I have been meaning to write about my trip to Northeastern Sudan for some time now but as usual many excuses can be inserted in this *________* space. I have been neglecting this blog for some time now but I’m hoping to be more active. Part of the delay with writing this post is also my apprehension that I find myself writing about my country in a sensationalized manner. In which, fellow countrymen are represented as anthropological case studies to be examined. So in writing this I’ve tried to be cautious of that and record my observations to the best of my abilities, without portraying the people/communities that I have encountered as an exhibit.
Every time I venture into a new part of Sudan, I am taken aback by the vastness and diversity of this country. It is also sobering to see life outside of the bubble that is Khartoum. This time curiosity took me towards Atbara River. Starting through the very familiar road from Khartoum to the town of Atbara, the sight of blown up tires littered the sides of the narrow road- a reminder that how this desert environment can be so harsh and unforgiving.
After reaching Atbara, we left the familiar tarmac road and ventured off on dirt tracks. Passing droves of ghost towns- towns built to compensate Manasir people for their displacement from Merowe. These houses and dry irrigation canals stood as a haunting reminder of the government’s blatant failure to provide any sort of adequate consultation or come up with some sort of acceptable solution that could have been far less costly than this current wasteland…Such a shame.
We drove in parallel with the Atbara River, which extends through River Nile and Kassala states and beyond the border over to Ethiopia/Eriteria. Across the border it’s referred to as the Tekeze River. The road or lack there off consisted of tracks laid by the occasional lorry or pickup truck before us. Driving across endless dunes, batched up with the occasional protrusion of Acacia trees, I realized that the horizon is much closer that I had initially thought. It seemed as our car could potentially fall off the face of the earth beyond the coming sand dune. Despite the serenity of the landscape, I found myself thinking how anyone could survive in such callous environment.
Most citizens in this area are nomadic peoples, tending to their livestock along historic predestinated routes. For centuries they have managed to forge a living through lucrative camel trading in relative peace. To take advantage of the cooler weather, our trips usually started at 5-6 am before sun break. In the early mornings we had the pleasure of witnessing impromptu camel races. Young boys, probably no older than 10 years old, mounted on the backs of sturdy camels, galloping across the flat landscape with ferocious clouds of smoke trailing behind them. These boys are training these camels for their debuts in races that take place in Kassala State. From there the best of the best are sold at rates of US$10k and upwards for pure breeds. These camels are taken to the Arabian Peninsula, mostly UAE for bigger races and camel breeders. Not long ago, many of these young boys would also be sold with the camels as their small body frames make for excellent Jockeys. Their blight came to light when several sources began highlighting their abuses; mostly undocumented in these Gulf States are they abused and then discarded like objects once they have outgrown their desired size/weight.
These days this solitude has been abruptly disturbed by the discovery of large deposits of gold in these deserts. As a result there has been a modern day gold rush to these desolate dunes. At the occasional haphazard rest stop/fueling station (usually consisting of several large jerry cans of petrol), I was surprised to find young boys/men not exceeding the age of 30 from all across Sudan. These men have left their respective corners of the country and made their way to this desert with the prospects of finding small nuggets of gold through arduous process of breaking up sandy/rock formations and sifting through under the intensely painful sun. In talking with some of them, it was interesting to see the mix of tribes, and socio-economic backgrounds represented. It ranged from those who have lost most of their livestock, to those whose families could not support the high cost of subsistence agriculture to university educated men, who have lost hope on the prospects of finding employment. In all, their stories were tied with the same somber tone of desperation. It was eye-opening to see the extents that these young men will go in order to earn an income.
After several days of spending time in these regions of the country, it is evident that these communities have been completely forgotten by the central government and they in turn have little faith in such an institution for providing them any semblance of basic services. They definitely feel the impacts of climate change/climate variability. Clans that once boasted herds in the 10s of thousands are now lucky to retain a handful for basic subsistence. The irony of the situation was palpable. Sudan as a nation is one of the largest exporter of livestock on the continent, yet those who labor in rearing these herds reap little benefits.
