Wednesday, November 26, 2008


All the UN people here in Sudan have a mandated R&R (rest and relaxation) every two months or something like that. Apparently, it's too difficult to live in Sudan without regular breaks. So that's exactly what I gave myself recently - a long weekend in neighbouring Kenya!
Let me tell you, arriving in the capital Nairobi was like seeing a whole new world. I felt like I was in Europe - paved roads, public parks, fancy cars, skyscrapers, EVERYONE in suits. I felt underdressed in jeans. When I saw a man biking in a suit, it was as if I was in Amsterdam. Honestly, I could have been in downtown Toronto - except that everyone was black and spoke English with a beautiful Kenyan accent. Even the construction workers on the side of the road wore bright orange fluorescent vests, instead of the usual - bare feet and dirty sleeveless shirts. I have never seen a place in Africa quite like this (I imagine South Africa is even more incredible). For people who have been around a while, this is totally normal, but for me, Nairobi was a shock.

In any case, it was interesting being in a new country. They drive on the left side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. It's been a while since I've had to make an effort to speak the local language, Swahili - "Jambo" = Hello! "Habareeyako?" = How are you? But of course, everyone speaks English, so it wasn't much of a problem. In fact, Swahili has a lot in common with Arabic - 600 for example is "meya sita", police officer is 'askary'. About one third of the population here in Muslim, from what I'm told.

Speaking of police, while in a taxi, I saw a bunch of police officers running down the street with sticks in their hands. "Hookers," the taxi driver said. haha. It's a weird place. The headline of the one of the newspapers read: "This mum watched her son starve to death." Weird. As developed as Kenya is, it's still Africa. And inter-tribal violence that killed hundreds after the elections here in January was a reminder of that.

After Nairobi, I headed to Lamu, a small town on Kenya's northeastern coast, for a nice relaxing day on the beach. First time I see a beach town with both tourists in bikinis and locals in niqab (full face and hair covering). Many Muslim traders settled on Kenya's coast, so the people are a mix of Arab and African in both ethnicity and religion. Anyways, it was a great few days. I can see why so many foreigners like living in Kenya. It's got all the beauty of Africa without a lot of the difficulties. Maybe I've just been in Sudan too long!

Monday, November 17, 2008

My First Sudanese Wedding

I told you guys about being in the village up north and participating in wedding preparations which lasted days and days. So when a guy I knew from the local internet place (I go there to print and scan stuff) invited me to his sister's wedding, I was eager to see what the final product looked like.

It wasn't what I was expecting. In fact, except for the food - a plastic plate with fried fish, french fries and felafel - and the snapping of the fingers while waiving your hand in the air - the Sudanese symbol for celebration - it was extremely similar to every North American wedding I've been to. "This is Khartoum, not the village," I was reminded by one of the guys after expressing my surprise at how Western the wedding was.
The bride wore a glamorous white dress with lots of cleavage, all the men wore suits, the hall was huge and fancy, and the cake was layers high. There was a small zafa at the beginning (when the bridge and groom enter, accompanied by family and music) - nothing like Egyptian zafas though - and then the bride and groom were seated. People came endlessly to shake their hands. Dinner was served, while a live singer sang, and people danced. The men danced with so much life ... they did the chicken, they shook their shoulders, it was really fun. Then they threw me in the middle and said "Dance Egyptian style!" which I did for about 5 seconds before resuming my role behind the camera. Within two hours, the whole thing was over. No speeches, no belly dancers, and no dancing til all hours of the night (I think there's a rule in Sudan that parties can't last past 11pm)

I am told weddings weren't always like this though. In the olden days, the bride and groom wore traditional Sudanese clothes (galabia, etc) and to the backdrop of traditional Sudanese music, the woman would spit milk into the man's face - a good omen for the future. The ceremony is called the Jertuk, and is still done these days, in addition to the more modern wedding, but it didn't happen at this wedding, unfortunately.

Anyways, it was a great night. And it reminded me of how, in Senegal, I used to meet people in the most random places - internet cafes and hair salons - who went on to become great friends who enriched my cultural experience so much. Until now, I haven't really had that here, so hopefully these guys will introduce me to new sides of Sudan!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Settling down

Life in Sudan is finally becoming somewhat stable. I've got a regular job, I'm playing soccer a few times a week, I feel like I've got a routine, and it feels nice to have some kind of stability after all the chaos. I wish I had more to report, but when your life revolves around your laptop and telephone, it's not really stimulating travel writing.

The biggest news recently was the killing of five Chinese oil workers in central Sudan. The government says it was Darfurian rebels. They deny it. But of course, it highlights the dangers of China's increasing role in Africa, and how China might get caught up in some internal Sudanese issues because of it. The rebels accuse China of indirectly supporting the government's actions in Darfur because China is the biggest investor in Sudan's oil industry (which funds the Sudanese government more than anything else) and because it is also one of Sudan's most important arms suppliers.

Otherwise, the government has come up with a new initiative for finding peace in Darfur, which many people say is just another attempt to convince the international community that it is taking great strides towards peace in Darfur - in order to defer an imminent International Criminal Court arrest warrant against the president for genocide.

The last thing I've been looking at lately is the impact of US elections on Sudan. It's interesting. As one analyst put it, "In its mind, the government thinks McCain will be better for Sudan because Democrats have historically been more antagonist towards the ruling party here and Obama has threatened a tougher stance on Darfur. But in their hearts, many politicians, like the rest of the Sudanese people, have been swept up by Obama's magic." Some Sudanese say Obama gives them hope that the underdog can rise to the top. It's amazing to what extent sharing the colour of someone's skin can make you relate to them.

I'm heading back to Canada in a month - almost looking forward to the snow actually, bizarre as that is. It's going to be a fun trip home, I think. I'll be visiting Mom in Vancouver and seeing many friends i haven't seen in one or two years.

So there you have it. Heba's life in Sudan is becoming boring. Except, that is, for a funny incident i had on Saturday. I went to meet a professor for an interview at the University of Khartoum, wearing black pants, a loose, long-sleeved shirt and a scarf around my head, as I always wear when I go out here. I was entering the university, someone stopped me and said, "You're not allowed in." Why? I asked. He pointed to the pants. "El Bantalone"... Little did I know that the university is run by the Muslim Brotherhood. Women must wear skirts to enter ... ha!

Monday, October 27, 2008

"The number you are calling...

I started working for Bloomberg News last week - it's an American financial news wire service, kind of like Reuters or Associated Press. And what do my days consist of?

Sitting in front of my computer with my phone to my ear calling number after number, trying desperately to get a hold of ANYONE to follow up on breaking news stories.

And what do I hear?

"The network is busy"
"This number is out of service"
"Please try again later"

Example. Minister of Presidential Affairs for Southern Sudan has FIVE different phone numbers (you have to have phones from different networks, so that when one goes down you can use the other). I have two different phones. I called each of his five phone numbers with each of my two phones.. nothing. Imagine spending your whole day like this... every day.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008


A few of you have asked, 'So what's really happening in Darfur?' and I'm sorry I haven't been more enlightening on this blog. There are some reasons for that, including the fact that I'm not sure just how much I should say. I had a run-in with Sudanese National Security in Darfur - let's call it part of the harassment many international people here undergo. They went through all my things, deleted my digital pictures, copied files from my laptop, body searched me, etc. It was an unpleasant experience, to say the least. One diplomat put it this way: "We are challenging the Sudanese government just by being here. So they turn around, and when they can flex a muscle, they do."

But in terms of Darfur, I will say that it is unclear what is happening. It is impossible to say anything with any certainty. Rebels are constantly changing alliances, armed attacks take place by unidentifiable assailants, even regular people have been politicized and it's hard to know when to trust what they say.

But here is the best analysis I could come up with: Might as well read it from the source.

You can listen to another recent story I did, on a separate subject, that of Arabs in the far north of Sudan here.

Otherwise, things are going well in Sudan. The last few days had been a bit rough, but things are getting better now.

