We lived in Khartoum for six weeks. It was supposed to be six months, but as they say, life happens.
When we signed up last year for the Sudan Volunteer Programme, it seemed like an ideal choice as part of our three-year plan to live and volunteer in cultures unfamiliar to us. We’d been reading for a while about SVP, a nonprofit organization that’s been placing volunteer English teachers in Sudanese universities for more than 20 years. We liked the idea of staying in Sudan for months, not just weeks. Alan had wanted to live in an Arabic-speaking country for some time; I wanted the chance to get to know people in a culture wholly different from any I’d known before; and we both wanted to do something purposeful and helpful. We figured that being part of an organized program, and part of a university community, would give us the chance to do all of that.
This turned out to be true, and our experiences actually surpassed our expectations. While we found the first days in Omdurman and Khartoum bewildering, we soon got used to getting around by bus and masallat, figured out where to buy groceries, and discovered interesting places to visit and for our daily walks. We got to know our housemates and other SVP volunteers, and enjoyed their company. We visited a couple of English classes taught by the Khartoum director of SVP, and soon after began to work at our respective universities. It was great getting to know our students, fellow faculty members, and some of our neighbors in Morada, the district of Omdurman where the SVP house we lived in is located.
What we couldn’t reckon with was the bureaucracy. Every foreigner who wants to live or work in Sudan for an extended period of time must have a residency permit, and we hit a bureaucratic snag with our residency application. It brought our time in Sudan to a sudden and sad end. (There’s a longer, more detailed story of what happened, but I’m not going to get into it now.)
I wish we’d had the full six months in Sudan. I was just starting to get to know my first-year and fourth-year students, to understand what type of material they could read and enjoy in English, and which topics were fun for them to discuss. I had some wonderful discussions with the fifth-year students who were assigned to help me with my work, and some great conversations with the other faculty members in the English department. I was settling into a companionable, productive working relationship with my “boss,” the head of the English department. Alan was working with first-year students at his university, and was impressed with their intelligence and diligence.
We were also looking forward to seeing more of Sudan. We’d already been to Bajarawiya to visit the Merowe pyramids, and when we got the news we had to leave Sudan immediately, we were just about to leave for a weekend visit to one of our fellow volunteers in Merowe near Karima (“the other Merowe” – there are a few Merowes in Sudan). We’d hoped to see Dongola, especially Old Dongola, and the holy mountain of Jebel Barkal, and other interesting locations. We had hoped at the end of our volunteer gig to travel overland to Egypt via Wadi Halfa.
Though there is so much we didn’t get to do in Sudan, the six weeks we did get to spend there were just packed with wonderful experiences. We got to explore Omdurman and its amazing souk, see the Sufi worship at Hamid El Nil (twice), enjoy some beautiful music and meet lovely people.
Here are some things I can say about Sudan, even after such a short time.
Sudanese people are incredibly hospitable and warm
Sudanese people are some of the most open, warm and welcoming I’ve ever met. Traveling in places where we look really different from the local people, we’ve received a lot of stares. Sometimes this gets uncomfortable. In India, before we came to Sudan, I learned to turn that around by smiling warmly at anyone staring at me, and offering them a greeting. This usually shifted the mood from unfriendly-seeming scrutiny to friendly interaction. Not 100 percent of the time, but often enough that I did it more and more as time went along.
In Sudan, that shift from curious scrutiny to warmth and friendliness happens really fast. In fact, we often didn’t need to initiate it; people would just walk over and greet us, welcome us to Sudan and ask us where we were from. Instead of shying away from these approaches, we welcomed them. Especially during our long daily walks in Morada and Omdurman, we felt we were guests in people’s living rooms, and strove to behave accordingly. After all, a neighborhood really is a little village, with public spaces where people gather to chat, play football or backgammon (depending on their ages), shop, drink tea, share food, and hold events like weddings or funerals. So when people called out to us, we made sure to take the time to stop, answer their questions, extend the conversation – and generally, assure people that we were friendly, and happy to offer our names and reason for being there.
But we didn’t do this just to reassure people we were okay. We got a lot out of these conversations. Alan’s Arabic became rapidly more fluid, and he was able to expand his active vocabulary. While I don’t speak much Arabic, I did get to learn a little more this way, and I really enjoyed watching people indulge their curiosity about us, laugh and exclaim at the wonder of a foreigner speaking Arabic. As conversations got longer, we began to learn things about the places and people around us from those whose world we had entered – and that they so kindly welcomed us into.
Sudanese care deeply about education
Despite being warned by a few people (all Sudanese) that “Sudanese students are lazy,” our experiences were the opposite. For example, Alan had one very early morning class at his university – it started at 7:00 AM – and he told me that several of his students had to wake up at unthinkable hours to arrive on time. One student had to travel so far from home, she was getting up at 3:00 AM. “With students like that, you really feel you need to do your best for them,” he said.
My students were all training to become teachers, so they were particularly interested in education. Many came from families where they were in the first generation to even consider getting a university degree, and they wanted not only to educate themselves, but to educate others. “A teacher changes lives,” was something quite a few students said to me, in one way or another.
I found my students were very supportive of each other. They studied together, shared notes, and praised each other’s accomplishments to me (while the praised one would look embarrassed and pleased). They were curious about me, so I answered their questions about my own education, my children and my life in America, without any hesitation. And I asked equally personal questions of them, as carefully as I could – only to discover that my students were eager to share the details of their lives, to share their beliefs, their hopes for the future, and their frustrations. I had expected to have to step carefully around topics like religion, politics, love and marriage, and family dynamics, but even with that care, I was lucky enough to hear a lot of fascinating personal stories. I’m grateful to have received so much.