We marked the end of our several day trip, exhausted and covered in a healthy layer of dust/sand. As we approached the outskirts of Khartoum, the distinct flames of the Al Gaili Oil Refinery blew in the distance- with it came lights and more densely populated communities. Entering the city of Khartoum, I was left in a daze trying to reconcile the environment that had been introduced to over the course of the previous days and the car-infested streets of Khartoum. With drivers, lacking patience went about trying to burrow themselves into tiny holes within the traffic gridlock. Recounting the pleasant conversations had over freshly brewed jabana (coffee) and contrasting it with the impatient horns of Khartoumites was difficult to grasp that these communities existed on the same continent.
Appreciative of the diversity that makes up this country. I wish it was a bit more celebrated rather than being used as divisive tool to serve political agendas.
I sat underneath the shade of your Neim tree
felt your scortched, sandy earth beneath me
As my hand traced your parched skin
I felt you heaving heavily
trying to breath in
I asked you the matter?
but no words came through
Your solemn silence echoed your pain
like shells from a warplane
Your sha3ab, your ‘people’ that once sung your praises
now stand aside or rip you apart to smaller spaces
Their love and melodies carried you through
Those tunes and syllables that nourished you
No longer speak in unison
Or help to care for you
Your trees cried salty tears and withered away
Your monstrous march of millions hooves
Have dwindled or gone astray
The Nile your backbone
Has cowered and meandered
In fear of your people’s greedy panders
In a faint breath you murmured your sorrows
I am divided
and my people are dying
I no longer have the will to keep trying
We sat in silence and witnessed your neighbours’ grief
Egypt is spiraling in uncontolable directions
Libya is caving in for the “righteous” cause of speech and tribal factions
Your Somali brothers can no longer shed a tear
No drop of water in their bodies to placate their hunger and fear
We wondered if you will soon share their same fate
Or will self proclaimed saviors swoop in with their
and willingness to “donate”
where well intentions
give way to capitalist ventures
With every event, it is said that “this time is different”
But every symptom is getting the same prescription
We all seem to be suffering from selective amnesia
Forgetting to take notes
Repeating the same diction
As the sun came down
The dusk gave way to gentle breezes
the memories you etched along your sands
have been brushed away
and almost forgotten
The Sudanese national dress for women, referred to as a toub/thoub is a long piece of cloth (usually4.5 meters) that is wrapped around the body and looped over the head and tossed over the right shoulder. It is probably the single most defining symbol of Sudanese women in the past and today. Despite the country’s variety in cultural diversity the toub is adorned by women all across Sudan ( with slightly varying styles). Women in chad, Niger parts of Mali and Mauritania also wear similar garments. I always found it uncanny how although Sudan and Mauritania are on opposite sides of the continent they wear the toub in a very similar manner. A lot of the times you cannot distinguish a Sudanese woman from a Mauritanian one. It also bears some similarity to the Indian sari, as in some styles the toub is tied around the waist and looped around like some Indian styles.
It is a dress that many Sudanese poets, singers and artists spent quiet a bit of time describing. The title of my blog post are lines from Mohamed Wardi’s (famous Sudanese singer) lyrics. It roughly translates to “My country the beloved…Jalabia (white long tunics worn by men) and Toub ( garments worn by women). Many songs, poems and visual art pieces describe or convey the way it is modest yet allows for women to retain some elements of femininity. Like Mauritanians, Sudanese women are preferred to be “round” so that their curves are accentuated when wearing the toub. Skinner women are often encouraged to put on a bit more weight so the toub “sits well on them.”
I came across this Aljazeera English piece(2:49) on this unique dress, how it has changed through time, and what it means to Sudanese women of all generations. Watch below:
Although it was adorned by all women several decades back, it is now mainly worn by married women. Toubs make up an essential part of the Shailya (dowry) or gifts from the groom to his bride. Now a days toubs are what women are using to make statements. Growing up outside of Sudan, I only saw these toubs in special Sudanese events (weddings, Eid, etc) and women scrutinized the details and styles of each toub. Every so often new styles come out with very interesting names. It is essential that women precisely match the color of the skirt,shirt and accessories otherwise it is seen as somewhat taboo to wear mismatching colors. For those who run in elite circles it is taboo to be seen with the same toub twice.
During the 1950s the toub became a symbol of female empowerment. At a time where very few women were allowed to work outside the home, as the clip alludes, women marched in the streets with their toubs to demand they get equal working opportunities. Today the national work dress code for women in all public institutions is a white toub. Today women make up a significant portion of the work force and have risen to positions of prominence; a key indication is the number of women represented in the National Council of Ministers.