Me and Stephane (my roommate)'s biggest struggle right now has been getting our money back after a man on the street gave us a fridge that didn't work. This comes in fourth on my worst experiences in Sudan (after being robbed, the visa sagas, and being harrassed by National Security). We have been fighting with him for 3 weeks to either fix the thing or give us our money back. But he is totally a "con" as we say in French, and just blowing us off. It's such a frustrating feeling screaming at someone who just doesn't give a damn. Going to the police is likely a waste of time, and now we have resorted to accepting assistance from the butcher across the street who offered to have his friend fix the fridge because he pittied us - we'll see if he's playing us too. Stupid Heba still hasn't learned not to hand over cash unless she gets something in her hand to show for it.

In other news, a good friend of mine from Canada is moving to Khartoum to work for the UN. I only met her for 2 days during a training session in Canada, (She was part of the group of Canadians selected for the CANADEM program which sent me to Senegal last year, and her to Kenya), but I felt we really connected. So I'm pretty excited for a new friend in this lonely place. I think she will move into our house too!

And in soccer yesterday, I scored a goal with my head off of a corner kick. It was beautiful and it blew all those old men (who can't comprehend that a woman can play soccer) away. Apparently female soccer is much less common outside of America. Even the Europeans are astounded by the fact that I know how to make a pass.

Anyways, I'll leave you with some pics. The Darfurian town of Tawila from the air; me eating something like sugarcane at a camp for displaced people in North Darfur; UN peacekeepers in Darfur (one was killed on Monday in an ambush by unknown attackers); and finally, just to show it is not all misery in Darfur, people at a camp for displaced people celebrating Eid. They gather in small circles clapping and singing while one person in the middle jumps up and down. A tradition of the Zaghawa tribe, from what I'm told.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A funny way to celebrate

On Sunday, I arrived in a small town/village called Tawila, a short helicopter flight from the capital of North Darfur. It's been extremely interesting being here, talking to people who say the government continues to harrass them and almost weekly, there is some kind of incident, even in the camps that are supposed to be refuge for the displaced - anything from looting to rape to killing. In the past few weeks, there has been renewed fighting in North Darfur between rebels and government troops. One of those areas is about an hour and some's drive from Tawila. On my way to the town, from the helicopter, I could see a convoy of landcruisers driving through the desert. When we arrived, helicopters gunships were flying over the town. People were a little tense that something was going to happen, but it never did.

Today, I was in the shower, when I heard a noise. I couldn't quite tell what it was. At first I thought maybe an animal on the roof. Then I thought a knock at the door. But when it persisted, it sounded more and more like gunfire. Of course, the first outbreak of gunfire and I'm in the shower. Shit. I scrambled to get out of there, ran into my room, grabbed my recorder and ran outside with my hair still dripping in time to get the next round of shooting on tape. It was far away, and I couldn't see anything, but I could hear it loud and clear. Bam. bam. bam. It kept going and going. I looked around me, and the guards at the UN base were very calm. The peacekeeper looked my way, waved, and walked back to his post. No one was scrambling. I assumed fighting had resumed in some far away mountain. I waited for the peacekeepers to start loading up the trucks and get out there. No one moved. The shooting kept going and going, and I thought, this place is going to explode! I tried to ask one of the peacekeepers what was happening. He didn't speak English. I found one who did and he said very calmy, "This is how they announce the end of Ramadan." Yes. Very logical. In a country of war, that is so very appropriate. "Instead of fireworks, they use live ammunition," one UN police officer joked. A funny way to celebrate.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A war in disguise?

So here I am in Darfur, and surprise, surprise, it doesn't quite feel like a war zone. In fact, I quite like it here (El Fasher, capital of North Darfur State). The atmosphere is much nicer than in Khartoum - feels more like a town, and has a lot of life. The market is bustling, the people are friendly, it's much more developed than I expected (paved roads, taxis, etc - although I hear this is all quite new). At night, they sit around the market smoking shisha under small lights. Music blares from different shops. Apart from the heavy military presence (nobody thinks twice when a truck pulls up at the gas station with a machine gun attached to the back, or when a plain-clothed civilian stops by the corner shop with a Kalashnikov in his hand), you would barely realize that this is a region classified as one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. (This pic is from a site for people displaced by the fighting. Even the displaced have a very dynamic marketplace, a club for watching TV and movies, a taxi stand).
Of course, I've been here only two days. These are the words of a naive girl who has not been out in the bushes where the fighting takes place and who has not been around long enough to see the near-daily hijackings of UN vehicles.

But just to say that this place - Sudan - is not a simple place to understand. Nothing is black and white. And nothing is as clear as it seems.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Inevitable

So... I'm going to Darfur. Tomorrow.

It's impossible to try to cover this country without knowing and seeing for yourself what Darfur is all about. From Khartoum, it's really impossible to know. For the past two weeks, rebels have said that areas under their control were bombed and attacked by the govt. When you ask the government, it says, 'we're not attacking rebels. We're just clearing the roads of bandits so that humanitarian workers can have better access.' Of course, no one believes that, but how can anyone be sure what is happening?
Even going there won't give that many answers. It's hard to get access to any of the areas where fighting actually takes place, as they are all far from the state capitals and you need permission to travel to them (which the govt does not give easily).
I'm more nervous than I thought I would be, because so little is prepared, so few interviews are lined up, etc. etc. But this seems to be the way I function here, unfortunately - unorganized.
I should be sleeping now, but as usual, my body is doing that "I'm nervous, so I won't let you sleep thing". So I've turned on some "Entourage" TV shows that Osama put onto my computer in Egypt. Hopefully the expensive cars and famous actors will bore me to sleep...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Understanding the system

So... I'm back in Khartoum, and trying to set myself up to become a daily news "stringer" or correspondent. This is much more intimidating than it sounds.

The news here is basically driven by Reuters news wire. The Reuters correspondent is a British woman who has been here 5 years, speaks fluent Arabic and has married a Sudanese man. She, understandably, has great contacts and is always the first to know everything. All the Darfurian rebels call her when something happens. Most other news agencies have to try to catch up after she's published something. Imagine coming into an environment like this. How should I know when a village has been bombed thousands of kilometres away or when the army makes an offensive or when a press conference is taking place or when a statement has been released? As you can imagine, I was/am a bit terrified of not being able to keep up.

But slowly, I'm starting to understand the system. Or trying to, at least.

Luckily, my life has been made much easier with my new Egyptian passport. (Yes, that's right, I now have an Egyptian passport!). It means I can enter Sudan without a visa (which I did successfully) and remain in the country as long as I want. (which means I never have to deal with the visa office again - WOO HOOO!!!! ) I do however need a work permit, which I have applied for. With that, I will be placed on the official list of reporters, who are informed of press conferences by the government's foreign journalists department.

The next job is to introduce myself to all the important people - the spokesman of the army, the spokesman of the foreign ministry, etc. etc. Then, they add me to their mailing lists and I call them daily to check if anything is happening. I have to start getting a hold of phone numbers for all the main rebel groups. This is just an administrative job basically. Calling one person to another until I get the right phone number. I was asking one journalist about how he had gotten contact information for them all (there are many different factions, each with its own leader, etc. etc.) He had worked in Eritrea for some time, where apparently maybe of the rebels were based at the time. "Oh, they used to be my drinking buddies," he told me casually. Wow.

The other foreign journalists here, once you've broken them in, are also quite co-operative. They check with each other that they haven't missed anything, often travel to press conferences together, and know each other well.

Then there's reading all the local newspapers, reading all the United Nations media briefings, reading all the articles everyone else is writing, the list goes on and on! There's this constant fear of missing something, of not knowing that something is happening, of not having the contacts to follow up on something, etc. etc. It's totally scary I'm telling you. In the end, everyone's work ends up on the internet so it is very transparent. Eveyone sees what you produce and can easily compare it to what the others produce.

So anyways, I'm working on building those contacts now. Once you get in the groove, I'm sure it all becomes much less intimidating. But then there's the issue of resources.