Sudanese know how their country is perceived in the world
Something that really touched me over and over again was people’s responses when they asked us what we thought of Sudan. They’d ask the question, and you could see them almost bracing themselves to hear something negative. After all, Sudanese are well aware of the economic sanctions imposed on Sudan by the United States, and of their country’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism. They know their country is poorer than many in Africa, and certainly poorer than Europe and the United States, and you can feel in people a sensitivity, a feeling of being regarded as lesser.
So when we’d answer enthusiastically, “Sudan is beautiful. It’s a wonderful place. We are so happy to be here,” it was both heartbreaking and lovely to see faces light up with pleasure. Smiles would break into wide grins, handshakes would be exchanged, and invitations to drink tea would pour forth.
Sudanese love to share food, opinions, and confidences
Just in our first few days, we observed that sharing is a core part of Sudanese life. When you order ful (deliciously prepared fava beans), for example, you get a big bowl of it placed on the table, along with a stack of round breads. Everyone eats from the same bowl, breaking off pieces of bread to scoop up the food. And if you seem to be eating less than your share, people urge you to eat more.
It’s completely normal for people to call out to you as you pass them on the street, and invite you to eat with them, or join them for tea or coffee. “Tfaddel,” they call out “Welcome” – and they mean it. You actually have to stop and give people a reason you’re not eating with them right now, in order to avoid seeming rude. We used to simply say where we were going, and then wish people their good health.
One lady enjoying an after-work tea at a teashop near our house offered us some biscuits to go with our drinks. We accepted, and Alan chatted with her in Arabic. When it was time for us to leave, I paid the tea lady for her customer’s tea, as well as ours – “Talata,” I said (“three”) gesturing to indicate the customer, Alan and me. Both ladies looked very pleased, and from them on, that tea lady was always very happy to see us, whether we stopped to buy tea from her or not. I felt that finally I had done something culturally correct.
One of our most interesting conversations happened when three young medical students invited us to join them for lunch. We had just finished our lunch of ful and salad, and were standing at the cash desk, trying to order juice. One of the young women had excellent English, and helped us understand that one of the juice options was a local fruit, one we’d never heard of. “It’s healthy,” she said. “Full of iron.”
Once we’d ordered, the young woman invited us to sit down and eat with her and her friends. We’d already had lunch, we explained, “but we will be happy to sit with you.” As they ate, and we drank our juice, the three young women told us they are in their final year of medical residency. After that, they would go into another residency for whatever specialties they chose.
The young doctor with the most English was also the boldest with her questions. Like many people we’ve met, she wondered if we were married, and we explained that yes, we’ve been married for more than 30 years, and “our children are older than you.” This quickly veered into the students’ own views on marriage, and their prospects.
“Sudanese men say they want a working wife,” the young doctor said to us. “But they don’t want to do the work of home.” A near-universal complaint, I think. What got even more interesting was the topic of multiple wives. “Men are allowed to have a second wife, even four wives,” the doctors told us. “But women do not like this. They do not want to share a husband with anyone.”
This very frank conversation wasn’t unique while we were in Sudan. I made friends with a young woman who works close to the Morada house, for example, and she shared a lot of confidences with me about her love life. I should not have been surprised to discover that young people in Sudan want the same things as young people everywhere: to have a happy life with the partner of their choice, to have fun, and to enjoy some ease and affluence. But I did have some surprise that romance was such a huge topic for my young friend, and for the students at my university. I had expected that a conservative, religious society would constrain people’s actions, and to some extent, it does. But it does not constrain their hearts.
Always expect the unexpected
This isn’t just about Sudan, but about traveling in general…and really, about life in general. We make a lot of plans; we make reservations, we compare timetables and prices, we plot out timelines for length of visit and arrivals and departures. We make these plans hoping for and expecting good experiences, and mostly, that’s what we’ve been lucky enough to have.
We planned our Sudan volunteer gig as carefully as possible. We had all the recommended injections, we brought Arabic books and purchased laptops for teaching. We studied the teaching resources provided by SVP, and prepared to ramp up quickly as teachers, since neither of us had taught for a number of years. Once we arrived in Omdurman, and discovered that neither of our universities could provide us with a curriculum, we collaborated with other SVP volunteers and with each other to create lesson plans.
What we didn’t expect – and did not plan for – was to have it all cut short so abruptly. In the days between learning we had to leave and actually going, I felt dazed. We didn’t know what “immediately” meant, so we packed nearly everything, leaving out only what we’d need for the next day or two. Day by day, we waited to hear what we had to do next to comply with the authorities. We took long walks (always carrying our mobile phones), and I told myself to just enjoy everything, because this was the last time we would see or do it. We continued to answer people’s questions about what we were doing here in Sudan – “we are English teachers” – because we didn’t know what else to say. The hardest part was hearing from a few of my students who knew what was going on. They sent me urgent messages on WhatsApp – “Why do you have to leave? When will you come back?” Some of the messages were very affectionate, touching me and making me sadder.
When we left the United States in September, we had committed to each other that we’d travel for three years, looking for opportunities to do meaningful things, opening ourselves to each culture we arrive in. We chose the volunteer program in Sudan because we hoped for the chance to stay for a long time, and to learn about a place entirely unknown to us.
Even in the short time we stayed in Omdurman, we did get a lot of what we wanted. Alan got a lot more facility in conversational Arabic. I got to know people I would never have met otherwise. Hard as it was to leave, those experiences are forever part of us. Now that we’re here in Siwa, I see that Alan’s comfort with Arabic continues to grow. And I see that I have learned to be more open and receptive to people’s invitations, to their offers of friendship. That is Sudan’s gift to us. I hope we gave something equally good to the people we met there.