Letter from Khartoum
Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, is one of those African cities that you usually only hear about in the news. But it’s also home to millions of people, including Corinne Leukes who works there as a teacher.
The enthusiasm with which Khartoum drivers fling themselves into traffic can be daunting.
It’s Sunday morning in Khartoum and my week has just begun. I work here as an English language teacher and teacher trainer. As with many Islamic countries, the working week runs from Sunday to Thursday. The morning commute is divided into three, as Khartoum is really three separate “cities”: Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri. I leave the building where my apartment is situated and a tuk-tuk, or riksha as they’re called locally, stops beside me. “Good morning! Sbaa alkheer!” the driver says. I jump aboard, even though tuk-tuks are notoriously dangerous. They flit between lanes to avoid potholes or other obstructions with scant regard for such things as oncoming traffic. The central business district – where my office is located – is off limits to tuk-tuks to ease traffic congestion, so I hop off in the adjacent suburb, Khartoum 2. From there it’s a short walk to the office. But before I get there, my nose leads me astray. All over Khartoum, you’ll find women who take up residence under a shady tree, producing a variety of milky teas. It isn’t tea I’m after, however. They also sell little doughnuts called zalabiya, which come with a dusting of sugar – crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. I buy as many as I can with 10 Sudanese pounds (about R7) to share with my colleagues at work. I should get 10 doughnuts for that amount of money, but I’ve become a regular so the seller throws in some freebies. At work, after the zalabiya distribution, our driver Ali picks me up to take me to Omdurman. We’re now on the final part of my commute – the drive to my first class. Ali’s trusty white Giad – a locally manufactured sedan – has seen better days, but I manage to creak open my door and climb inside. I haven’t mentioned the Nile yet, but it’s the focal point for people in Khartoum. The White Nile and the Blue Nile converge in the city to form the single river that flows on to Egypt. Most people live in either Bahri or Omdurman and they work in Khartoum. The bridges over the two Niles connect the suburbs with the heart of the city. The enthusiasm with which Khartoum drivers fling themselves into traffic can be daunting. I’m glad that Ali is dealing with it, which frees me up to appreciate the flowing water. After class, Ali and I return to the office the same way we came, but an accident causes a traffic jam. It’s a good time for him to help me with my Arabic. “Asma’a,” I say proudly, pointing at the traffic. Ali shakes his head. He huffs and tells me that I sound Jordanian. (I worked in Jordan before Sudan, and their version of Arabic is slightly different.) “Zahmat,” he corrects my pronunciation. I reciprocate by teaching him some English; phrases that he uses often, like “Sign here, please.” We’re stuck on a bridge called Revolutionary Bridge. It was built in India during colonial times and shipped over by the British. A couple of egrets fly overhead, enhancing the contrast between the peace of the river and the snarl of traffic. In the distance, on the banks of the White Nile, a group of men is sitting on low stools around a basin. Their presence signals the time better than my watch: It’s 11 am. The Arabic word for beans is fool and it’s an important staple. The preparation of the beans is an equally important cultural tradition. They’re slow-cooked from early morning. Then, at 11 am, whoever wants to joins in for the next phase: Sesame oil is added and the beans are pounded to a paste, often using the bottom of a 500 ml glass Coke bottle. Now you can add cumin, chilli, tomato, cucumber, cheese, boiled eggs or whatever you want and scoop it up with some fresh bread. I head back to the office, where some colleagues are also enjoying their daily fool feast. They wave me over to join them. I have more classes in the afternoon so I try not to eat too much at the risk of nodding off! At the end of the day, I enjoy walking the 5 km back to my apartment. Summer temperatures can reach 45° C+ so I generally wait at the office until sunset. The walk home has a totally different feel to the chaos of the morning. I stop and listen to bulbuls flitting about and I sometimes do a bit of exploring. It’s easy to pick up mangoes, peanuts, dried hibiscus (it makes good tea) and yoghurt from the little stalls that line the streets. I’m usually home by 6 pm. Finally, I can kick off my shoes, tuck into some fruit and start preparing myself for tomorrow’s journey…