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!