5 Jul 2012

Masalaama Sudan

Before I know it my last week in Sudan arrives.  It feels kind of surreal in a way - the first few months in Sudan were like a strange 'out of body experience' looking down on someone else's life; everything was so different from life in England.  Now memories of my life in the UK feel like watching a favourite old movie that I once starred in!  I've grown so used to my surroundings, job and all the people around me to the extent that it feels that I've lived here all my life - even my Arabic is starting to improve!
Regular readers will know by now that the Sudanese are legendary in their ability to throw a party and celebrate in style.  On the Tuesday night I was told to be at the Extra Institute for 6pm and arrived to find all the tables and chairs set up outside and a few of my students waiting for me.  I felt quite sad chatting to the group for the last time, they had been such fun to work with, and their English has improved so much - I made them promise that they would keep up with their studies and attend the twice weekly speak out club.  Gradually the institute started to fill with people and become a hive of activity.  Food arrived and then some huge speakers were put up. 

I couldn't believe it when I recognised the students I had seen perform at the Independence Day Celebrations amongst the people arriving.  It was then that I put two and two together and realised that they were going to be singing at MY party!  I was completely blown away - so much thought, time and effort had been put into giving me a send off that I would never forget!  There were several speeches from those who had know and worked with me over the 9 months I had been there.  Such lovely things said about me - I hadn't begun to imagine how much my presence had been appreciated.  It was the least I could do to give my thank you speech in Arabic, which was doubly terrifying due to the amplifiers and speakers broadcasting it to the town!  I had an incredible time dancing the night away with friends and students, and thanks to my friend Amar, I have plenty of photographs to relive the party!

The next evening my friends Assim and Majid picked me up to take me to the Vice Chancellor's office for my formal farewell from the University. Another evening of food, amazing speeches of thanks and beautiful gifts, with the media department from the university there to record the event for posterity:
 http://www.kordofan.edu.sd/index.php/en/component/content/article/205-2012-06-17-06-14-52.html. Again I was blown away by the lovely comments and warm gratitude shown by my colleagues and students whom I'd worked with for 9 months. One of my semester 6 students was amongst those who gave speeches in my honor.

I was presented with a beautiful framed certificate with the dedication in both Arabic and English which I will hang in pride of place once I have a more permanent resting place, a delicious cake; made for me by the Vice Chancellor Prof. Meshaal Abdelgadir's daughter; and a range of other lovely traditionally made gifts making this another truly memorable evening.

On my last day in El Obeid, my friend Rabha and I attended the wedding lunch and evening celebration of our dear friend Khansa's sister, Shima.  This was my last chance to be the 'embarrassing khwajia at a wedding' and I danced to the ladies playing the Dalooka for one last time at their family home in the afternoon before attending the formal celebrations in the evening.  I will always look back fondly at the amazing hospitality I was shown at all times, and the warmth with which I was included on such family celebrations I had the pleasure to attend during my time in Sudan.

Early the next morning we left Rabha's family home for El Obeid bus station to travel to Khartoum.  I couldn't speak to Rabha's aunt who was travelling with us as I just felt so emotional to be finally starting my journey home.  Knowing that I wouldn't be seeing the now so familiar sights of the town and area again.  The bus station was very busy and I was pleased to get seated on the bus, out of the way of the crowd.  As we waited to depart I saw Mohammed Shams Aldin making his way through the crowds - bless him, he'd come along to say a final farewell to me!  I could feel the tears in the back of my eyes as the bus edged its way out of the bus station and through the early morning traffic of El Obeid.  Around 4pm we arrived in Khartoum and said our goodbyes to Rabha's aunt and got a taxi to Rabha's sister's home, where I watched in amazement as the Ethiopian maid carried my suitcase up two flights of stairs on her head!

That evening we met up with my SVP friends Omar, Christine, Rebecca and Suleman (who'd accompanied us on our camping trip to the desert).  It still felt slightly unreal to think I would not see them again (with the exception of Christine, who I hope to see when she returns to the UK).

On the Sunday, my last day, Rabha and I went out shopping for me to buy some last minute gifts for family and friends back home and had breakfast coincidentally in the same restaurant where Billie, Jess, Shafaq and I had eaten during our first few days in Sudan.  In the evening we went to '41' for ice cream as a final treat before Rabha and I set of for the airport in the early hours.  It was so lovely to spend my last few days in Sudan with Rabha, we've become such close friends over the last few months - I am sure we will meet again - insha allah!  Like me, she hates goodbyes, so we promised each other there would be no emotional scenes, as this was not so much a goodbye as a farewell - 'murrer jai' - until next time!  Which is how I feel about Sudan itself - I have to return in the future, if only for a visit.

