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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Saturday, 13 August 2011

August 13th: Khartoum

On August 13th 1980 I was in Khartoum.  I was waiting for a flight south to start teaching, but had been marooned in the El Sharque Hotel for the three weeks since my previous entry

The River Nile:  My picture
It was the middle of the Eid festival marking the end of Ramadan and Khartoum was even more closed down than ever.  This day however I was able to get outside the city.   Two teacher friends were invited out for a picnic and I and three others went as well.  We drove out of the city to the riverside, through the suburbs into the country through citrus and mango orchards, said to be run as a prison farm.  It was a popular picnic spot with quite a number of people around, about 20kms upstream on the Blue Nile.  Nearby were brickworks and an enormous pump system and the African huts where the aragi (hootch) makers lived.  It was mainly a family affair, the family of one of the groups who came to pick us up; the women were beautiful and sat on a carpet in a corner but enjoyed the whole thing as well.  We drank beer and whisky.  I found space for a walk in the bush just to feel I was really in Africa and to look at any wildlife.  Later on the women began to sing and the whole thing really came together, at least for me, with clapping and dancing (it reminded me of Afghan dancing).  I talked with a group from Kadugli, one of whom was a waiter at one of the large hotels I visited.  We left at the height of the event, a good time to go, with copious farewells and an exhilarating return on the back of a Mazda pickup.

Tuti Island, 2009:  Picture by Petr Adam Dohnalek, CC
Tuti Island, lying in the Nile between the various parts of the wider city, was a good place to get away from the frustrations of the city and was best in the late afternoon.  It was really a village or a set of villages in the middle of the city.  On my first visit when I stepped off the little chain driven ferry, a man stopped me:  "How do you like Sudan?" he asked.  He spread his arms and continued, "it's the most undeveloped country in the world, just look."  I liked Tuti, the lemon orchards and little irrigated fields, and dark people living in little shacks.  As I walked back to the ferry another time, walking from the quiet edge of the river on the far side, I passed a number of nightjars flying along with their mouths open.  On the ferry there was a big delay with someone banging something in the engine room.  The boat got more and more crowded, and the women segregated themselves and made me move to sit on the baskets carrying lemons to the city.  There must have been several hundred people on board, as well as a few donkeys.  After an hour or so we left but in midstream there was an almighty crash, and the water level rose alarmingly close to the deck at the front; I think no one got swept away, but one or two were severely soaked.  We broke away from the chains and the men started jumping up and down and shouting while the women set up a huge wail and we began to drift down the river in the direction of Cairo.  Finally we pulled up near the bank somewhere close to the Hilton and scrambled across a piece of piping to reach the shore. 

As the Eid had approached the city had become a little more lively as preparations were made for the feast.  In the arcades in the centre of town they were selling sheep and happy purchasers were leading them away or putting them in their pickups.  At the hotel they were cutting up a lot of meat and giving the cats a field day with scraps.  The Eid, however, was not good news for the cats, of which there must have been fifty living at the hotel; they wanted to clean the place up and set up a restaurant in the courtyard and to this end they shot every cat with an airgun and then laid out the tables.  The obnoxious young Syrian manager made an effort to get rid of the teachers, but he was outwitted because some of our number had been entertained at the Syrian Club by one of the brothers who owned the hotel.

One day I went to the railway station to see off some teachers who were going to Kadugli in Southern Kordofan.  In my boredom I wished I could have got on the train with them; at any rate here there was a bit of the excitement of a railway station as the train pulled away, probably the only train on that day.   The main reason to be in Khartoum was to wait for a flight, but I was now working out the practicalities of taking the train to Wau or the Kosti steamer.  Most of the teachers departed, leaving only the ones going to the South.  Some latecomers arrived from London, got their postings and left, leaving the same people waiting in Khartoum.

After another two weeks of being stranded the word came that there was a flight to Wau in the morning.  I might finally be going to Rumbek.  I went out before it was light and came back with two taxis in five minutes.  Four of us teachers headed south and some well wishers all piled in with our luggage.  There was a long delay at the airport and then the flight was called and we got on the plane.  Looking down on the expanse of green before landing at Malakal, I realised it was all worthwhile.  And as I walked around Wau towards evening and sat in the Dinka souk with the blacksmiths, having chai, with cows behind against a background of green, I felt that six weeks of waiting in Khartoum might have been worthwhile.  

The Nile:  My picture

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