Many young women today opt not to wear the toub, particularly in universities, but it still remains very much part of the culture and many look forward to owning their own set of toubs. While many see their national dresses as somewhat restrictive and sadly backwards because they do not fit the Western ideal, I am happy to see that Sudanese women embrace their toubs and take pride in wearing them. Seeing a women in a foreign country walking down the street, or at an airport, etc wearing a toub puts a smile on my face and instantly elicits a feeling of comfort.
In the very limited literature and references that are found on this Sudanese garment, it is always stated that it migrated from India or influenced by the Roman toga. In all instances this literature assumes that this dress was borrowed from elsewhere. As I was digging in and trying to better understand my history, and life of the Nubians, I came across a surprising discovery. Nubian civilization is characterized by 3 stages; where each marked a transition in the civilization and relocation of the capital. This rich history is often forgotten/overlooked and many always assume that the Nubian civilization was a transition from pharaonic traditions, when in reality the first phases of this civilization predated the pharaohs by several centuries. During the second major phase of Nubian civilization (Meroitic Period), jewelery, frescos and paintings etched on pottery that were discovered depicting women of the Royal Court wearing transparent loose robes of linen that reached down to their ankles. These clothes had folds that were draped over the right shoulder and folded down the back. This description is very similar to modern-day Sudanese toubs. Also during this period, women were depicted as obese, as a sign of beauty (R. S. Bianchi, Daily Life of the Nubians (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004). For more info on Nubian civilization customs and dress. There is no doubt that designs and styles of the modern-day toub were influenced by the Indians and Romans as many sources suggest, but I am pleased to find this is garment was conceived by the Nubians and carried forward today by modern-day Sudanese and women across the Sahara to Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. It is refreshing to see that as opposed to the common notion that it was brought to Africa, this is something that was 100% home-grown. Has anyone considered if the Nubian garments influenced the Romans and various Indian civilizations?
I’m sure if I mentioned the word bureaucracy, everyone no matter of geographic location will have something to say. The Sudanese people are a gregarious bunch, well for the most part. I grew up often hearing the phrase “al Sudan beh nasah” (sudan is its people). Super friendly and to some extent somewhat nosy. Favorite pastime, includes drinking chai and lots of chatting…they love exchanging “shamarat” or gossip.
No conversation can ever start with the intended thought in mind. One must go through the lengthy salamat process, where one must inquire about all family members’ health, the weather, news and any sort of random banter one can think of. Hospitality is engrained in their blood, you can never pass by a group of people gathered to share a meal without being invited to join; even if you are a stranger.
So keeping this in mind, one can begin to get the sense of how government institutions function. Many idle bodies, reading newspapers, drinking chai and exchanging shamarat. There are people working, but like many office settings few carry the workload for many.
The Sudanese have perfected the I.B.M. philosophy. I’m sure that when anyone reads IBM, the image of the highly successful and efficient tech company that is famous for manufacturing some of the most reliable computers on the market. Sadly the Sudanese I.B.M. does not reflect any of the traits associated with this company.
A very simple example, you go to office X, to get some paperwork completed. You ask are assured that INSHALLAH you can come and pick up your completed paper the following day. So you come the next day, you sit down or wait by a window, go have some chai; if it is someone you know you must go through the lengthy salamat process and then….you come to inquire about your paperwork and you are told with a very sympathetic tone….they are not ready today, come BUKRA (tomorrow). So you leave disappointed, knowing that you have lost yet another day having to wait for paperwork. Having resigned yourself to loosing yet another day to getting this paperwork done, you set off to the same office on the third day. You wait, you drink some chai, you chat and then you finally get to ask about your documents….and you are met with yet another response in a sympathetic tone…. MA’ALESH (sorry).
So the Sudanese I.B.M. is a way of life. As much as I would like to knock my head against the wall sometimes, it’s the way things work. They move at glacial speeds but in a uniquely Sudanese way. So if you have any sort of paper work that needs some attention in a government office, then brace yourself, and expect to loose a minimum of three days.
I have decided to try to get back to compiling Sudanese proverbs that I’ve come across. I find these sayings (that exist in every culture) fascinating and provide a small window into the society and how it thinks. They are products of experience and necessity. Elaborate metaphors that draw upon daily life in Sudan, to cleverly convey a message without being too overt.
