During 2008 I worked for a German aid organization in Sudan and, during my stay, wrote a few diaries that I recently happened to dig out from my hard drive. So here follows a few anecdotes from my time in the hot and dusty capital of Khartoum.
To live and work in the capital of Sudan isn’t exactly a walk in the park and is certainly not all about cocktail parties or colonial romance in the finest British upper class fashion. Instead it can be quite wearing on the mind. You can hardly speak of much physical hardship – the field positions in Darfur are much worse. But, also living in a large city like Khartoum can be quite a feat for a westerner. You live simple with the contents of a suitcase as your only possessions. The water supply is everything but reliable, it’s horribly hot and dusty and you find yourself in a culture that is completely different from your own, a culture in which you’re not always welcome. All this leads to a strain that you’re not exposed to at home. To this is added Khartoum’s ocular ugliness, the limited range of shopping and entertainment and every other ban functioning under the Islamic laws.
Constantly thousands of eyes are watching you on the streets, and if you make the mistake of going out with shorts you’ll get discouraging comments and teasing smiles. And women must under no circumstances reveal their knees! The situation on the streets is a bit strained and you refrain from taking photographs. If you for instance happen to snap the wrong building, the security service can materialize from nowhere, and if you’ re unlucky enough you’ll go to jail with spy charges – something that actually happened to a couple of Americans during my time in Khartoum. Also my months in war-affected Sierra Leone in 2004 produced occasions of homesickness and depression, but that was a walk in the park compared to Sudan. Just like my months in Nairobi turned out to be an utter heaven in comparison, despite a state of emergency in the wake of post election violence that killed more than a thousand.
My organization, Johanniter International Assistance, built primary health care stations in Darfur in order to diminish child mortality and improve public health for the heavily tested citizens of this war-affected area. I acted Programme Administrator and based over eight local employees at the office in Khartoum. The security meetings at the UN were unparalleled the most interesting, where classified information of the security situation in Sudan was revealed. We were informed of changes in the situation of this and that region with troop movements or increased tension here and there.
Or in the capital for that matter, like when the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague decided to start a preliminary investigation of the president of Sudan for war crimes in Darfur. Immediately everything turned upside down in an otherwise safe city, and no one knew what the reaction would be against all the westerners working in the country. We remained inside with food and water and informed the Swedish embassy of our exact position. Luckily nothing at all happened. Very lucky, since the UN didn’t actually have a proper evacuation plan for any of us.
One time I asked the security officer at the UN if he could E-mail the presentation to us just as people normally do at office presentations. But no, that was impossible since the E-mail correspondence of the UN was bugged by hostile Sudanese security service. These are the kinds of circumstances in the everyday life of an expat in a war zone that makes me so helplessly bored when returning to a normal job in a quiet place like Sweden. At a staff meeting here, some genius can start discussing the imminent need for curtain washing while I just sit there looking out the window with dreaming eyes. I sure can miss the excitement sometimes…
Our evenings in Khartoum were saved by Al Jazeera and Hollywood movies on Saudi TV channels, if we weren’t lucky enough to attend to some wet embassy reception. At times a Caipirinha came down our throats since we were lucky enough to find a 7-up bottle of sugarcane booze in the freezer. And that banal thing, to find some liquor in a freezer, is a bit more dramatic than it seems. The thing is that all alcohol must be hidden so that the cleaning woman (or other threatening elements) wouldn’t find it. You see, I would then risk being reported like a regime critic in old East Germany, with the difference that I’d get busted for religious and not anti capitalist reasons. The common denominator here is tyranny, anti-western politics and a system of informers.
To get busted for drinking alcoholic beverages can have its consequences, much worse for the Sudanese locals than for westerners. I heard a story of a couple of expats that had been to some illegal bar (since there aren’t any legal ones) to have a few drinks when the police suddenly came busting in on the place. The guests were quickly divided into two groups, one with locals and one with foreigners. The thirsty local bar guests were arrested on the spot and taken away to an unknown destiny, probably to a real beating, a shorter prison sentence or a good amount of strikes with the whip, while the foreigners got away with an old fashioned scolding.
My work also produced a few odd moments that gave a bitter after taste, especially as it affected my work in the wrong direction. To lead a team of patriotic Sudanese who were protected by a bureaucratic system that was merely created to make life toxic for intruding foreigners, was somewhat difficult. Large African ladies in colourful creations I had battled with before (at the UN in Sierra Leone), and they wouldn’t accept being pushed around by any light-weight, spoiled European boy – which they showed with all the clarity in the world. Annoying but also comical. In Sudan they were actually a bit nicer. Worse was to try to handle them when they didn’t do their job, because to fire them was out of the question since I had ended up in exile or jail. It should be noted however, that there are good employees and bad employees in Sudan just like there are in the UK, US or wherever.
Fun but also a tad annoying was our guard, Angelo Bol – a gangly, somewhat distant fellow from South Sudan. One night the generator suddenly stopped (national power is sporadic and it was his job to get it going again). But the minutes went by and it remained silent and hot since the air conditioner stopped working. As I went down to check on it I found Angelo sleeping soundly in the office and as I woke him up he claimed he was reading in bed. Well, then he‘d have to have superhuman vision since the room was draped in complete darkness! And so it continued and I couldn’t do anything about it since the authorities were always on the side of the local employee.
But Bol was also polite and civil and contributed with some entertainment. One day for instance, I found him walking around with a living dove in his hand, holding it by its wings. What are you gonna do with that, I asked. Eat it for lunch of course! These African eccentricities I actually miss but also cock-and-bull stories of heavier calibre were common. Rebel invasion of Khartoum, tribal war and kidnapping drama in Darfur, imprisonment of western teacher for blasphemy of the Prophet Muhammad, murdered US diplomat on New Year’s Eve, deadly riots in Kenya, beer drinking with the CIA and diamond smuggling in Sierra Leone.