All the rebels, out in the bush in Darfur, have satellite phones. It's the only way of reaching them when they're in the middle of nowhere. It costs a fortune to call satellite phones. The journalists who are on staff for some of the big agencies have all their expenses paid. They have offices with satellite TV, phones, printers, a guy who delivers the newspaper, etc. Then there's Heba, living off a shoe-string budget in an old house without a generator... ie. when the power goes out, I sit in the heat and pitch black, unable to do anything except possibly read a book with the light from my cell phone, until the power comes back.

All this to say that I have quite a challenge ahead of me. It's exciting in some sense. And I hope in six months to be able to tell you that I've made it ... Although Stephane my roommate says it took him 18 months to really get in the groove and feel comfortable. Good heavens.

Here's a pic of Stephane in the front porch/garden of our home with the cleaning/guard staff. Back to work!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ramadan in Egypt

Since I was young, my mother used to tell me and my siblings stories about young children carrying lanterns and singing in the streets during Ramadan. That's what I had in mind as I prepared to spend my first Ramadan in Eygpt, on break from life in Sudan. It wasn't exactly what I got, but close enough. The biggest change in Cairo during Ramadan is that the traffic lets up a bit in the morning, as people are sleeping in. Go out around 9:30am and you'll see empty roads like you've never seen before in one of the world's busiest cities. Of course, the downfall is that around 9:30pm, after everyone has eaten and rested, the streets are packed with people going out. Malls are open until12:30 or 1:00am, and most people, even those who work, don't go to bed until 2 or 3 am. I saw Ramadan through the eyes of young people my age, who have a shortened work day (say 10-3), come home and sleep for three hours, and wake up in time for 'fitar' (meal that breaks the fast) at 6pm. The rest of the night unfolds as usual, except that many go out again, especially on weekends, at 12:00 or 1:00 am for 'suhur', the meal you eat in the early morning. I am used to just waking up before the sun rises, eating some beans and eggs, drinking a glass of water, praying and going back to bed. But here, suhur is a big extravaganza. Restaurants set up special decorations and tents for young people who flock there to "chill through Ramadan" as the sign says. While there might be more happening at night, the days are usually dead. Stores open later than usual in the morning and close early before fitar, and most people are busy preparing dinner or sleeping. I also saw Ramadan through the eyes of mothers of families, and let me tell you, it is a stress. They spend days preparing beforehand, planning out meals and ensuring that everything that the kids want will be present (sweet, cold drinks, etc.) The meals are always huge. If I lost weight during Ramadan in Senegal, I have gained it here. I have never had stomach pains for so many consecutive nights due to over-eating on an empty stomach. But damn, it was delicious.

But that's not to say there is nothing traditional about Ramadan here. Some people do hang lanterns and fabric with special Islamic patterns, especially outside stores and restaurants. And apparently in some of the more "sha'abaya' (ie. poorer) neighboorhoods, the celebrations are much more old-school, with children singing, etc. Unfortunately, I didn't get to check that out. But Ameera (my sis came from Canada to meet me in Egypt), Amr (my cousin) and I ran into a 'saharati' - the old men who walk around neighbourhoods at night with a drum calling people to wake up for suhur. He taps the drum and calls out the names of people in different houses. "Amr! Tim!" he called as he passed my family's apartment. Tim was a German exchange student living in Amr's house about a decade ago. But the old man still calls his name everyday during Ramadan. This one took his job very seriously. He said he had been on TV and in the newspaper. We chatted for a while, then we had to let him go. He had many more houses ahead of him. (Notice all the shopping bags on Ameera's arm - she went a little crazy!)

Of course, the best thing about Ramadan is the sweets after every meal... uh, i mean, the extra time spent with friends and family. (But seriously, desert is considered a necessity because of the lack of sugar consumed during the day, and there is aways plenty from balah-al-sham to baclava to kunafa...) So I'll leave you guys with a bunch of pics: Me and Ameera with the Bahgat sisters; Khan-al-Khalili (a well-known place with windy roads and shops selling everything from papyrus paper to jewellery to belly-dancing outfits); Me and Mimi with freshly coiffeured hair ($4 each); Mohamed, Jassy, Amr, Ameera and Me having suhur at Sequoya Restaurant.
Ramadan Karim!

Friday, August 29, 2008

A breath of fresh air

I finally got my exit visa (two days before travel time), hopped on a 2.5 hour flight and arrived in Cairo for a short vacation. Oh how wonderful it feels. It's only been two months in Sudan, but I feel starved for affection from people I know well and love. After a while, being among strangers or people you're just not totally comfortable with gets old. It's great to be in my family's home, among my dear cousins, where I can just relax and be taken care of. Eating in big groups, laughing, telling stories of past memories, blasting favourite tunes in the car - I only now realized how rarely I have had lately. I never knew how much I needed this vacation until I got here.

The first day of Ramadan went smoothly. It was actually extremely easy. I am trying to practice the habits I picked up in Senegal, but obviously the challenges are huge. We used to eat such at moderate amount at night, and I lost so much weight. But here, it is almost impossible to be moderate. I will try my best.

My uncle (who used to very high up in the Egyptian army before retiring) took me to start the process of obtaining an Egyptian passport. Get this, Egyptians can stay in Sudan indefinitely. ie. I WOULD NEVER HAVE TO DEAL WITH THE HORRIBLE VISA OFFICE AGAIN! There are many steps to getting an Egyptian passport, and I wasn't sure I would be able to get one in the two weeks I am here. But my uncle is a magician. In two and a half hours today, we got almost everything done! Because of his status in the army, my uncle can walk past lines, people open doors for him, and we get things done so fast! After the hell of administration in Sudan, I couldn't believe how smooth and easy it was. While getting my Egyptian identity card, there was a guy arguing with the staff. He thought he had what he needed; they insisted he didn't. I really felt for him...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Come back tomorrow

I wish I had blogged more in the moments that I felt truly lucky to be here – and there have been many! – in order to balance out what I’m about to say.

Sometimes I really hate being in this country.

Never once, in six months in Senegal did I experience what I have experienced 4 times in less than a month here – men trying to touch me inappropriately on the bus or in a taxi. It’s so disgusting and so shameful and I don’t know they can bow down and pray to Allah after they try to harass a woman wearing a headscarf who is repeatedly pushing their hand away. I am ashamed that they are Muslims. And now every time a guy so much as looks at me in a sleezy way on the street – and it happens more often than you would think in this “conservative” society – I feel the urge to punch him.

Possibly even more frustrating than the sexual harassment, though, is what I have termed bureaucratic harassment. A two-week trip to Egypt should have been a relaxing thing to look forward to. But organizing a way out of this blasted country has become an absolute nightmare. I have spent the last four business days – FOUR FULL DAYS – trying to get an exit visa. Yes, you need a visa to LEAVE the country. What a whack a concept to begin with. But fine. But for me to waste four days – standing for hours in lines and having people shuffle me around from place to place, talk to me with words I don’t understand – and still have no documentation to leave the country has left me so frustrated I simply cry as I’m walking down the street. I can’t control it. After the first three days of this bullshit, I ranted to my father about it. “There are no rules, no systems… you show up with everything they told you you would need and then they say, ‘no, but you need this too’.” He said, “Heba, if everything worked properly, if it was developed and organized, you would have no work there.” Excellent point. I tried to remind myself of that as I was standing in the crowded office today and the woman told me “You need a photocopy of your witness’ ID card.” This of course meant that I would have to take the 45-minute bus ride back downtown, photocopy the card, and come back again. But I smiled, reminded myself of my father’s wise words, thanked her and went about my business.

But tolerance has a limit. And I surpassed mine long, long ago. I came back with the photocopy. While she looked through the papers, I prayed silently for her to pick up the stamp and approve it. Please, let there be nothing else wrong, I kept wishing, like a desperate child. When she finally stamped the thing, I thought: My father was right. I just needed a little patience. But then I was quickly reminded of why patience just isn’t enough. From there, I had to go to the security window. From the security window to the payment window. Of course, they never really tell you where the payment or security window is, so you spend a good ten minutes going from line to line until you find the right one. From the payment window to some 4th floor place where the women laughed because I was in the wrong place. Well maybe if anyone bothered to properly explain to me what the hell to do and where the hell to go, I wouldn’t be here! From there back to the payment counter. We’re nearing the end! This is the second-last step! Then the bombshell: “360 pounds please”. WHAT? 180 dollars just to leave the country? Are you kidding me? Not only was the amount outrageous, I didn’t have the money with me. If that, that’s about all the money I have left right now, after borrowing some from a friend. I turned and walked out of there, tears streaming down my face once more, before she had the chance to say the famous line I have heard so many times, “Come back tomorrow.”