كرعيه في البحر و فاتح خشمه للمطر
Kira’eaho fi al-bah’ar wa fatih’ khashmoo ll-matar
His feet are in the sea and he opens his mouth for the raindrops
This proverb seeks to convey someone’s greed. Although someone is by the water he still tries to capture every little raindrop. Sudanese often use the word sea to refer to the Nile River.
Sitting by the sidelines and watching the escalating exchange of fire between Northern and Southern Sudanese forces….and the international community’s response has been appalling in the days leading to S. Sudan’s independence. The selective reporting that pitted the “evil”, genocide-inducing National Congress Party of the north against the perpetual victims and valiant rebels-turned politicians of S. Sudan was at times too much to handle. In no way am I making excuses for the governing northern regime, they have dug their grave so they must lie in it, but the uneven and blatantly bias rhetoric was splattered across most major international news outlets and echoed by foreign representatives across “Western” nations, made me seriously question their agendas and intentions. Sudanese Allied Forces’ (SAF) re-entry into the disputed area of Abyie a few weeks back created a media outcry, with UN agencies citing “war crimes”. These same sources failed to mention that this entry into Abyie was a direct retaliation to an attack on SAF by SPLA as they were withdrawing from the region with UN escorts. For news outlets, trying to capture an audience, even for a few seconds in digital world where we are constantly bombarded with blaring headlines from famine-stricken babies to the rampage of drug addicted superstars, the narrative of good vs evil set against the backdrop of war-torn nation is an a quick, eye grabbing fix. A fix that completely over-simplifies the context and reduces the struggles of either sides to good and bad, omitting key elements in between.
Let’s be very clear here in pointing out both sides north-(NCP) and South (SPLM) have blood on their hands and are far from innocent bystanders. Both have actively and systematically used deceitful tactics that have put their own citizens in harm’s way for the sake of their self-interest. As the international media went on and on to highlight the atrocities of the governing northern, regime, they painted a very rosy picture of the new media darling and the president-elect of S. Sudan, Silva Kirr. At times I found myself feeling some sort of sympathy for the way the North was being portrayed. Its people were simply lumped under the actions of the government (NCP). In wide-sweeping assumptions across news feeds, the people of the North were portrayed as supporters and perpetrators along with the governing regime. Silva Kirr was using some lessons he picked up and has begun systematically disfranchise the people of the South. There are several armed struggles that are waging war against Silva Kirr/SPLM. In the past S. Sudanese untied against a common enemy; an enemy that fine-tuned the British mentality of divide and conquer to consolidate wealth and power and leave the vast majority of the population in the dust; now the S. Sudanese government is doing just that. I can’t blame the British or any colonial power but ourselves. At the hands of autocratic leaders, the diversity and beauty of Sudan’s peoples, cultures and religions was lost in a war that sought to highlight their differences rather their centuries of co-habitation and integration.
Now it seems that history may repeat itself in this newly formed nation.
Although the plight of S. Sudan was always at the forefront, many regions of Sudan suffer from the same treatments. I cannot deny that there wasn’t a strong element of racism propagated by the northern regime that added to the complexity of S. Sudan’s problems. But looking to the east, west or even far north of Sudan, there are many who are fighting for development and improved access to basic services (schools, health,etc). In some parts of the country, where relatively high numbers of individuals immigrated early on, mainly to Gulf countries; they have provided the life-link that supported families and communities back home–not the government. So as some outsiders might see development in some regions and attribute it to government support, in reality it is the collective effort of communities and the remittances received from brethren abroad that has helped in providing schools, health clinics, electricity, etc.
As the both Bashir and Kirr gave speeches that struck conciliatory tones of peace and harmony, both have failed to hone the diversity of their land and peoples constructively. Sadly it is the people of Sudan and South Sudan who are left between a rock and a hard place. Struggling to cope while their leaders, seek to maintain their strong grip on power and wealth.
