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.

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*: Translation modified from first issue