Thursday, December 12, 2013

When Women Fall Silent in Sudan

Posted in Al Monitor on October 9, 2013

KHARTOUM — Thursday, Oct. 3, was a defining day in my life. It was the day a wall of silent women demanded the release of our fellow female prisoners – and won. They were released three days later. In recent weeks, my country has witnessed the largest protests against President Omar al-Bashir's regime since he seized power two dozen years ago.

That day started when I heard of the women’s demonstration at the home of Dahlia El Roubi, a mother and activist arrested at her home in an upscale Khartoum neighborhood on Sept. 30. Other women who shared her fate were Rayan Shakir Zein Abdeen and Amal Habbani, a mother and journalist.

The mental vision I get when I hear the word “protest” does not involve refreshments and photo shoots, so it dawned on me that this day was not going to be normal. The atmosphere was evocative of a tea party of friends, family and varying degrees of separation that never reach six in Sudan.

I was happy to find a banner with “Freedom & Justice” written on it, in English. These words are the reason I became involved in the issues of Sudan, they are my path and my destination. If I am arrested, I thought, let it be said that it was for calling for freedom and justice.

After taking pictures in a lovely garden, we were told to regroup at the infamous Security Compound (al-Qiyaada al-Aama) in the Airport District (Hayy al-Mataar). Upon reaching our destination, a woman next to us gave directions over the phone, “Yes, we’ve arrived,” she said into her headset, “next to the American Club.”

Luxury cars kept coming, women delicately stepping out of chauffeured vehicles, making their way to the assembly point. We formed a line facing the gate, silently raising our banners and flyers. Then, we stood. And stood. And stood.

The security guards manning the gate did not realize what was happening until they were faced by a wall of silent women. A main street separated us. Cars began to slow down and gawk. A coordinator explained to the guards that we were there to present a memorandum.

First, they slammed the gate. One security guard donning a bulletproof vest went in, came out and cocked his gun. He was a kid; we had grandmothers on our side. We were unimpressed. A flow of security personnel in uniform and plain clothes began. All the while, the heavy traffic of the adjacent al-Qiyaada Street turned sluggish when drivers came upon our wall of silence.

One woman was wearing Gucci sunglasses, we noted as other demonstrators greeted each other. Chilled bottled water was distributed.

The security guards did not attempt to engage us in any way. We were silent, so we could not be charged with disturbing the peace. We were on a sidewalk so we could not be charged with disrupting traffic. We were all women, mostly mothers and a few grandmothers, so we couldn’t be slapped around. They were stumped.

Cars honked their horns in solidarity, occupants raised their fists in the Sudanese version of a thumbs-up. Passing women raised celebratory ululations and chanted slogans. We responded with fists and peace signs. We were on top of the world.

After about an hour of this silent face-off, 10 women crossed the street, carrying their memorandum. Among them was the wife of jailed activist Amjed Fareed. She held a sign that stated simply, “Let our father go.” (They were released a couple of weeks after the women). Two entered and the rest returned to join us in our wall of silence.

The memorandum addressed to Mohammed Atta, head of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), opened with passages of the Quran regarding justice, followed by appealing to his duty to uphold the constitutional right to freedom of speech, to treat people humanely and to advise families of the whereabouts of their loved ones. They called on him to press charges if any were in breach of the law and allow detainees access to legal counsel and give them free and fair trials. In closing, the women said, we will stand vigil until our demands are met.

Suddenly, a pickup full of young, plainclothes security men drew up beside us, wielding heavy black hoses, the local intimidation weapon of choice. They started shouting, talking to each other, not addressing any of the protesters.

One misguided fellow raised his hose in warning from the top of the pickup above the head of a lady who was clearly a grandmother, “Are you going to hit me?” she asked him calmly, looking him squarely in the eye, forcing him to lower his arm and turn away.

Guards ventured across the street toward us, emboldened by the increased numbers and rubber hoses.

As they took away our banners, the guy charged with this task looked at my English banner with some confusion, looked at me and said, “Please” as he tore it away from me. Color me impressed, multilingual thugs, I thought.

"The Constitution allows us to demonstrate peacefully," my brave companions told him.

"With a license, barked the ring leader," well-versed in his "constitutionese." "No assemblies, you submitted your memorandum," he said in exasperation. "Just leave."

"When our people leave your offices," was the reply, referring to the elderly ladies that had gone in but had not resurfaced.

As soon as the gate opened to release said applicants, they were showing us to our cars.