Friday, August 22, 2008

Latest Article

You've all been asking about what I'm writing/producing. Here are the latest to be published/broadcast:

Sudanese: What Arab-African Rift?

Ottawan in Sudan - Scroll down to Aug. 18th

The Pulitzer Center has the full list on its website, although not updated with the two I've just listed.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A place to call my own.... finally!

After two months of living out of a bag, moving from hotel to hotel, sleeping in people's places while they're on vacation, flying or driving from city to city carrying with me everything I own here, I finally have my own place! And it feels goooood. I unpacked my bags, HUNG MY CLOTHES ON HANGERS (this is a big deal), put my facewash in my own bathroom, and bought groceries! It's a great place with its own garden and front porch, as well as a verranda that connects to the upstairs bedrooms. It's an old house, but very open and cool (weather-wise) and makes me feel that I am living in some kind of storybook place where the birds chirp and life is pleasant. (I'm not sure if this makes any sense. It's been a long day and my brain isn't functionning at 100%). I'm sharing the place with a French journalist, and we're looking for a couple of other roommates (it's a big house with 4 rooms). So that was a big step forward in committing myself to Sudan for at least a while!

I also got my temporary passport, finally. Although now I get to enjoy the hurdles of getting a visa in this new passport. I cannot express to you how much I hate Sudanese immigration bureaucracy. Every time I enter those offices, without fail, I come out on the verge of tears in sheer frustration.

But otherwise, all is well. I'm off to Egypt next week for a bit of a break, then back to the big-S!

I will update with pictures when my darling sister brings me a suitcase of things I requested from Canada when she meets me in Egypt. Other than a new digital camera to replace the stolen, I have requested Extra Gum (this is the only food-related thing I can't do without! The brands here are all fake and last about 1 second), running shoes (I didn't think I would need them in one month and a half - who can exercise in this heat, I told myself!... but I after all the food I've been eating here, I definately do!), portable hard drive (I am terrified that something is going to happen to my laptop and I will have no back up), hair gel (I tried what they sell here... oh what an Afro that was!) and other random things. God Bless my family for their patience! Every day I send a new email saying "oh, and can you send this with Ameera too!"

Ok, perhaps I should actually get some work done now... This whole freelance thing requires a level of discipline and productivity that I just don't seem to have these days.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Third World Journalism

I spoke in Senegal about the difficulty of journalism in that part of the world - heavy African accents, translation, difficult phone lines - and that was when I was working with a UN office. Here, mostly on my own, I have experienced a whole set of other difficulties. To replicate a sound-proof booth in which I would record my voice narration for a radio script in Canada, I turned off my fan in my room in Khartoum, sat between a folded mattress and threw a sheet over my head. As I sat there sweating in the heat, trying to record my voice in silence, the maids would start chatting outside my thin walls, or the adhan would come on. So you wait, until you get some form of quiet, and try again. It's really quite entertaining.

What else is different about work here? Well in Juba, my main form of transport was the back of a motorcycle, through bumpy, muddy streets that are sometimes impassable, although the drivers always try. To save on gas, they turn the engine off and just coast if they are going down hill and then turn it back on as they start to lose momentum.

In southern Sudan, access to very important politicians is quite easy. It's a new, semi-autonomous government, built from scratch in 2005 after a peace deal with the northern government they had been fighting for two decades. One day, I stopped by the office for press relations for the Vice President to try to schedule an interview. I found a Canadian Sudanese working there, who immediately liked me because I was Canadian, and tried to get me a spot with the Big Man. All of a sudden, I found myself in the Vice President's office - and he goes, "You want to do it right now? I'm free." It was as easy as that!

The hardest part about working in a post-conflict society, I would say, is winning people's trust. As a North-American and as an Arab, people are skeptical of me. Right across the country, people resent the West as they see its interference as the root of problems in Sudan. In the south, people are suspicious of Arabs, who dominate the northern government and with whom they have had many problems historically. When you start asking a lot of questions, they wonder if you are a spy working for the government. In many cases, in the areas where there is a big humanitarian presence, people have already been asked questions by NGOs, the UN, etc. and don't want to do it all over again. So when little old Heba shows up and sticks a microphone in someone's face, they are often not keen to participate! ... That being said, once you spend the time, win the trust and convince them of your purpose, they usually come around. I often get the reaction, "You came all the way from Canada? Why did you leave your wonderful country to come to this?" When they realize I am trying to help spread the word about their living conditions, they are quite cooperative.

I did however find myself in a bit of a bind recently, when I talked to some members of the Dinka tribe along the border with Uganda. There have been problems in that area over land. During the war, people fled to Uganda as refugees leaving their land empty. Then, as the fighting progressed to other parts of the country, Sudanese living further north fled their homes and settled in this empty land along the border. Now, when the refugees come home, they find people on their land, and this understandably, has led to come tension. So I tried to raise this issue with the chiefs of the Dinka community, who were among those who settled on the land. They were quite defensive, and within minutes, I found myself surrounded by big tall men screaming at me. "You come from the West and try to create divisions among us!" Needless to say, I got out of there as fast as I could!

But then I had to stop and think about whether he was right. I told myself, as I told him, that my goal was not to divide, but to find the truth in order to help come to some kind of resolution. But regardless of my goal, is division not the result?

If you think back historically, many of the problems in Darfur have their roots in the British style of rule - control in the center and some form of self-rule, which resulted in neglect, in the peripheries. Some trace the origins of problems between north and south to British rule as well. One govt consultant blamed all of Sudan's problems on the US sanctions, which forced Sudan into an untenable financial situation, isolated from the world economically. As a result, he told me, the govt had no money to invest in its country, and people took up arms, tearing the country apart. "For the West to come back now and say the government has neglected its people... it's bullshit." Of course now, with countries coming in to reap the benefits of the booming oil industry, you can understand why many people say, as one taxi driver told me recently, "Sudan would be perfectly fine if all these people got the hell out of our country!"

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tired of Goodbye

If there are two things I don't like about this lifestyle, they are being far from friends and family, and constantly saying goodbye. I just spent two and a half weeks in Juba, capital of southern Sudan, where I unexpectedly had a truly amazing time. Wayne and his group of friends were just such a welcome change from the isolation of Khartoum, and being there felt like being back at camp where you hang out with the same people everyday and get to know each other very quickly. When I flew back to Khartoum today, I felt like I had just popped out of an alternate reality - one full of Filipino Kareoke parties, campfire under the stars, dancing to loud music and a close-knit group of great people.

But of course, it all comes to an end so quickly. And the goodbyes become exhausting. When I look back on all the great and interesting people I have met - and never seen again - in the last four years, it makes me sad. I know it shouldn't. Yes, yes. You learn something from everyone you meet. They play their role in your life and then move on. And it's a small world - you never know where you might re-encounter an old friend. But sometimes I just feel that I am never moving forward. I invest in these friendships and then lose them. So instead of having a foundation with someone and building on it, you are constantly cracking the foundation and starting over. It's all short-lived and temporary and that is so unsatisfactory sometimes.

That being said, I have great memories (and plenty of pictures) to looks back on. Above is Charita, a Filipino police officer who is part of the UN Mission in Sudan, and I climbing a mountain just outside of Juba town. To the left is Wayne, the RCMP officer who I have come to know more than I ever anticipated, and I singing kareoke - can't you see the sadness in my eyes!

On another note, this experience has been eye-opening on another level. I have plenty to say about the UN and its employees after this "embedded" experience at the UN compound in southern Sudan. I can't reveal such information here to "protect the innocent", as Wayne and Mark put it, but ask me about it later and I'll give you my two cents!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Staying in Sudan

I just realized that today is August 2nd, the day I was supposed to fly home. So I should probably mention that I've decided to stay in Sudan longer than expected (Yes, I know, you all saw this coming).