During my journey home I spent some time reflecting on this amazing adventure.  I have learnt so much during the last 10 months - about Sudan, it's wonderful people, their culture and Islam, but also I have learnt a tremendous amount about myself!  Sure it had it's moments and there were times when I really just wanted to go home, back to everything familiar and 'safe' (as in my comfort zone).  I got through it all without the aid of alcohol or anti depressants (two of my crutches over recent years), and realised what a strong, adaptable, resourceful person I can be when I set my mind to it.  I wouldn't have missed it for all the world.  I met some fabulous, genuine, humble people some of whom I am sure I will remain friends with for the rest of my life.  I learnt about their country, culture and religion, about the daily challenges they face with a smile on their faces and joy in their hearts.  I realised the many things we take for granted in the developed world and the things that really matter in life - people, relationships, health and happiness.  I feel ready to take on what ever life chooses to throw at me and what ever new adventures it brings.  What next??  Watch this space!

1 Jun 2012

Time Flies!

Firstly apologies for somewhat neglecting my blog over the last month or so.  After around 10 days in Khartoum, I was delighted to return to El Obeid, my job and my friends here.  It was great to get back and get on with the job I am here to do.  Those who know me well know that I am not into politics or proper gander, that I'm a simple girl just trying to do my best to make a bit of a difference to those I teach.  Recent media coverage of problems here in Sudan has had an adverse effect on SVP's volunteer programme.  Unfortunately some would be volunteers have been put off by what they have seen and heard about Sudan, which whilst understandable - I would urge them to speak to those who know the area and the people before making a decision one way or the other.  If they make the decision not to come they will be missing  an invaluable opportunity to gain an insight to this amazing country and it's people.

For most of us fortunate to live in the developed world we have no concept of the unrest and struggle that is a normal part of every day life in many countries and could not begin to imagine how people just get on with their daily lives which are so very different to ours.  Being a responsible London based organisation with years of experience of sending volunteers to work in Sudan - SVP are simply not in the business of sending people into potential danger zones and the organisations they work with in Sudan would not accept volunteers if they felt their safety may be at risk in any way.  The volunteer programme makes such a big difference to so many people, giving them a chance to improve their English language, which in turn gives them a better chance of getting a job and helping to make a real difference in their own country.   Please if you know anyone who may be interested in volunteering share this link:- http://svp-uk.com/home.  Thanks!

I feel safer walking around the streets of El Obeid after dark than at home - the worst thing I have had happen is when unbeknown to me a bat took refuge inside my shirt one night when I was out!  God knows how it got in there without me knowing and it frightened the life out of me when I discovered it - although to be honest I think the bat was pretty stunned and terrified when it was suddenly flung from it's warm nesting place!

The Sudanese people are the most humble, proud, caring people I have had the good fortune to meet.  Many of them do not have very much but share it without question, and are most offended if you don't eat them out of house and home when you visit.  I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have paid for my own bus fare or breakfast since I have been here - which I know sounds dreadful, but the people here get very offended if their guests pay their own way!  They live very simple lives and are grateful for the little that they have - many of my students live without electricity and running water, and throughout the summer, water supply is a major problem even here in the town, being so far away from the Nile.  For the first time in my life I am having to make decisions such as what shall I use the little bit of remaining water for; washing myself, my clothes, the dishes or flushing the toilet?  I find myself laughing when I read stories of the "drought" in the UK and how neighbours can now shop each other for getting the paddling pool out as the "temperature soars into the mid to high 20's."  The children here have to wait until the rainy season to play in pools of water in the muddy streets.

Since I have been here I have learned so much about the Sudanese people, their customs and traditions and ways of life.  I have been to many celebrations and family occasions.

Last weekend I went to the circumcision celebration for 5 seriously cute little boys aged from about 18 months to 7 years old. The main part of the celebration took place in the family home of one of my close friends relatives. 

The ladies gathered to mark the occasion with the usual singing along to the "Dalooka," a traditional drum.

Afterwards we took the boys to a tomb at a nearby mosque and then on to the photography studio for the official photographs to mark the occasion. I thought I was simply along for the ride and to capture some more snaps with my own camera, but no! They insisted that I joined them inside the studio so now as well as many couples having the "khawajia" (foreigner!) in their wedding videos, there are 5 little boys who have her in their pictures too!

Earlier this week I attended one of the many parties in the run up to a wedding - this one was where they mix the traditional perfumes worn by the bride and groom. They grind up a combination of aromatic woods and spices and mix them with a carrier perfume, whilst continuing to sing and drum.

I was delighted when the bridegroom's mother gave me my own little bottle to bring home as a souvenir!

There are so many lovely traditions here in Sudan, some of which vary from tribe to tribe and some which pass between different tribes, as tribes become mixed by marriage. But all occasion are marked with pride, singing, dancing  and of course plenty of good old Sudanese hospitality!

22 Apr 2012

Carry on camping!

Shortly after the occupation of Heglig by South Sudan, it was suggested that I should leave North Kordofan for Khartoum, at least for the interim anyway.  It was very sad not being able to say goodbye to my many students and friends in El Obeid, and frustrating not being able to continue to do my job in the town that I had come to love and call my home.

However, if I had to pick a week in which to return to Khartoum I couldn't have chosen a better one!  Not only was I welcomed with open arms by my fantastic SVP friends; who made sure I didn't want for anything; I was also now able to go on the surprise camping trip planned by Billie and Omer for Christine's 21st birthday.

A stroke of luck enabled us to borrow a photo copy of Christine's passport, which we used to get a travel permit to Bagrawia without her knowing!  So it was all systems go.

