We live on a mountainside (or hillside, if you like) that slopes steeply down to a river valley. The village we’re staying in is small enough that we can see every house in it. So when we first noticed that one of the nearby houses had some rebar sticking up out of the rooftop, we figured the owner planned to add on someday. It wasn’t until we saw a line of thin, wiry men walking down the hill with loads of bricks suspended from their foreheads that we realized “someday” was “right now.”
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.
We rarely see other foreigners in Khartoum or Omdurman. Our two Friday evening visits to the Sufi shrine of Hamid El Nil were the striking exceptions.
It’s an indoor sort of day today in Omdurman. The sky, or what I can see of it now, is yellow. The view from our rooftop – normally encompassing a wide swath of the Nile from Ingaz Bridge to Shambat Bridge, plus Tutti Island and downtown Khartoum – reveals only faint outlines of buildings that are within easy walking distance.
It’s a dust storm, the first we’ve experienced since arriving in Khartoum a month ago. Not a dramatic Hollywood whip-dust-into-your-face-till-you-bleed sandstorm, but a dust storm nonetheless.
Everywhere we stay, we take daily walks through the neighborhood, wanting to get to know the layout of the streets around us. Our neighborhood in Omdurman, called Morada, is compact, the streets tracing an irregular grid with occasional curves and diagonals thrown in. Mosque towers dot the neighborhood; no one has to walk more than five or six minutes to get to a mosque for prayers.
Viewed from the bank of the Nile in Morada (the district of Omdurman where we live), or from the bridge we cross into downtown Khartoum, Tutti Island is a beautiful spot of green agricultural fields right in the convergence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. It looks peaceful and serene, an irresistible draw if you’re growing weary of the dusty, busy city.
We arrived in Khartoum very early the morning of Tuesday 16 January. I am surprised how busy we’ve been since then. Between getting to know our immediate neighborhood, setting up internet service on our phones and laptops, and figuring out where to buy food, we’ve also been trying out our Arabic (Alan’s is pretty good; I have about 12 words of Arabic right now.)
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.