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.

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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…

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