I have been putting off picking a place in Africa and settling down as a foreign correspondent for a while now, mostly out of fear. So it's about time I face that fear and just do it! I am here now, there is no point in coming home and then coming back again when I am "ready". So I am going to give it a go!

Sudan is the perfect country for me. I speak Arabic, there are TONS of stories, it is close to Egypt, and it is an important part of the world right now, and an important time in Sudan's history. I have already started making contacts and so on here, so I think there's no time like the present to build on that.

For now, I've changed my ticket to December, when I will come back to Canada for a visit and then possibly return to Sudan afterwards. Of course, these decisions are never easy - and I hate being away from all the people I care about. I struggle with the consequences of this lifestyle all the time, but I think that the temporary sacrifices are worth the gain. But do not think for a minute - even when I stay out of touch for way longer than I should - that I do not think about you or miss you every day!

I will try to do a better job of keeping you updated from now on - it's not always easy, due to lack of access, constant travel, immersion in life here and simply exhaustion from too much work. But I'll do my best! Love always, Heba

In Flight!

I rode on my first UN chopper this week, as I travelled from Juba, capital of southern Sudan to a town further north called Bor. In the rainy season (ie. now), many of the roads in southern Sudan are untravelable because they get all flooded and muddy. So in many cases, the only way to get around is by plane.

The ride was pretty amazing actually. You have to wear earphones to mute the sound of the helicopter's wings. Once in flight, they open the small circular windows and the fresh air just flows through. Southern Sudan is totally green, so from the plane, all you see is trees, sometimes a cattle-herder or two, a couple toucols (homes made of mud and straws). It was really beautiful.

I spent a couple days in Bor, talking to people about the insecurity there. Sudan is just so complex. Even though the war between north and south Sudan is over (separate from the Darfur issue of course), unrelated tribal fighting continues to make southern Sudan unstable. Different tribes raid each other's cattle, abduct children and even burn villages - in some cases it is a sign of manhood to kill someone, in some cases they steal the cows to offer them as dowry for marriage. Anyways, so people who were displaced during the war have finally returned home in this time of peace, only to be displaced again in some cases.

When I told people in Juba I was going to Bor, everyone made that "Oh, Bor" face as if it was the worst place to visit on the face of the planet. But in fact, it was quite nice. Like many other parts of southern Sudan, it is in total reconstruction - new roads going up every day. Still, though, you can't go an hour without having to stop the car because cattle have filled the road. And the facilties are still limited. Only the market and the government offices have electricity, and even the UN staff get their water from a borehole run by a hand-pump. Here I am pumping away, with an Argentinian UN peacekeeper behind me. More and more here, I have been impressed with the internationalism of this place. The different natioanlities really do work together in a beautiful way. In one office , you can find someone from Holland, Canada, Guinea, Nigeria, India... and they find ways to joke and relate to each other.

I'm back in Juba now, just in time for party weekend. There's a party tonight so big that people have flown in from Khartoum for the occasion (which speaks to the desperation of the social scene in Khartoum). Here's a pic from a few of us out for dinner the other day. Ralph from Britain, Charita from the Philippines, me, and Mark from Australia. The pizza was good, but took about an hour to arrive, and when it did, it was the wrong toppings of course. That's Africa for you.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A new day has come!

Things are looking up! It had been a long few days. Every night, I'd think 'It will be better in the morning', but I would wake up unmotivated and the day would go by frustratingly. It felt like I was in a slump I just couldn't get out of - I wasnt writing. I wasn't doing anything really. The day before I left for southern Sudan, something changed. I woke up happy and actually accomplished a most impossible mission. I had bought a phone to replace my dysfunctional one, from a random stall at the market. I got no receipt for it, went home and found out it doesn't charge. So I figured I'd go back and get it repalced. I took the bus to the "stade" as I had time before, but it dropped me off at a different end. If you can imagine, hundreds of busses parked in every which direction and a huge market. I had no idea where to go. So the fact that somehow, I was able to find my way back to the store was, in and of itself, remarkable. That I was able to find the same guy and that he gave me a new phone was even more so - and a sign for me that things were about to change for the better. Then I went home and wrote two articles.

I am writing this first part of this posting in my notebook on board the plane to Juba, capital of southern Sudan, and it feels so good to be out of Khartoum. Not that I don't like it there, but I needed a change and I wanted to do more reporting on the ground. Plus, southern Sudan is considered much more "African" than the Arab north, so it should be a different experience. Some people have express concern about me going - as an Arab - to a place that was at war with the Arab government for two decades. Southerners were taken as slaves, their villages burned, their women raped and men killed. A peace deal was signed in 2005, but tension remains between the north and the south, especially along the border. But if I get into any trouble, I'll just pretend I'm a Latina! Besides, I met the ambassador to the Arab League in the waiting room at the airport and he's Egyptian too! So I've got someone in power on my side!

So here is Juba! It's VERY different than Khartoum. Much greener, cooler, much less developed of course, although it is a booming economy with construction of new homes, hotels, buildings at every corner. Since the end of the war, people have been returning at an incredible pace. People here all have their own local dialects (Dinka, Nuer, etc), but Arabic is the common language between them, although it is native to none of them. They also speak English, although Arabic is more common.

I am staying at the UN base here. And is has been quite the experience. These are the "containers" that people work and live in. Rows and rows of them. Two days later, I still get lost everytime I have to go from one to another. Wayne has been an INCREDIBLE host, and there is such a nice group of guys here that I feel right at home. It's quite different than Khartoum, where the international community is quite clicky. It feels like being at camp actually - showering in common outdoor bathrooms, eating at the cafeteria, having a group of buddies that you hang out with regularly. Everyone complains about the social scene in khartoum, but here it definately isn't lacking and there are plenty of nice restaurants to go to at night. In fact, as I'm typing this, the UN compound's disco is blaring through the walls.

I think that's all for now. Just be re-assured that the bad days are over (for now!)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hell in Sudan

At the risk of sounding overdramatic, these last few days have been hell, so prepare yourselves for a good rant. Everything that could go wrong has, and nothing has gone right. I can't even count the number of times I've just broken into tears in front of complete strangers - it usually helps you get what you want faster, actually.

The first step was going to the police station, then getting my old phone number back, then asking the airline if they could refund my ticket to the south (also stolen), then realizing the ticket hadn't been written on the list of stolen items on the police report, so back to the police station. Each of these trips, of course, costs time, money, and wears down on your patience as everyone wants to chat with you, ask you where you're from, what happened when the bag was stolen, etc - and you just want to finish your business and get the hell out of there. Back to the airline, they say the head of the office is at a different office - go to Street 15. I go to Street 15, they say he's at the airport. I go BACK to the airport... it goes on and on like this. The embassy was probably the worst of all. To issue me a new passport, they wanted a birth certificate and all sorts of original ID that of course, I didn't have. So my parents had to take some things to a Passport Canada office in Ottawa. I had to bus back downtown to get passport photos taken. Come back to the embassy only to have the guard tell me they're closed and won't let me in. Go back the next day. They tell me it will cost close to $300 to get the new passport. I don't have enough money with me. Add on another trip. Throughout this whole process, the phone I am using (a backup to the one that was stolen) is acting disfunctional. Today, I go buy a new one, only to get home and find that it doesn't charge itself - ie. it's broken.

Today, I realized I have been back in Khartoum for 11 days (at $50 a night I might add) and have achieved absolutely nothing. I need to accomplish something soon before my spirit is totally crushed. Today, I hired a translator to help me to through an interview I would use - they ask for so much money, and then they translate worse than I do on my own!

Ok, I think I have gotten it all out of my system. May tomorrow be a new day...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Ultimate Mistake

It is the oldest trick in the book. I should have known better... I should have, I should have...

