) like Sudan's answer to the 19th century Swiss spa town. The sky is starry, the tea is warm and milky and the meals are uniformly lentil-based. "You are highly welcome!"

This is a smallish town of 75,000 inhabitants. From May to December no trucks can access the town with their supplies. No fuel. No more powdered milk. No contact with the outside world except by donkey, bicycle, footing, or UN flights. The town is an island surrounded by big impassable rivers for more than 7 months of the year. Consequently it is a self-reliant community with a Wild West feel. The prison, for example, has just a simple fence. After all, where would an escaped prisoner, in his visible white uniform, run to?

Today I went to the market at 6.30pm or so, which I rarely do on my own, and wandered around feigning purpose. The men were playing cards and slamming down dominoes in little conspiratorial clusters. I pondered over the identical piles of sugar, salt, dates, and tea in every shop, and wondered what to spend my new Sudanese pounds on. People came up to shake my hand, look me in the eyes with a ‘Salam’, and then move on with just the same laugh. The snotty children shouted at me in unison “What happened?” (which has now become my favourite greeting) It’s a cliché - I know - but how can everyone be just so friendly? Even in the office, the staff greet each other every morning like long-lost friends, smiling seemingly incredulously to find one another yet again, in this same office, morning after morning.

But at home, smiles and polite greetings can turn to the universal familiar bickering, and guns are quietly hidden in obvious places. In the market, they are purposefully brandished in public places – from in front, you are greeted with a big smile, from behind, a big Kalashnikov slung across the back. This week, following CPA stipulations, the government started demobilising one of the local militias. House to house searches left big crosses on those that have been given the all clear, or disempowered of their weapons. To noisily remind us all of these not so hidden dangers, this afternoon (before the shopping trip) between mangoes and rain falling, other bangs and crashes made me run to my vantage point looking out over the wall. Everyone had stopped to watch. On the other side of the market smoke rose and explosions popped red as stored munitions disempowered themselves (and their owners) in one fell accidental swoop. Or so it was generally agreed. More news tomorrow.


AP said...


Just wanted to let you know that I'm enjoying your blog. I'm a UN staff member based in Khartoum and I don't have much opportunity to travel out of town. So it's nice to hear from the field from time to time; thanks for writing.


Sudanese Knights said...

dear ap, thanks for your comment, really nice to know someone is reading, especially someone who understands the context. It's fun in the field! But so tiring, i need another break in KTM! don't be cynical about the german club just enjoy the pool! wish i could right now.