Today marks the last day of Sudan as one nation as we know it
Tomorrow we will witness the birth of a new nation
One that will embark on a path to build new foundations
With purest intentions, well wishes to all
With all new beginnings comes euphoria and joy
My farewell to you is bittersweet
I hope that you stand up to the daunting challenges ahead
Never shy away and be wary of decoys
Today marks the fall of the Arab-African giant
The overwhelming mass that glued together an unlikely alliance
A land that melded African generosity with Arab hospitality
Now it stands divided
Scrambling to retain some semblance of reciprocity
As with every new birth there is an overwhelming sense of rapture
A sense that can hopefully heal all that decades of war has fractured
Like any new born everyday will present a new set of teething pains
I hope to watch you as take your first steps towards your prime
With every baby step maturing into a nation
I share your joy yet feel so wounded
Like I’ve been robbed, conned or hounded
Our leaders have been inflicted with that contagious “African” disease
The one that blinds them to their own selfishness and greed
Leaders in North and South both share the same symptoms
Disregard for their people
And treating the nation(s) as their own personal sanctums
It hurts to me repeat
“ana Sudani ana…lamana al wadi sawa” (I am Sudani I am, The valley has bounded us together)
For it serves as a constant reminder
How we could not resolve our internal issues
And let outsiders; jolt us around like disposable pieces of tissues
We stand today on opposite sides of arbitrary boundaries
Drawn by drunken men, in a feverish congregation driven by gluttony
Today we fight over invisible borders that divide us further
Rather than taking command of the drawing boards
And listening to our ethnic tunes that severed as our umbilical cords
With a heartfelt sweep I bid you farewell
Hoping that what’s in the hearts of the our collective people
Rise above the propaganda and deceit of our leaders
Rise above the ill-intentioned whispers of foreign speakers
Landing at Khartoum airport at 1:25 AM, I exited the flight door and made my way down the steps to catch the shuttle bus to the main terminal… I was greeted with a warm slap of hot air. That familiar smell of dust filled my nostrils as I made my way through immigration. In the few days I spent in Khartoum, running around tending to family related matters and squeezing in visits to extended families, I couldn’t ignore the sinking feeling that kept growing in my stomach.
A series of events kept wringing the knot in my stomach tighter….
As we exited the airport and made our way home, I noticed the increased presence of military patrolling the streets. Drivers slowly cruised by and some were occasionally waved to stop for further questioning by on-guard policemen. That sight immediately took me back to the fear that was instilled in Sudan during the late 80s early 90s when curfews were in place and movement around the city was severely restricted. My uncle noted that it’s just precaution, preparing for the worst… and I kept quiet.
A trip to the any local shop is depressing, the shelves are fully stocked but I’m not really sure how people can afford to buy anything. Taking a 20 Pound (SDG) note, that could easily have paid for a handful of shopping items, at the butcher’s it came as a great surprise that 3/4 a kilo of mutton is 18 Pounds… so much for trying to buy some veggies to make a decent meal. My sister naively asked how do people afford meat, my aunt somberly replied..”they don’t, they use stock cubes to remember the taste of meat.”
In an effort to replace some missing documents my mother made her way to various government bureaus to get her paperwork in order. As she exited one of the buildings 2 young men on a motorcycle took hold of her bag and tried to pull it off her shoulder. Luckily she managed to hold on tight and they could not get away with her belongings. She came home rattled by this incidence yet no one seemed fazed. The apathy in people’s demeanor disturbed me even more than the attempted robbery. Instead, I found hints of pity in people’s voices when discussing this matter, they felt what would you expect young, job-less men/boys to do but to revert to such acts. It seems that everyone will stoop to stealing. I grew up hearing the praises of Sudanese trustworthiness. How someone would go out of their way to return a lost bag or item…these days if it’s gone forget about it because someone is most likely trying to make a quick buck out of it. When it was safe to keep you drawers open at work or walk away from your belongings without hestitation…these days you have to think twice about that.
As we passed by Alghaba Street at night, the hollow stalls of numerous handicraft vendors stood empty. This juncture of this particular street is famous for street vendors, mainly from S. Sudan selling beautifully crafted artwork from ebony and bones. When I asked a question to no one in particular, what is going to happen to all these guys?…will they return to S. Sudan. I was met by a unexpectant response from the taxi driver. “Come July we’ll show them.”
To me, these incidences demonstrated the clear disintegration of a society and its social, economic and moral foundations. Meanwhile, high-end cafes were primarily packed with young, well to do college students. So far removed from reality. It seems that everyone in Khartoum seems to in some sort of valium-induced state of coherency. No one wants to see the clear signs upon then or maybe or maybe disregard for these changing times is a coping mechanism. As everyone struggles to put food on the table….nationalist propoganda is turning fellow countrymen against each other.