Yesterday, me, Ben (the Cdn journalist) and Omar (a Sudanese friend) were out for dinner and decided to go to a park to hang out. I was debating going home and doing work, but eventually agreed and went along. It's this cute thing lots of Sudanese do - they just sit of patches of grass smoking sheesha and drinking tea. It's like the only social activity there is to do here at night, other than go to a restaurant. So there we were on the grass, smoking sheesha when two guys came along. One of them picked up the sheesha and started pulling it away. Some of the coal fell on the ground. Someone said maybe he was angry that a woman was smoking sheesha. Someone else said he was just drunk and causing trouble. It was all very weird and I didn't really understand what was going on. Eventually, they left the sheesha and walked away - leaving us all a bit flabergasted as to what that was all about. But we carried on. Omar went to get tea. And I saw a lady carrying popcorn and turned to my purse to get out some money.

And that's when the fun began. My purse wasn't there. For a minute, I thought it was just me being paranoid, but I looked again - and it really wasn't. Immediately, I knew I had been robbed and I jumped up to go somewhere - but didn't know where to go or what to do. We were in a dark, crowded park. The guy was already long-gone. Where do you start looking?

We started randomly running around, trying to ask people - fruitlessly. Ben thinks others must have been in on it too (on top of the two guys who distracted us with the sheesha), since someone would obivously have seen him, but nobody said anything.

I was so lost. I just started running aimlessly. My passport, lots of cash, my digital camera, my phone - everything was in that bag. It was so stupid of me on so many levels, and I knew that, and I was so angry at myself.

When I first got here, I carried my passport, some of my cash, and a mastercard in a pouch that I wore under my clothing. Some money and other credit cards were in my purse, and the rest of the money stayed at home. As time went on, I became more and more comfortable here - it is so safe and I never had any problems - that I stopped bothering to wear the pouch. I should logically have left it at home, but I had gotten in the habit of taking it with me (at first I was staying in a hotel I didn't trust, and then I was often going to places where I needed official ID). So it was thrown into the purse with everything else. It is the thing everyone always tells you - don't let your guard down. But I did.

Someone afterwards said, "there are always thieves in these parks" and I felt stupid once more for not even considering that possibility. I wasn't even watching the purse, wasn't even worried about it.

So that drop in vigilance has cost me thousands of dollars, a camera that I need for work with pictures that I can't get back, and huge amounts of time that I don't have - as I now have to apply for a new passport, go through the process of getting a visa again, which is - after the prodigy child preacher - the most excrutiating experience ever (employees who could care less send you from one window to another to another until three hours later, you're ready to kill yourself), and delay my trip to the south, which was already way behind schedule.

When Celine and I went to Spain four years ago, people kept warning us of the thieves and that it was inevitable that we would be robbed at least once - never happened. Since then, I have been to many countries where this sort of thing could happen and never once had a problem. So I guess it was bound to happen eventually.

I'm safe and people have been very kind and helpful, so I guess that's what is important. But ugghhh - how frustrating!

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Pulitzer Center

I had mentioned before that I received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for this trip. The blog is up and running now, so you can check it out here. For a description of my project, you can click here. They will also post links to all the radio broadcasts and articles I am producing from here.

Otherwise, things are going well. I never really finished telling you about the village. Here's a pic of me in the multi-purpose cloth which serves as a blanket at night-time and a full-body garb during the day. NOT easy to walk in however, although not as hot as you would imagine.

In the last post, I wrote "The Simple Life?" with a question mark, but never explained why. Mohammed always used to say living in the village is such a jihad - or struggle. "Everything is a struggle," he would say. To open the front door of the house, you have to pull on a metal wire that sticks out of a hole, until the latch loosens. To go to the bathroom, you have to use your hip to shove the door shut. To shower during the day, you have to put cold water aside at night - otherwise, it will burn your skin from sitting in the sun. Nothing is smooth and simple. I always scoffed at this "jihad" he referred to. Life wasn't so bad. They had enough to eat, they had a safe home - "Don't be so high maintenance," I would tell him.

But after a few days, I began to understand what he meant. I did no cooking or cleaning while there, and had no baby to take care of, but at the end of every day, I was dead tired. The heat in and of itself is exhausting - and there is no escape from it. But these women, who spend all day in the heat, cooking, cleaning, feeding the screaming babies - it really is a struggle. Their husbands are mostly gone off to Saudi Arabia to make the only money that keeps them surviving.

Here's the baby of the family - Dodi. While his mother is busy with chores, he sits with no underwear in the dirt, a slobbery piece of cheese in his hand, mixing with the sand on the ground and then entering his mouth. His mother has no time to do anything with him - so he just sits at home all day, unstimulated. And while she is the most patient and loving mother I have ever seen, she didn't seem to have much understanding of simple parenting concepts - stimulating the child with new places, things; letting him fall so that he learns to walk on his own, etc. Or maybe she understood but just didn't have the luxury of being able to provide it. Her husband has never even met his son, who is a year and a half old. He's been in Saudi from before he was born.

Anyways, it was really nice to get a real taste of Sudan. In the capital, I live a mostly ex-pat life that is consumed by work. There, I got to live among real people, who were kind, generous and really took me in. I was very new and foreign to many of them. I don't think a woman in the village has ever worn pants, played soccer with the boys, or used a laptop (In fact, Mohammed said a computer had never before been used in the whole village).

One day, I went to help prepare the shu'raya (noodles cooked with sugar and served for dessert) for an upcoming wedding. They were making this stuff on mass (the wedding preparation - mostly involving food - went on for something like five days before the wedding). All the women of the village get together and prepare the dough, flatten it, put it through a machine that strings it, then leave it to dry. And by this point, I am told, everyone in the village had heard about me, but some had not yet seen me. I have NEVER been stared at so blatantly as I was that day. They just sat there in groups, looking at me as if I was a weird object they just couldn't get their heads around. But by the end, of course, they each wanted to practice their few words of English with me and have their picture taken.

Anyways, it was a touching place to be, and I will miss them! (Sadly, it keeps becoming easier and easier to say goodbye to people you know you will never see again. Maybe I am becoming cold and uncaring - even more so than before!)

Tomorrow, I'm off to see the pyramids of Merawi - I wonder how they'll compare to Egypt's. Then Sunday, I'm off to southern Sudan (pray that my plane doesn't crash - there have been four plane crashes here in the last two months!).
Here is some henna someone did for me in Dongola, capital of the Northern state and the only big town within 5 hours.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Simple Life?

I just got back from two weeks in a village in northern Sudan (hence my incommunicado status), which reminded that no matter where you go or how many times you travel, you will always have find moments of awe, when something seems so new and beautiful to you.

But let me start from the beginning: the bus ride.

Wayne, an RCMP officer I know from Canada who is in Sudan working with the UN, and I had decided to visit our Canadian Sudanese friend Mohammed, who was on vacation in his natal village in northern Sudan. We arrived at a dark empty street at 3:45 am to catch the bus to the village (called Taitti). We were the first ones there and had to wait a good 20 minutes before the bus even arrived. I hadn't slept, so I was looking forward to a nap on the bus - but there would be no such thing.

"Hey, what do you think that screen is for" Wayne asked, when we got on the bus. "Showing movies?"

A reasonable assumption. But when the show began, well what can I say - I have never experienced anything so excrutiatingly painful.

It was a video of some Muslim child prodigy preacher. Seriously. A six-year-old kid at the pulpit, waving his hands dramatically in the air and screaming in the most horribly screechy voice to hundreds of congregants. This went on for a good 40 minutes. Every time there was a pause and I thought it was over, his screeching voice would resume. The only respite from this horrible, horrible soundtrack (which, ps., was blaring through the speakers) was Wayne listening to his headphones and singing to himself beside me.

After a while, it all became too funny and I couldn't hold back my laughter at the ridiculousness of this video. It must have been the lack of sleep, but when the grown men in the video began repeating "Amin" after his sentences, I just burst into laughter. Every time his voice cracked, I laughed harder. The guy in the aisle across from me started looking over, smiling. SERIOUSLY, WHO IS THIS KID? I've never seen anything like it.

Anyways, when we finally arrived, it was astounding. We were dropped off on the side of a paved road in the midst of the desert. You do a 360 degree circle and find nothing but sand. It was really incredible. From there, we took a truck through the bumpy paths through the desert to the village.