“They all came in private cars,” one security man whispered to another. Clap, clap, clap, clap. “Hurriya!” we shouted on the way to our parked cars. The popular Sudanese triple-clap, punctuated by “Freedom!” was a common protest chant that everyone could get behind.

Some women berated the young men, calling them tools of oppression against their own people. “You are as old as my mother, I cannot talk back to you,” one security officer replied, according to one woman.

Suddenly a young lady in a lab coat started screaming at the security men, "How did you get like this? What did they do to you? Aren't you one of us? How could you?" She was dragged away by fellow protesters. We were soon escorted to our cars, followed by security men taking pictures of us and our license plates, in a scene reminiscent of the first chapter of The Godfather.

The young children of journalist Amal Habbani passed by us with their father. I could only imagine what he was going through.

Security forces stopped traffic on the main road and allowed us to leave the scene without further incident. To my knowledge, no women were detained at this protest.

What did we accomplish with this silent protest of old women in chauffeured cars? A great deal.

The average age and social status of our protesters was a clear indication that the current issue of the people of Sudan is not about gas prices and aspirational rhetoric. This time, it’s personal: people against government. There have been 200 reported deaths in the demonstrations of the past few weeks and between 600 and 2,000 reported detainees. This is a popular movement that has reached every home.

Publicly, the greatest fear is that the protests will lose momentum as people struggle to earn their daily bread, or stay home, fearing for the lives and safety of their families. The disillusioned public fears that the blood of martyrs will be lost and that it will not be granted the justice it deserves. Members of the public fear that the government will win, and that we will be forced to swallow our pride as we rummage for sustenance in their trickle-down dumpsters.

Then there is the hope.

We have seen heartwarming demonstrations where neighborhoods and entire districts came together to call for freedom and to celebrate the lives that were lost.

We may never know if we played a part in the presidential pardon issued a couple of days after our stand. Participating in this silent vigil gave me a sense of unity and empowerment. This demonstration showed us the fear and confusion of a government when women fall silent.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Last week, the Sudanese social networking sites were abuzz with the news that our national carrier (Sudan Airways) is the second worst in the world. This is not our first such honor. We rank prominently in the lists for Most Failed States (3rd place, after Somalia & Democratic Republic of Congo, with an FSI of 109.4) and we fall on the wrong end of the list for Press Freedom (170/179). Our government "accomplishments" include Sexual Abuse in Conflict areas (7th Worst Country, according to Maplecroft) with multiple condemnations for human rights abuses (and I’m not even talking about the ICC).
In addition to the stated shameful showing, the former “Bread Basket of the World” imports everything (according to CIA World Factbook: foodstuffs, manufactured goods, refinery and transport equipment, medicines and chemicals, textiles, wheat). We flirted lightly with oil production but that particular relationship ended badly. Sadly, no children or shared assets to speak of. We were left high and dry. In an aside, I once heard an official say on the radio that the collapse of the economy was due to the government’s surprise that the South had chosen secession and although the signs were obvious, they had been in a state of “self denial”. Told you the breakup wasn’t pretty.
In light of the complete demise, visible to the naked eye, of public health, education, the economy and civil societies, one is only left to wonder why this government remains in power. Why haven't they resigned? Why haven't they left?
As war drums sound from the South, West and East; as we have lost sovereignty in the North, in spite of 90% of the National Budget being spent on "Defense" & government, I wonder how these people can believe they did any good. How they can state that they "saved us". Or how they can try to convince us they are our best option, in fact our only option.
Our people are hungry. Our people are sick. Our people are ignorant. Our professionals have become refugees. You have sold our hospitals, our schools, our land. You have laid waste to our farmlands. The poor man's food of fava beans (fool), onion stew (sakheena) and lentils (3adas) is now beyond the reach of the average family. (Which started a national campaign:“Potato is the Solution”. No comment.)

