April 01, 2023
Commuting to Work in Khartoum

The large air-conditioning unit above the door taunts me in the heat; it’s more than 100 degrees but there is nothing but hot air and dust blowing into the room. I look through the thin mosquito net that hangs over my bed, towards the clock; it’s six in the morning and dawn is creeping through the hole where the window should be.

The air-conditioning has never worked properly, but I often turn it on in a vain hope that it will cool me down a little.

Unable to take the heat any longer, I step into the shower — a broken ceramic tray with a metal bucket next to it — holding the brown, but cool, water that I collected the night before. After a brief drenching I feel a little refreshed, only for the heat to hit me again within seconds.

I share the house with Colin, who also teaches at El Neilin University. I can hear snoring in the room next to mine, so as I leave I prop the door open, to let in some of the breeze.

The house has its own enclosed terrace, which allows us to relax without offending the cultural sensitivities. In the evening we can sit outside in shorts, with our tops off, and the western teachers we know from other universities can also visit without causing gossip among our Sudanese colleagues. However, the bustling street that runs next to the house constantly reminds us that we should not dwell on how we used to live.

I walk out of the courtyard, locking the gate as I do so to keep out the goats that wander the streets, eating the local trash.

Breakfast Fish

The smell of freshly-cooked fish fills the air as I walk past the small restaurant just behind the house. Fish, straight from the Nile that morning, quickly turns a crisp golden brown as they are placed in pans of boiling oil. There are only a few tables, under a decaying tin roof which is supported by a few wooden poles, so most diners simply squat on the floor wherever these is space.

A samak breakfast is one of my favorite meals, and the hot fish, served with fresh bread, would often entice me out of bed early. I still do not understand if I have a choice of what I can order but on recognizing me the young boy, who always serves me, gives me a cheery “good morning” as he places a few fish in front of me. I pick off bits of fish from the newspaper it has been served in and put then into the bread in a kind of makeshift sandwich.

After I’ve picked the last flesh from the bones I give the boy a 100-dinar note (about 40 cents) and move on.

Walking up the dusty street, I see many familiar faces: the lady who begs with her daughter outside the bank; the boy with a pair of ancient weighing scales (who can surely make no more than a few cents a day, taking money from people whose last concern is whether they’ve lost or gained a few pounds); the man in a dirty jellabeah, who covers a blanket with ancient, second hand electronics in the hope of making a few dinars. There is an old man, his legs so bent and deformed by rickets that he walks with flip flops strapped to his knees. There’s also Isa, the shopkeeper, who I always buy my bread and cheese from. I wave to him from across the street, but he appears busy stacking up the loaves of the thin bread eaten with almost every meal.

Making Street Friends

The center of Khartoum is a busy place. One of the many markets in the city borders a large bus station, yet with no discernible boundary, people weave in and out of the traffic carrying wares and food as buses and passengers noisily make their way through the crowds. Several restaurants surround the square, mixed in with the shops, food stores, butchers and other stalls that work in the same streets. The waste from all these places runs though the open drains at the side of the road. The stench is particularly pungent this morning, and I wonder how the people sitting down to breakfast can have any kind of appetite.

People often approach me while I walk through the city, inviting me to join them for a bite to eat or something to drink. At first I was weary of being greeted so warmly, but after just a few days I saw this was not a ploy, simply a way to welcome, and get to know, one of the few foreigners in the city. The Sudanese are famed for their hospitality and rightly so.

This morning, however, no one approaches me, and I see no one to talk to. I am simply another face in the crowd, trying to make my way thorough one of the busiest parts of the city.

A Nubian woman, with deep, ritual scars on her coal-black face, sits by the wall that leads down to the Nile. An old car spits smoke into the street as she feeds small pieces of tinder into the fire in front of her.

“Qahwah min fadlak?” I ask, as a place a few dinars into her hand.

She smiles with the few brown teeth she has remaining and starts to prepare the sweet Turkish-style coffee that I enjoy so much: A spoon full of fresh grounds is placed in a small copper pot.

“Bisoon sukre,” without sugar, I specify, as she begins to spoon heaps of it into the pot, then fills it to the brim with water. As soon as the pot boils, its contents is poured into a small glass and handed to me. I sit down on the curb next to her.

My Sudanese friends have often told me that drinking coffee would help cool me down during the day, but I have long since abandoned that theory as I sweat profusely, enjoying the strong concoction.

A young woman walking past with a group of girls approaches me, a tissue in her hand; she gestures to her forehead as I look up.

“Shokran” — thank you– I say as I smile and wipe the sweat from my forehead.

I often forget how closely many people watch me. There is rarely an occasion when, should I have difficulty with the language, or anything else, that someone, or even a few people, do not offer assistance. “We are just interested in what you are doing, don’t be hurt,” replied one man, after I had asked him once why a group of people were surrounding me as I ate my lunch by the side of the road.

“Qahwah? Coffee?” I ask the girl, gesturing for her friends to join us. “La shokran,” she says, giggling, and returns to her group.

It’s time to get to work, so I finish the last of the coffee, leaving just the muddy dregs at the bottom of the cup. I head back into the crowds.

At the entrance to the university are five pictures of former students. All are dressed in Army uniform, and in the corner of each picture, in small Arabic numerals, are written their dates of birth, and death. Another picture will soon join this display: I was told just last week that another student, who’d gone to fight in the South, has been killed.

Our Students

I walk into the building, through the courtyard garden and cafe where Colin is already enjoying his breakfast of fuul and bread, and up the stairs to the English department and into the small lecture room. I’m at least 10 minutes early, but already the room is full; the women take the first six rows and the men sit behind them. A few dozen students sit on the windowsills or learn through the open shutters from the corridor, chatting to those are lucky enough to have found a seat. The room seats about 100 people, but I have almost 180 students. As a student wipes down the board another comes in and places a coffee on my desk, I thank him and pass him some money but he refuses, as always. A final few students come into the room and sit on the steps as I turn to face the class:

“Good morning,” I say, and as the students fall silent I begin work.

3 comments about “Commuting to Work in Khartoum”

  1. Mike Lynch says:

    Excellent, descripitve writing, Matt. I enjoyed.

  2. Your Garden says:

    Big World Magazine ? Commuting to Work in Khartoum…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  3. PhillDanze says:

    Nicely done.Fascinating read, thank you.

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