Taitti is made up of about 3,000 people, whose homes are made of mud, but quite nice looking (painted white and blue) and quite spacious, with tons of different rooms and beds everywhere! They use beds as chairs, as seats for guests and parties, and of course, for sleeping.

It was really different being here than arriving to villages in Chad. While the Chadian villages were much poorer, there was an obvious UN presence and thus less feeling of isolation. Here, I truly felt far from the world. People here have no TVs, no radios, no newspapers. I had to walk to a specific spot down by the mosque to get cell phone reception.

They have no electricity - meaning no fans, no computers, no fridges... All food is cooked on the day of, fruits and fridge-requiring foods are rare, and the place is just SO quiet. If you sit there on an afternoon, all you hear are the roosters crowing, and the flies buzzing. It's really amazing, the silence of the place.

The people drink the brown, cloudy water from the Nile. I drank it too. It tastes good actually, and never made me sick - although I tried not to drink too much of it every day. Some families, like Mohammed's, have dug their own wells and built tanks to bring well-water into their

homes - not for drinking, but for washing/cleaning/cooking. This water is burning hot during the day because it sits in the sun-soaked pipes all day. The water from the nile is kept in clay pots to keep it cool. Along main roads or near mosques you will find these pots for passersby to get water if thirsty.

At night, we carried the beds out into the open-air centres of the homes, and slept under the stars.

I'd love to write more (for a better description, check out Wayne's blog at:, but I haven't eaten all day, have about 1,000 phone calls to make, a trip to the south to plan, and an article to finish!

Take care,

Monday, June 30, 2008


So guess who is Sudan's latest best driver? That's right. I drove - and standard too - in Sudan all day today in a rented car. No accidents, only a couple angry horns and, while close, I never ran out of gas! So next time I'm in Egypt, no one can tell me I'm not capable of driving! Actually, while there are few rules, it is not hard to drive here. The big roads are paved and wide, and there are not that many cars. There are some traffic lights, and where there aren't, everyone just kind of moves towards the same space until someone slows down and someone takes the lead. I do have to learn to slow down though in those areas that are unpaved - it can be bumpy!

The second milestone is ... I ATE INTESTINES! Those same intestines I refused to eat in Senegal. I ate them here, by accident, without knowing - and the worst part is, THEY TASTED GOOD! I had some great Sudanese food the other day at a friend's house - eggplant sauce, yogurt sauce, meat and intestines, with bread. mmm....

Anyways, I'm off to northern Sudan in a couple hours (the bus leaves at 4 a.m. This should be interesting!) to a small village where I will apparently have electricity for one hour a day! I'm tired and overworked, I think. I've been running around like a crazy person this past week to the point that my last interview today was a complete disaster because I just didn't have the mental faculties left. So I think a slower pace of life will be good for a while. (Communities in the areaI am going to are afraid their ancient heritage will be wiped out and they themselves displaced when the government builds dams in the area).

Hopefully these villagers won't be too amazed at the sight of a microphone. Today the children in the neighbourhood I went to were so loud/in your face/curious/obstructive that I could not conduct a single interview properly as I was followed by a mob of sreaming children. This, after spending $50 on a car, $80 on a translator, waiting three days for permission to enter this site, and spending hours in the grueling sun. This is the life of a journalist in Sudan, I suppose!

Friday, June 27, 2008

It's Complicated!

So, what am I doing here anyway?

I'm here to write articles and produce radio pieces for some newspapers and radio stations in Canada and the US (as a freelancer). I want to look at some stories that I think haven't been told while the world focuses on Darfur. First of all, Sudan has been portrayed as a very violent place, where Arabs are killing blacks in a brutal genocide. But this isn't the case across the country, and in some villages, Arabs have hosted blacks fleeing the war in other parts and integrated them into their communities. Second, Darfurian rebels took up arms against the government claiming their region had been marginalised for years. But Darfur is not the only neglected area in Sudan, and actually there are many groups in different areas right across the country that have/are/want to take up arms against the government. Third, many people are not aware that there was a civil war between north and south Sudan that killed 10 times the number of people who died in Darfur. That war ended in 2005, but in the past few months, has come dangerously close to re-erupting because many parts of the peace agreement have not been implemented by the government.

Anyways, those are some of the things I plan to look at, but this place is just so damn complicated that I'm trying to sort everything out in my head before I blog about it (that's why I haven't been blogging much. My days have been mostly consumed by work and my work is not at a stage of explanation yet! Plus, I received a grant from an organisation that funds journalists who go to 'under-reported' areas, and will be blogging for them (the Pulitzer Center) about the more journalism-oriented parts of this experience. I'll send you the link when it's live.)
So instead of telling you my thoughts on the conflicts here, I instead will reassure you that I have said goodbye to my friend the lizard, and moved on to cleaner pastures: ie. a UN guesthouse. My feet are starting to crack from the dryness, my skin is always sticky from the heat, I drink an incredible amount of water everday (Sometimes your mouth is so thirsty but your stomach is already bloated from all the liquids) and I'm becoming accustomed to wearing a scarf everytime I leave the house (which unfortunately means no tan).
I did get to one cultural event yesterday though. Here are some pics from a Sufi ritual I went to. Every week, hundreds gather to pay hommage to a great Sudanese Sufi leader, Hamd El-Nil (from what I understood) outside his tomb in a big cemetary. They stand in a huge circle, swaying to the drumming, chanting La illiha illa Alllah (there is only one God), until the sun sets.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

All over again?

I was thinking of what I would blog about on this trip, and whether it would feel (for me and for you) like I was going away for the first time all over again, or more like, "been there, done that". I haven't really figured out the answer to that, but I think a little bit of both. I think everywhere you go, there are new and different things/people/issues, etc. But to some extent, it's always a bit of the same. Today, I stopped thinking about work for long enough to remember that I was in a new country and should probably discover it! I found a local restaurant and asked for some traditional food (which was on the house because they were so pleased I was Egyptian and interested in their food), and had that feeling of discovery and excitement for a second again. But I realized that that feeling is much less present this time around. There is much less culture shock (partly because I speak Arabic, I imagine) and much less transitioning. I have to say, it feels a lot easier. (My dad would argue that takes away from the fun). I think you just get to a point where new and exciting is normal. Does this make any sense?

Anyways, the weirdest thing about being here, I would say, is the fact that Darfur is right next door and you'd never even know it by being here. There is really nothing to indicate that there is a so-called genocide happening a couple states west of here. It is a lively city, with cheerful people, going about their business. Living here, it's as if Darfur does not even exist. And once in a while I do wonder if the West has, as the president of Sudan alleges, exaggerated the genocide for their own interests. But when you look at the numbers, it's just not true. Almost 190,000 have had to flee their homes in Darfur this year (2008) alone! Can you imagine? This thing is still raging on, five years later.

In more uplifting news, apparently even in Islamic conservative societies, 82-year-old men ask single women they meet to marry them. And I thought it was only in Senegal!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

And... We're Back!

Oh, it feels good to be back in Africa! I thought Sudan would be a lot like Chad, but it's way better - full of life and much more developed. I'm loving it so far! (It has only been one day, and I'm sure I will take that back later!) But I'm definately exhausted.

I don't think I have ever really experienced jet lag until now. I slept badly Friday night in Canada, left for Sudan Saturday afternoon and arrived - after two nights on planes/airport benches - in Khartoum, the capital, Monday morning. So as you can imagine, the lack of sleep is catching up with me. This morning I woke up at 3am, and could not get back to sleep after that.

The flight here was full of all the regular chaos. Flight attendants who spoke no Arabic. Passengers who spoke no English. Overflowing overhead compartments. People sitting in each other's seats. But amazingly, the whole thing went really smoothly. None of the three flights I had to take were delayed. I had no problems getting through customs. My bag arrived unharmed. And someone was waiting for me at the airport to bring me to my ... hotel, if you could call it that.