*Source: BRQ Sudan Network on Facebook

Our bodies lack sustenance and you add to the misery by starving our souls, our minds (shutting down all cultural centers and more recently TedXKhartoum 2013). What do you leave us? How can one government systematically lay waste to one million square miles? Is it because you had enough time? Is it because you were unchallenged? Or is it because you claimed "it" was in the name of religion?
What religion do you speak of? We can read. We learned before you came to power in your "bloodless coup". You have enough blood on your hands now to render that boast meaningless. We have seen the soiled clothes and gaping wounds of our children. The children who said no to injustice. The children who still await justice.
In Islam, the religion of which you speak, the rulers would not eat if their people were hungry. In the story of Yusuf, we are told that wise rulers make plans for lean times. In the West, they call it "reserve" but the concept came from the East.
The Islamic Caliph, Omer Ibn Abdel Aziz, managed to eliminate the budget deficit, and invest the surplus that ensued, paying off the debts of Muslims, Christians and Jews, before marrying off the youth and scattering grain on the mountain tops, so even the birds would not go hungry.
Have you seen people rummaging in the trash for a morsel in today's "Religious State"? I have. Have you seen the obesity levels of our officials? I have.
In the Dawn of Islam, there are no stories of persecuting Christians or Jews; that is your convoluted doing.
Everyone lived together, equal in the eyes of the law. What havoc have you wreaked, turning people against each other in the name of religion? If Christians were evil, would the Prophet PBUH take one as a wife? As for our Islamic country being the only one at war with Jews, why did the Prophet PBUH form a pact with them?
What heresy do you spread in the name of religion? What lies?
We have our differences, deal with it! Do not oppress, abuse and persecute then say you do so in the name of Islam. Shame on you.
You oppress because you are an oppressor. The same reasoning that makes one that kills a murderer. Motive is interesting but facts are facts and a spade is a spade.
We are sick. We are tired. We are frustrated. You are a failure. On every single level. There is not ONE area where this government performed "adequately" or positively contributed to the welfare of its people.
Sudanese newspapers & social networks proudly publish the accomplishments of our citizens abroad. Reflecting the realization that these individuals were only able to excel when they left Sudan and their minds were set free.
Sudan consists of a populace where the poor are crippled by poverty and both professionals and local investors are crippled by taxation without representation.
Our government is full of clowns, one stating Sudan GDP is $1,800 when a school teacher’s salary ranges between $55 and $85 and a doctor in a public hospital makes between $70 and $150 a month. (This is really ironic if they went to The University of Medical Sciences and Technology (UMST) owned by Mamoun Humeida, the Minister of Health that charges $8,200 according to their website. Do the math on that ROI and smoke it).
One confused cleric declared that Um Ruwaba was invaded because girls played soccer. Sudanese women have played soccer since the dawn of time (delve into Old Sudanese Photos on Facebook for a treasure-trove of documented history), invasions only started with your government. Look within. This same cleric/official stated that a girl that had not been genitally mutilated was "foul". No wonder this person doesn’t choose to look within, it seems like a horrible place.
Not a single “cleric” came out to address the horrific phenomenon of child rape, denounce corruption (where did our national wealth go?) or champion the rights of the citizens or highlight the duties & responsibilities of an “Islamic Ruler”. Selective and biased, or corrupt and scared – depending on who you ask. The exact opposite of the role of the clergy and judicial system in the “Islamic State” they continue to declare.  That gig is up. Sudan is not an Islamic State any more than Haiti is. Shut up already.
Another clown is our infamous Minister of Interior who oversaw the collapse of structurally impaired university buildings on his watch but was reinstated soon after, as the government believes we suffer from collective amnesia. The inventor of “Visual Defense” and other impossible theories and statements.
Corruption has reared its ugly head. The line between an official and non official shakedown has been blurred as you will never be asked to pay the amount stated on your receipt in any government transaction.
Satiric writer, Elfatih Gabra called on officials to stop this policy of bleeding the citizen dry, aggravated by the conviction that our hard earned money will NOT land in any government coffers. The irony-cum-tragedy is that the sum that may find its way to a public purse stands the increasing chance of being donated to a neighboring country for a “noble cause”.
A hospital in Djibouti states that it is a gift “from His Excellency President Omar Al-Bashier" (not the "People of Sudan". He must have come into some money). We have also been generous with Egypt, Somalia, Kenya and Palestine. Our esteemed government went so far as to offer Syrian refugees health care and education in Sudan. I wish I could tell you how ironic that is but let me just say that the Syrians are probably better off where they are. May victory be theirs.
Rasd Sudan, Bashir Diaries, Sudanese Online and Al Rakoba, all prominent online resources and the local equivalent of watchdogs, read like a surreal window into our Sudanese Wonderland. The frustration grows. The destitution grows. The desperation grows. We hope for change but cannot realistically expect it. We know that it is coming, because history tells us so. We have been pushed, squeezed and pummeled to our limits. Ravaged, beaten and abused we lie. Hoping for hope. Combing the news for a ray of light, like “Khartoum Rising” (which people either loved or hated) and young artists and writers that evoke our reality and dreams with images that can be seen or heard. Telling us to trust history. Telling us to believe that change is a comin’ and something’s gotta give.
I don’t know why they are still here or how they will leave. I don’t know where we are headed. I don’t know what will come next. I don’t know if it can get any worse. I don’t know if it can get better. I know that we deserve better. I know that voices are rising stemming from a deep love of this land.

