Tomorrow we fly from London to Khartoum, Sudan. This is the piece of our three-year sojourn we planned the most intensively. We will be part of the Sudan Volunteer Programme, a 21-year-old nonprofit that places native (or fully fluent) English speakers around Sudan to teach English conversation to Sudanese university students.
A lot of people have asked us, “Why Sudan?” Now is a good time to answer that question, before we jump in and get so involved that the answer changes, and becomes something else.
We had two very different (but compatible) motivations for this choice. Alan has been studying Arabic for about 10 years, finally obtaining a degree in Arabic from Portland State University. We’ve made a few short trips to Arabic-speaking countries – Syria, Jordan and Egypt – and Alan spent three months studying at Damascus University in 2009, before the war began. He’s always wanted to spend an extended period in an Arabic-speaking country to become more fluent, so he did some research on programs that would allow us to do some useful work and live for a few months in a country where Arabic is the primary language.
The Sudan Volunteer Programme was the one we chose, in no small part because it’s a country neither of us has visited. Going somewhere that’s totally outside of my prior experience was important to both of us. The feeling I got when considering Sudan reminded me of when I decided to go to India, back when I was still an undergraduate student at UCLA. I was scared of things I was reading: the heat, the diseases, the poverty, and the sheer size of India all intimidated me. And at the same time, I was drawn to Indian religion and culture: the art, the craft, the literature. For both reasons – the fear and the attraction – I was compelled to go.
This time around, I’m not fearful. Okay, that’s not strictly true…extreme heat is something I’m still not certain I’ll handle well. I’m fine at 34°C, but how will I feel when it gets to 50°? Also, I recently discovered I can be allergic to the bites of mosquitos in a new region. That was not fun, so I’ve obsessively acquired every possible form of mosquito repellent I could find.
I’m actually pretty excited about teaching, about learning Arabic, about being in a culture that’s completely new to me, and making new friends. But at the same time, I know how little I know, especially after spending three months in India, which is very much my comfort zone, and then another month in England, swathed in the coziness of a family visit. So I’m nervous about going outside of what’s comfortable and known – and I’m eager to go there.
So off we go, vaccinated, equipped with all the anti-mosquito equipment you can imagine, with freshly stamped visas in our passports. I’m ready to have my mind (and sweat pores) opened.