For $20 a night, the cheapest you can get here, I got a room with paint chipping off the walls, a lizard crawling around, sheets that looked like they had never been washed, and ants everywhere. This morning, I shared my shower with a different lizard. I think he was as scared of me and the water as I was of him, so he wasn't too dangerous.

Sudan is really an interesting place. A neat mix of Arab and African. Actually, my arabic gets me very far here, and when I fling a scarf around my head, I don't look too out of place here. (Most women here cover their hair, and the northern part of the country is governed by Sharia law).

I've met a few people here who seem nice, including another Canadian journalist. And I had a fool (bean) sandwich this morning which reminded me of Egypt.

Hope everyone is doing well, and talk to you all soon insha'Allah!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Reflections & Gratitude

As you all know, I've been meaning to put an end to this poor blog for a long time. Unfortunately, life took hold of me, and almost three months later, you poor readers have had no closure! And so finally...

First of all, thank you to all of you, for your interest and support. You have been a loyal and forgiving audience. Thank you for reading.

Thank you to God of course, for making this beautiful trip possible in the first place.

And thank you to the people of Senegal and Chad for teaching me so much. I only hope that one day, I can repay the favour.

Sometimes, while abroad - most of the time, actually - everything around me seemed normal. It's amazing how fast you can get used to your new surroundings and forget how different they really are from the world you're used to.

And I remember a specific moment, about a week before leaving Senegal, where it all hit me. Where I stopped to think about just how different a life I had been living.

I was sitting in the bare mosquito-infested, concrete-walled room at my friend's family home in a small village where you can only get around on horse-drawn carts. Her family - brothers, sisters, aunts, neighbours - were watching the home's sole TV in a room that doubled as the bedroom for at least 8 or 9 girls who slept on foam mattresses on the ground. At night, they cocooned themselves in their thin sheets to protect themselves from malaria.

And I remember stopping, looking around the room, and letting the magnitude of it all sink in.

For six months, I lived in a country where most people pee, poo and shower in the same hole in the ground.

For six months, I lived in a country where whole families share a single closet, where there is no such thing as intimacy, where front doors to homes consist of sheets hung across a hole in the neighbourhood wall.

For six months, I lived in a country where 90% of jobs are in the informal sector, selling peanuts, on the street or used t-shirts at the market.

I lived in a country where people eat with their hands - and not just the tips of three fingers, but with the full palm, rolling the rice into their palms as if it was Plado before unfolding it into their mouths.

I lived in a country where you can buy freshly cooked peanuts, donuts and shishkabab on the streets.

Where the goats wake you up in the morning and the neighbours' screaming children keep you up at night.

Where the people you meet can touch your heart in a matter of minutes.

Where helping someone in need is not an option but an obligation.

Where saying Salamu Alaikum (May Peace be Upon You) to strangers you pass on the street is similarly expected.

Where women are strong leaders of their families; where men feel a lot but say little.

Where people love freely and fully - without reasons or logic - just heart.

Where colour, music, and life fill the streets. Where rhythm is instrinsic in every person and men can really dance!

My six months in Senegal taught me something about friendship. I built incredible friendships - often with people that didn't even understand me. I've changed my definition of friendship since. A friend is not always someone who knows you inside and out. A friend is simply a person who cares for you, who is there when you need them and who smiles, sincerely. I am friends with the woman who sells peanuts on the path from work to the bus. I don't know her name. We have trouble communicating. But she has touched my heart all the same.

My six months in Senegal taught me something about sharing and sacrifice. It's not enough to give to the poor from your "extra" savings. It's not enough to give away the shirt you no longer want. That's not giving. The real giving is when you sacrifice what you actually want or need for someone else. And Africans do it every day. In Senegal, it is normal to give up what you need for what someone else wants. Sacrifice is a duty; kindness is built into the system.

My six months in Senegal taught me something about tolerance. Life is never going to cooperate with you fully, and if you can accept that, you will lead a much more peaceful life. Things go wrong, the electricity cuts out, the bus is late. So what? There are more important things in life to worry about.

But Senegal and Chad have also taught me about hardship and injustice - about people who spend their lives wishing they could live somewhere else so that they can provide for their families.

About people in such desperation, they kill, rape and torture to keep living.

In Chad, I watched a baby die of malnutrition, his body lifeless on a Doctors without Borders clinic table. I met a woman whose back was still covered in scars from beatings by armed men in Sudan. I felt the evil human beings were capable of, the suffering they endured.

So the next time you're pissed that you're late and stuck in traffic, remember that the roads are safe and that you aren't under constant threat of hijacking.

Next time your mother annoys you with all her demands, remember that she is healthy and not dead thanks to completely preventable disease.

Next time you have the chance to reach out to someone and improve their life in whatever way, TAKE IT.

That's all for now, I think.

But I still have a lot to learn, to live, to take in. I plan to return to this beautiful land - sooner than you think. So keep your virtual ears open - Sudan is next!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Egyptian States of America

Egypt, my dear Egypt, what has happened to you?

I swear, I no longer recognize this place sometimes. I guess the most striking example of rapidly increasing Westernism in Egypt is the MASSIVE 7-story luxury shopping mall called "City Stars" in which you can find restaurants, a cinema, carnival games for children, coffee shops and the most expensive, luxurious and brandname stores I have ever seen in one place. It's easily 10 times the size of the Rideau Centre. Seriously, I have never seen a mall like this in Canada or anywhere else.

Another big sign is what appears on TV. Way more girls wearing bikinis and couples kissing. These things used to be taboo. Music videos no longer consist of the singer with his arms outstretched, singing in the middle of an empty field to an invisible audience. Now, they would totally fit in on MTV. And movies have lost their "Oh this was made in Egypt" charm. Instead of the usual family love story or ridiculous comedy, there are action movies and documentary type movies, made in a much professional (read Western) way.

And the homes. As Cairo contines to grow and grow (now at close to 80 million), residential neighbourhoods are being built on what used to be the outskirts of the city. One of the newest and trendiest places to live now is called 6th of October. I went to visit my aunt who recently moved there, and ... wow. It's like a Cuban resort. They live in compounds, meaning the "neighbourhood" is surrounded by a fence and you have to enter through the gate. It's the picturesque image of a cute residential neighborhood, like you see on TV. There are sidewalks, they are clean, bicycles line the grass-filled lawns, no traffic, no horns, just perfectly identical beautifully built homes, that are even more American-looking on the inside than on the outside. It's astounding. (Keep in mind, regular Cairo is non-stop horns blaring, sidewalks, if any, filled with garbage, cars stuck in traffic at every sidestreet, and no such thing as a front yard, let alone any sight of greenery).

You can easily sit at the neighbourhood Chilli's and feel that you are exactly at Jack Astor's in Kanata. The way people dress, the way they talk, the Westernism has permeated almost everywhere.

But that's not really the point. The point, or at least my question, is: Is this the only way countries can develop? Is development tantamount to westernization? Is there a way of developing poor countries without turning them into little Americas?

Arguably, all these signs of "westernism" in Egypt are good things. It means people are living in better conditions, they obviously have more money to spend, and are able to enjoy the non-essential things in life instead of focusing on their survival.

But you can still find places - lots of them - to buy fool and ta'amaya (beans and felafel) sandwiches for 15 cents. My cousins keep telling me that this side of Egypt (shopping malls, restaurants, etc) is the life of only 5 percent of the population and that most people - including doctors and people in respectable professions - do not have enough to feed their families.

So I suppose this isn't really development at all - it's just rich people spending their money, while the poor continue to be poor?

I'm not sure of the answer, but it seems inevitable that as countries pull themselves out of poverty, they will do so with the help of foreigners, and in the way that foreigners have. It seems to me (but I am no expert) that there are far more internationally-designed development projects than there are locally-driven measures to reduce poverty. Is it not logical that if poor countries are to develop, they will do so in the image of developped countries?

I asked my aunt this question, and she said there will always be people who hold on to their traditions. I saw evidence of this in Senegal, where despite nike, internet and coca-cola, Senegalese culture was very present. Still, I can't help but fear that one day, the whole world will look the same ... McWorld can't be that far away.

Any thoughts? More optimistic ones hopefully...