*اللهم انها بلغت القلوب الحناجر اللهم عجل بنصرك ياهازم الاحزاب*

God bless Sudan.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Only in Sudan: A Day in the Life

I will have to surrender to the obvious and write an Only in Sudan blog post. Over the years, I have resisted this urge, as there is no shortage of material on the topic. Sudanese tweeps, bloggers and Sudanese Memes have that angle covered. The thing about Sudan is that every day life borders on the surreal. This is highlighted when you try to relay a normal run to the grocery store to your friends and they are amused, bemused and confused by every detail in the story.
The past 24 hours have been full of “Only in Sudan” moments (OIS), so I will stop fighting and start typing.
Normal day at work. I think. Nothing out of MY ordinary anyway. My husband and I agreed to have smoked salmon for lunch (admittedly rather bourgeois but if this was an everyday occurrence, we wouldn’t have had to agree on it beforehand). I drove to the pricey Solitaire and first thing was that the “parking” opposite the restaurant was cordoned off with empty water bottles (OIS 1). This was obviously a statement by the grocery store next door that grocers were people too with paying customers that were no less important than those that frequented the fancy shmancy place next door, thank you very much.
The amusing thing is that the empty water bottles were effective, since Sudanese have the shackles of the mind duly installed, you will not find anyone attempting to mow the plastic bottles down and claim this space.
In a unnecessarily Sudanese moment, the waitress pushed the menu pointing at the price – not to make sure I knew what I was ordering but to make sure that I was aware of the price. Smoked salmon. 75 pounds (OIS 2). I get it. Two please.
I sat in the half basement trying to zone out the Arab couple flirting at the next table. After 7 years of marriage, flirting is like nails on a chalkboard. Truth.
The food and bill arrived. 172 Sudanese pounds. The 22 pounds was the sneaky Value Added Tax (VAT). I don’t mind paying taxes and I understand the concept behind taxes in general and VAT in particular. I also understand that in Sudan we have some of the lowest (theoretical) taxes in the world. However… In Sudan, you are not given a voice as a taxpayer and you are definitely not awarded any services. There is not a single public school free of charge in all of Sudan. There is no government hospital that will treat you for free (shout out to NGO charities!). We pay exorbitant prices for electricity and water. In the land of the Nile, tap water is not potable or cheap. You pay taxes and there is barely a road you can drive on without risking life and vehicle with lorry-sized potholes (which are sometimes cordoned off with warning tape because, as we said, it’s all in the mind). Public transportation consists of beat up old buses and oversized green monstrosities not fit for our small roads but that doesn’t stop the aggressive driving that is a prerequisite to getting behind the wheel of these “Wali Buses” so named as the Mayor of Khartoum was behind their import. Rumors of backdoor dealings and the second hand condition of these buses abound, fuelled by their hazardous track record, interspersed with their affinity for near spontaneous combustion, bursting into flames at the slightest excuse.
Ok. So pay your taxes citizens, but how about government giving us something to show for it? That would be a pleasant change. Thank you.
I took my ridiculously priced lunch and started driving home but on a hunch decided to pass by another high end store to check the current price of smoked salmon. Predictably, I found that a whole kilogram of smoked salmon matched the price of my two reasonably sized steaks (OIS 3). Incidentally, turns out I didn’t want steaks but strips which I later found out were labeled “sandwiches” on the menu. I took the package which was half my height because another Only in Sudan lesson, is that when you find something you buy it because the next day it could double in price or disappear.
I was not oblivious to the fact that I had spent a schoolteacher’s salary on a meal. I have lived here for decades and understand the suffering of my people. But if once a year I want smoked salmon, then smoked salmon I will have, darn it.
I got home to my hungry family and told them I was leaving for the dentist after the meal.
I’d been experiencing tooth pain on and off for the past month. Writhing during the on and forgetting during the off might be a universal mothers’ trait but the fact that you only go to the doctor when you are incapacitated is purely Sudanese (OIS 4). We don’t have regular dental checkups. In fact, we don’t have annual medical checkups. Tell you what – we don’t have anything regular or annual except oil changes for the car and license renewals.
During the day, I texted my dentist friend, “Reservation tonight okay? I’m in pain!!!!! Make it stop!!!!!” See? This is how we make doctor’s appointments. No stuffy receptionists and middle men. Not if you can help it. You text the friend you met online in a Facebook group (OIS 5). He texted back, “I’m out of fairy dust! But will figure smthn out, come at 8”. Thank God for Sudan.
As I was leaving home, the maid cum nanny (I’m a working mother & leaving children under the age of 6 home alone is frowned upon) told me that she had to leave to visit her ailing sister (OIS 6). I offered her a ride and thought to myself, that although she is not Sudanese, leaving your “work station” to see your sick sister is very Sudanese behavior and this social support system is one of the few good things we have left. As a friend of mine had as his Facebook tag line (remember those?) “Al naas bil naas wa kullu beh Rabb Al 3alameen” (rough translation: People for people and all by the Grace of God*).