During my short stay, many didn’t have a clue to the extend of unrest taking place between the border regions. The exchange of unfriendly fire between North and South… no one even knew it was taking place. The country is slowly approaching its boiling point and most citizens are numb to the pain. Have they been burned far too many times to feel the sting this round? I worry and this recent trip has only added to my worries. Not only is it becoming increasingly harder to live day by day… the moral foundation that was engrained in me, that I have always equated with Sudan is no longer there.
A few days ago I watched a preview of a documentary titled ” Dark Girls”, which follows the stories of numerous African-American women and their struggle with dark skin. As I watched this short clip, their stories were all too familiar. These same stigmas dominate our culture in Sudan and I would venture to say even the horn of Africa. Speaking from experiences in Sudan and what I have come to find out in Ethiopia, the issue of skin colour has been indoctrinated into every little girl in both countries.
During my time in the US, I came to find that some African-American women looked at North/East African women with disdain. I took me a while to understand that looks had to do a lot with it. Skin complexion, long hair, high cheekbones. Little did they know that these very same way they viewed East African women, women from the horn applied the same stringent principles on themselves.
In Sudan, and I guess now I have to differentiate (Northern Sudan), a common catch phrase for a mother, auntie or female relative to blurt out is “why have you been spending so much time in the sun, you are dark like charcoal.” Growing up in a fairly open-minded family, despite their consciousness on many other serious issues, they were blind to the backward ways in which they view skin colour. I grew up very conscious of the fact that I am on the darker end of the spectrum when it comes to members of my family. My mother, also having darker skin tone than her siblings was endearingly referred to with pet names that if someone outside our family heard, would be taken a back. When in a gathering of women who are discussing any young girl, skin colour almost always trumps all other features that we define as beautiful. So it doesn’t really matter so long as you are light-skinned you are considered beautiful.
Beauty regiments that Sudanese girls follow are ludicrous. Skin bleaching creams are the norm, which an unfortunate thing to say. The prevalence of kidney disease among Sudanese women is astonishingly high…yet no one wants to correlate the excessive use of skin bleaching cream with this disease. The local industry is booming with “home-made” concoctions that god only knows what’s inside. In an effort to get that “perfect complexion” the length some go to is very worrying. Even those who cannot afford these expensive creams or mixtures frequent small shops all around the country called ” قدر ظروفك” which roughly translates to “weigh your circumstances”. These shops sell such goods in varying quantities depending on the money you have available, they will put a dollop of cream in foil or if you can afford it you can walk out with the entire tube or jar.
What’s sad is the implications of skin colour on the society, dark, blotchy skin is equated with diminished marriage prospects. So in the process, young women, plagued by this social stigma are willing to try any product in the quest to find that lighter, even skin tone. When their skin is damaged, which in most instances is the case after usage of these products, you often see ghost-like young girls parading around town with a layer of thick concealer or powder on their faces; often several shades lighter than their true tone. What’s slightly more amusing is that many of these girls walk around donning black gloves, in a country where 50 degrees celsius around some months is the norm. All in an effort to hide the fact that they have used these lightening creams only on their faces and the disparity between their hands and faces is shockingly visible.
So in watching the preview of this documentary and reflecting on the issue back home, why are many women in our community and across the globe applying such harsh standards on themselves? what is causing our society to think in this manner? I would definitely like to see the full documentary and see what conclusions it draws based on its numerous interviews. I do fear that they may still reflect upon many black women as self-hating individuals without actually looking at the root causes of why this stigma is so widespread. I do believe media has a very powerful role in this case. When one is bombarded with thousands of adverts, commercials and billboards with “beautiful” young light-skinned women, the average young lady starts to equate skin tone with success. Why is that she is seeing a light-skinned girl and not someone who looks like her? The multi-billion dollar beauty industry does an impeccable job of peddling products and keeps generating media to support the cause for women everywhere under-appreciating their beauty.
All in all, I really do believe that we need to start a serious dialogue about this issue. For all my Sudanese sisters who are so close to my heart and all the other women out there who are perpetuating this stigma. As a community, we need to start looking within as well and figuring out what we need to do to help dispel these notions.