Khartoum, Sudan. Pariah state of the western media, with a president indicted by the International Criminal Court for the genocide in Darfur. It’s Tuesday evening and the man in front of the taxi, who is taking time out of his own route, unasked, to find me a safe hotel and make sure I am settled in this strange place, turns to me and asks, “What do you think of my country”.
In my mind, I step back to this afternoon. To an unnamed Samaritan from Omdurman who sat with me through our 6 hour bus trip from Gallabat to Khartoum to make sure that I arrived in the capital safely. Who bought me lunch and took me to smoke shisha and drink chai in Gedaref en route. For no compensation, no motivation other than to make sure I felt welcome, felt like I was a guest in his country.
I have no response. No words of thanks that could ever do justice to such hospitality.
That evening, this man in the taxi refused to share the fare, insisting on paying for the taxi to take us into Khartoum city, so that he could haggle a good price for a hotel room for me. Then personally coming with me to inspect my room and leaving me his details before he carried on his way. “I leave Khartoum again tomorrow morning”, he tells me, “but if you need anything, anything at all tonight, just call me and I will come”. I have no response. No words of thanks that could ever do justice to such hospitality.
I promise myself in the morning that this is a place whose kindness, whose generosity towards me is one I owe it to myself to pay forward someday, as best I can, to some other traveler. Opening my door to go out and explore the city, I find my key in the lock – where I had forgotten it in my tiredness last night. It’s been left untouched all night. It’s unreal.
After Ethiopia, Sudan is a breath of fresh air. But all the kindness in the world doesn’t erase the fact that men and women cannot pursue the same lives here. That images of a president, brought to power in a uniform, stare down from the walls, from billboards. That buildings devoted to oil, money and state power stand as palaces next to the austere exteriors of those devoted to the betterment of people.
After Ethiopia, Sudan is a breath of fresh air. But all the kindness in the world doesn’t erase the fact that men and women cannot pursue the same lives here.
It’s a city littered with soldiers. Not the police, but the blunt instrument deployed by any state whose rulers have cause to fear its people.
Arbitrarily, my iPod skips to Juno Reactor’s City of the Sinful as I walk the Khartoum streets to the Republic Museum – created inside a church, whose memorial plaques to dead parishioners are lost behind case after case of gifts that the president has received from foreign dignitaries. I am scowling by the time I realise that everywhere I walk in the museum, I am being followed by a giant studio light.
A beaming man appears behind me and explains that they are filming a TV show for Sudan’s independence celebrations, and would I please be willing to give him a short interview. To say a bit on how I have found the country. What do I think?
What do I think?
That contradictions can’t be neatly summed up. That the generosity of some of the most warm-hearted people I have ever met cannot be summed with the actions of rulers whose ambition has killed hundreds of thousands. There is no clever phrase – no simple synthesis of everything that can express a place. Or a people. Or a life.
I think it’s a hard lesson to try to understand what it means to be able to hold both together without trying to create some total truth, some sum of it all which exists nowhere except in our own minds.
My actual answer, for what I was asked – in the warm smile of the interviewer, a subtext about how I feel towards the spirit of the people I have met – is much more succinct.
I love them.