I arrived at the spanky clean dentist’s office. In another Sudanese moment, it was obvious that his clinic was portioned off from his family’s house (OIS 7). The setup was impeccable and convenient. I can imagine him slipping into the kitchen on slow nights to ask his mom for tea. I told his receptionist my name and I was immediately ushered in (OIS 8) to the happy dentist in a funky “coat” or whatever it’s called. After the standard 5 minute pleasantries (OIS 9), we started the formalities. He told me had found his magic wand and I had nothing to fear.
I explained the problem “My teeth hurt” and as always I have to reply, “I don’t know which one”. I think I am dentally dyslexic. I must concede that it’s not easy being my friend. I also stated that I knew he would fix it and it wouldn’t hurt (emphasized with a glare).
I sat in the fancy dentist (patient?) chair and sniffed in the aroma of clean. Refreshing in a country where hospitals and clinics generally smell of urine. Even private hospitals and clinics smell of urine because of the proximity of the bathrooms, if nothing else. After doing his thing which involved sticking various metal contraptions in my mouth, he asked me to do an x-ray at the medical center down the road.
Once there and after I had been duly x-rayed, the technician got on the phone while he copied my teeth pictures to a CD (Sudanese definition of high-tech). He handed me the disc without looking up, as he chatted away (OIS 9).
I drove back to my friendly dentist who popped in the disc, only to tell me that it consisted of the same picture, two times (OIS 10).
I had to go back to the x-ray place and was in full non-Sudanese mode (coming from the dentist, could I be any more western?) and asked to see the manager. The receptionist looked at me with confusion and told me there wasn’t one (OIS 11). No manager, no supervisor, no nothing. Apparently, all you need is a receptionist and some technicians and the place can run itself. So. She let me in to see my technician and by then I was in ghetto mode which he simple deflated by apologizing over and over again (OIS 12), interjected with a request for forgiveness (a3fi leina, 3aleik Allah). You can’t fight someone who is not fighting back, as Sonny taught us in the Godfather (the book, I never saw the movies).
I took my apologetic, amended CD and went back to the clinic where the doctor was watching television in the lounge, awaiting my arrival. His expert opinion was that we could postpone the pain to another day and gave me a shot of anesthesia and sent me on my way, with instructions to bring a husband to drive me home on the day of the pain. In case my husband was not available, he suggested crowd sourcing support via our Facebook group (OIS 13) where volunteers would come hold my hand and drive me home. They’d do it too. (A small footnote... My friendly dentist refused to take a dime OIS13*)
Yawning on the drive home as it was way past my bedtime, I remembered that we needed electricity. Sudan has the very unique setup of prepaid power (OIS 14). My husband had just arrived in town, so he wouldn’t be aware of our “wattage levels” so that required I pass by the Electricity Office. The power depletion scenario was one I had no interest in revisiting. Waking up sweating in the middle of the night and camping out in front of the place till the employees showed up in the morning was something you would not wish on your worst enemy.
I stood in line, for the single operator on duty (OIS 15). There were other operators but they were too busy to be handling customers, doing vague electricity operating work. I made my purchase and headed to the bakery to get bread for tomorrow’s school sandwiches (OIS 16). Those who can afford it, eat fresh bread in Sudan. The irresistible aroma and warm goodness are not the main reason this is a daily purchase. The truth of the matter is that our bread expires before your very eyes. The “loaves” get sadder and sadder and once upon a rise sets in a glaringly unsubtle way, which renders the bread unsandwichable.
The bakery was closed (OIS 17). so I set the alarm early and went straight to bed.
I woke up at the crack of dawn to get the bread. The task had automatically carried to the next day, although usually the hubby does the morning runs. I called the maid to pick her up from her sister’s place. Early morning traffic is light in Khartoum, which results in vehicles whizzing through traffic lights with nary a thought for the working mother running pre-work errands, with a saucepan on the stove because mommies cannot justify a multi-task left undone (OIS 18).
The bakery was closed (OIS 19) and the alternative baker was on a road that the Roads & Infrastructure people, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to excavate the day before(OIS 20). Funny thing is that when there is road work in Sudan, there are no announcements, there are no signs; you find yourself driving down a road that suddenly ends. Then, you and any other luckless fool behind you are left to maneuver your way out of the dead end and find your own exit, after you discover that the regular route is blocked off too(OIS 21). There’s a reason I drive an off-roader in Khartoum, in spite of how wrong everyone tells me I am – but on road and off road in the middle of Khartoum are indistinguishable.
Surprisingly, I arrived at work on time and all’s well that ends well but I found this “Day in the Life” worth documenting.
Thanks for sharing my Only in Sudan day with me – it didn’t consist of anything out of the ordinary but several moments of a very nationally typical nature.
Keep smiling.
God bless our country.

Photo link:

*: Translation modified from first issue

Friday, February 15, 2013

Blessed Friday

Today is a good day. Alhamdulillah. I have a sore throat but I have my boys playing around me, husband snoring lightly nearby and plans to visit my parents in a few hours, insha Allah.
Awaiting us is a scene of chaos as my sisters and I respond to the only mandate my mother has ever decreed, Family Friday. A day we fill each other in, interspersed with shouting at our progeny who spend the day oscillating between heated disputes and hair raising antics.
I met a dear, dear friend of mine yesterday. We didn't even shake hands in greeting or in parting but automatically started talking as if it hadn't been six months since we last met.
Everyone speaks about the value of friendship but this true, unconditional, effortless friendship I share with this particular friend, is very dear to my heart.
I believe we all need that one person we can call at any time just to say, I'm feeling a little down, or share a moment of happiness with. That friend who will criticize you and challenge you but you know that it is only because they want what is best for you and they're cheering you on and will do anything within their power to see you happy and successful. A friend that will encourage you with the tone of their voice and the look in their eyes, more than their words. A friend that can tell if there’s something wrong by hearing it in your “Hello”.
Thank you, my friend. I am who I am today because I have you in my life.
As I pause writing to perform conflict resolution, I thank God that these warring little souls turn to me for justice.
At their age, time-outs and threats of unthinkable punishments are all that is needed to maintain the peace.
I know that I will soon long for these days where these scampering creatures, these mobile tripping hazards, apply "underfoot" quite literally. I know that I will miss the clinging hands and the octopus grips I wake up to. If I live that long. My life is in danger with these lethal bundles of joy. God bless them.
My husband told me he snored in our very first telephone conversation. This preemptive information, he says, forfeits my right to complain, having received fair warning.
He had to work late last night but still managed to surprise me with a beautiful bouquet of red roses and a package of dark chocolate. Happy Valentine's Day <3
My parents are a blessing in more ways than I could ever count.
The unique way they raised me, the strength they told me I had, the dreams that were never beyond reach, the solitude they understood I needed, all these were the most powerful tools any child could have. They gave me my own room at the age of 3, bought me an encyclopedia for my 10th birthday, and pretty much handed me my passport and annual tickets at the age of 16. What more could a girl ask for? May God bless you with health and happiness, Madre and Poppa, wa ya7fazkum leina.
I love the work I do, even if I am not always in love with my job or employers. I build buildings and get to drive around Khartoum and say, "I was a part of that". I might not save lives (although I do appoint myself in charge of HSE on site) but I get to leave a visible impact on my country, which is as fulfilling as it is egotistical.
Some days I am filled with despair for what has become of my country. Some days I fear the future and wonder what fate awaits my children in this beloved, abused land of uncertainty.
Today is not one of those days. Today is Blessed Friday. Today, is a day of love and appreciation.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sudan Now, Sudan Then Part III

Our people have no drinking water, education or healthcare. I do not mean that we do not have government provided/subsidized drinking water, education or healthcare – I mean it does not exist in Sudan. Does not exist by virtue of the fact that the majority of Sudan has no access to them.
I studied in private schools during an era where private schools were a necessity for some (in my case, having English as a mother tongue). In this catholic school, I met my lifelong friend whose mother had sent her there, to create structure and discipline in the absence of her father, a national legend, who had passed away. Others came for other reasons.
When we were growing up (in the 80s), Sudanese perceived private schools as the place where students went after flunking out of public schools. I will show you here what some of our “public schools” look like now.
Public Healthcare? You may ask. Well, that would require public hospitals, one would assume. If your fate lands you in a public hospital, be prepared to bring your own gauze, cotton, injections, the works. You will require a relative to “donate” blood, although there is no guarantee that you will receive blood if required. (True story: Friend’s mom needed blood. Her daughter donated. Afterwards, blood bank stated that mom’s blood type unavailable. Daughter was universal donor, so just asked for her own blood. Blood bank refused as it hadn’t been subjected to mandatory testing. Daughter no blood, Momma no blood. Happens all the time. Welcome to Sudan.)
Services? Electricity is pre-paid in Sudan. One would assume that one could expect uninterrupted service since it was already paid for. In full. One assumes wrong. Speaking of prepaid power and public hospitals, recently, a public hospital went three days without power because there was no money to “buy electricity”. (While the Private Hospital owned by the Minister of Health had all the power it needed. Thanks for asking)
There is no standby generator in public hospitals, so if you are unlucky enough to be in the middle of an operation when the power goes out, we will pray for you in heaven, and know that you are in a better place.
Water? In the land of the Nile, those of us fortunate enough to have access to the outdated water supply network, are very often left high and dry. The day after giving birth, I was forced to drive to my parents’ home because there was no water in the house. (You will understand the ramifications and magnitude of this drive if you are Sudanese, and I bet one or two of you gasped).
Ironically, if there is no water in the house, there is a very large possibility that within a certain radius, there is an artificial lake gushing out on to the streets, rivaling Lake Volta.
So, what happens if you do not fall within water coverage? (This refers to almost everybody in Sudan, since networks only cover cities, and by no means is this coverage complete) You buy water, that’s what you do. You wait for someone in a donkey-driven cart, equipped with a rusty blue-painted barrel, and you contract him to fill your plastic jerry cans and tin buckets. The quality of the water is indescribable. Suffice to say that the source of the water is broken water network pipes or irrigation channels. Bottoms up.
So, I sit in my site office, building towers and watch workers walking in with shoes wired together. Because it is part of my job, I tell them that they cannot work without proper shoes. I tell them it is for their safety, for their protection – they tell me I am taking food out of their children’s mouths.
In a perfect world, their employers would make sure that they were fitted out, but in Sudan, the employers defect on their commitment and only those with shoes can work that day. I go make a scene, urging the contractor to do what’s right by his people, and he laughs, “They got to you? Melted your heart and you come talking to me.” Hitting people is bad. We frown upon it. Move on.
The joy when the workers get their shoes is heart breaking. They come to thank me for being their advocate. What breaks my heart is that they shouldn’t need advocates. They shouldn’t miss work because they were not given the proper tools. And, in this, lies the story of my country. We have reached a point where no one has rights. Everything is treated like some sort of gratuity.
You are SUPPOSED to make sure your people have food to eat. You are SUPPOSED to give people access to clean water. You are SUPPOSED to provide basic healthcare for your people. You are SUPPOSED to provide jobs for people with various skills (not mock college graduates as recent reports quoted the President stating that college graduates were unskilled and unhireable – translation: useless parasites).
Before this government, some people say our fathers’ generation was spoiled – primed with a sense of entitlement. They got the best education and healthcare for free. Truth is, the haves and the have nots were in the same quarters, lived the same lives. The differences were superficial and superfluous.
In the Sudan of today, the haves have food. The have nots have nothing.
I am a professional with umpteen years of experience under my belt. I walked away from a job in Dubai because I wanted to be part of building my country. I deserve to have a few bottles of perfume and the occasional facial. I deserve a vacation and the option to splurge on an “impulse buy”. My children deserve the occasional treat for being left alone while we seek the means to make school payments, rent and groceries. Disposable income. That quaint term. Wonder what that’s like.
However, since I live in Sudan, I see too much. I see the anemic look in the malnourished people on the streets, I see the people that have cracked under the unbearable pressure. I see the struggle of children working to feed families and women working desperately to subsidize their income, selling bed sheets and thermos flasks. I see the suffering, I see the pain and harden my heart so it does not break in two.
I will try to buy treats for my children, and turn off the AC in my car (taking advice from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn). I will not buy an anniversary present for my husband, so I can pay for the exam I need to take abroad. I will not go to the doctor this month because maybe the pain will go away on its own. I will give the money to the sick mother who needs to get well to take care of her children. I will have a basic breakfast, so the little girl in the ICU can get the heart scan she needs. I will not get a facial so I can pay for the kids’ school bus and give my husband one less thing to worry about.
I will do what I have to do. Our family will do all it can. But I wonder. When do I tell my children that the struggle I put them through was optional - not how it's supposed to be? When do I make the decision that as my country suffers, my family may have a shot at a better life? When do I close my eyes and heart to the hurt that is Sudan and become another refugee, a guest in a more accommodating land that may provide me with that most elusive of dreams, a disposable income?
This is my land. This is my home. This is my country. These are my people.
Cry, beloved country.

Sudan Now, Sudan Then Part II: The Moral Dilemma of the Middle Class

The point of this “blog thread” (for lack of a better phrase) that I started almost a year ago, was to point out what my small family is going through. Two working professionals and three small children and barely making ends meet. When I started, I wanted to write about how hard it is to afford a vacation or birthday gifts and reward the children with a “special” toy when the report cards come in.
I wanted to write about the struggle of buying shampoo and hair conditioner – and the perfume you wish you had. That was a year ago. Before South Sudan seceded (and we wish them luck on their new voyage) and before the economy of Sudan tanked. It didn’t “take a turn for the worse”; our economy did not “face sudden difficulties”. Our economy tanked.
The acceleration of the deterioration and inflation were swift, ruthless and fierce, as the day oil money was gone, the entire country learned a lesson in economics overnight. The oil that been pumping for most of the government’s 26 years in power was gone. The oil revenue was nowhere to be seen. Not in strategic projects, not in agricultural programs, not in the country’s infrastructure, nor in our educational or medical institutions.
The money was gone. All of it.
Not even the naïve wondered where it had gone. There was some speculation about how the Sudanese Government owned a complete “frond” of The Jumeira Palm in Dubai. Others spoke of towers in Malaysia and villas in Turkey. A few officials had purchased local apartments in the distinguished local “Misheirab” Qatari Project, spun the rumor mill.
This speculation may vary in figures and geography but they all came to the same conclusion. Sudan was broke. Sudanese officials were rich. Hmmm… (For the record, the President spoke on National Television, that livelihoods were in the hands of God, implying that the disgruntled were heathens).
The official rate of inflation over the past year was estimated between 40-60%. That is a large range but the truth of the matter is that it is not reflective of the expenses of the Sudanese citizen that have more than doubled.
What does an average family need? School tuition and associated transport expenses. School Sandwiches. Food. Breakfast at work. Filling up the car. The occasional household purchase. Detergent.
As our young family struggles to keep up with our middle class[1] needs, you can’t help but think of the other families. The single income, working laborer that has the same commitments as you. He too has to pay rent. In a country where public education is no longer free, they too have tuition, and too often, their children go without sandwiches. Prepaid power bills and talk of pre-paid water too. The children become malnourished. Then they are susceptible to sickness that cripples the family, attempting to pay for medical treatment, or accepting with heartbreaking resignation, the death of their child.
How can my country go on like this?
Cry, beloved country.
The well dressed man rummaging through the trash has become a familiar sight. The old man at the street light begging for change and the men of all ages selling tissue boxes on the streets. (I don’t get that; when did disposable tissues become a “must have” item for all vehicles?)
How has my life changed as a middle class working professional? Our grocery list has taken a hit but while we cut back on meat, they cut back on meals. We cut back on shampoo and imported detergent, they cut back on soap. We cut back on power bills, they cut back on power.
I find my struggle very real and resent the fact that it sounds bourgeois. I tell my children that we can’t go on vacation but they tell their children that there is no food, this night. I resent the fact that a country should provide basic living for its people, and anything more is considered a luxury.
It hasn’t always been like this. As a matter of fact, we can say that it has never been like this because this government managed to take an operating nation and turn it into an oil producing nation with the longest river in the world, and reward it with the dubious position at the top of the Failed State List (

[1] Personal classification that is open to dispute, because if middle class means the average, then in my country, the middle class do not have basic human needs.