Around 2pm on Friday, Omer, Moneer, Bob and Suleman arrived at our apartment in a large air-conditioned van that was already packed to the gunnel's before we added our luggage into the mix!  Christine; who'd already been told not to make plans for the weekend; was given 10 minutes notice to be ready and pack a small bag.

So off we set in the searing afternoon heat, for the desert - mad dogs and Englishmen certainly sprung to mind at this point!

After about 3 hours we arrive at our destination, Bagrawia where there is a group of pyramids in the desert!  They were amazing to see amongst great hills of sand, where they have stood for thousands of years.Sadly many of them are now damaged and were looted long ago for their treasures that lay within, but some have been restored and recreated thanks to a charitable project.  

We found a nice spot to make our camp, just the other side of the pyramids - we didn't realise just how close we were until the following morning!

Putting up the tents proved to be quite a challenge as it was very windy and there was little shelter, but we managed to get them all up before settling down to create something to eat, by which time the light was fading fast.

After we ate our sumptuous meal we smoked sheesha and lay looking at the amazing star filled sky, until settling into our tents for the night.

In the morning just as we were finishing our breakfast some Bedouins came along on their camels and a group of small boys set up an "instant market" just for our benefit. Before we knew it we were off across the desert in a camel train - such an amazing experience!  

Getting on was surprisingly easy, and you just hang on for dear life as the camel raises itself from being on it's knees up onto it's feet.  I was quite pleasantly surprised how safe I felt up there, despite my pathological fear of the creatures!  My camel had a mind of it's own and when the rest had slowed almost to a stop, mine drove through them barging the others out of the way, seemingly happiest when moving, preferably at speed.

The boys at the "instant market" waited patiently whilst we broke camp, and were justly rewarded as we shopped for our souvenirs before setting off for our next stop.

Overnight we'd managed to completely deplete our drinking water supplies, and were thrilled to stop at literally an oasis in the desert for drinks and to fill water bottles. 

We arrive at what our guide, Moneer describes as a small farm in Sabaloka, from where we are to visit the 6th Cataract of the Nile. The small farm turns out to be a thriving tourist spot, with a small zoo and plenty of seats and beds where you can take your rest. Moneer negotiates a very reasonable 300SDP for the 10 of us to take a boat trip to see the Cataract and camp by the Nile for the night. The scenery on the boat trip is simpley incredible; mountains, greenery and a small goat inhabited island, and of course the cataract itself, where suddenly the serene river broke into small rapids with very strong current.

Saddiq, the owner of the farm is a charming man, who has put a lot of thought and effort into his business. There is everything we need there and after sunset we have the place to ourselves for the night. The 6 of us set about preparing a meal, whilst the menfolk take their rest. Whilst our cooking skills are more than adequate, we have nothing but admiration for the Sudanese ladies ability to create amazing dishes from scratch in what seems like a relatively short space of time! We are concerned that the men will be disappointed with our efforts, especially as the meat part of the meal needs a lot more cooking so we elect to have it as supper! If they are disappointed they are too polite to say.

After our struggles with the tents the previous night, we decide to put our tents up before the daylight starts to fade. It turns out to be a simple task, having practice in severe weather conditions the night before, so we are soon settling down for tea, coffee and sheesha relaxing by the Nile before bed. The bathroom facilities are amazing - fully plumbed in toilets with showers in little bamboo huts, a big step up from the "over that sand dune to your left and you're there" facilities of the previous night!

Needless to say I wake up in the morning thoroughly looking forward to a shower - not to be disappointed!

We break camp, pack up the van and head back to Khartoum, arriving around midday, thoroughly exhausted but elated from such an incredible experience.   Hats off to tour guide Moneer Salih (moneerkush@yahoo.com), for organising the agenda, Suleman our tour bus driver, Omar for making it all happen and Billie for coming up with the idea in the first place. I think I can safely say that Christine had a 21st birthday celebration that she'll never forget.

14 Apr 2012

Easter In Wad Medani

At home in England the Easter weekend has always been a well deserved long weekend, usually spent at home chilling or catching up on all those jobs - it was certainly not a good weekend to take to the roads and go travelling! However one of the major advantages of living and working in a Muslim country is that travelling for during Christian holidays comes without the usual compulsory traffic jams and airport delays. 

The View from the roof of the Continental Hotel
I was invited to visit Jess in Wad Medani, along with Billie, Christine, Mary and Martha. Being the furtherest away with a 7 - 8 hour journey either way I decided to travel on Maundy Thursday arriving in Wad Medani around 3:30pm. I was a little anxious as I'd been very independent, booking my own bus ticket and getting myself to the bus station, totally relying on my very basic Arabic and any English the people around me spoke - although I did get my friend Rabha to read the details on my ticket and confirm they were correct! For me that was the easy bit - I have travelled from the local bus station a couple of times now and can easily walk there from my home. The challenge would be knowing where I was at the other end! The first leg of the journey is the same as the journey to Khartoum, stopping at Kosti for breakfast. After about 7 hours of travelling we approached the outskirts of a very large town, I started looking for clues as to where we might be, as I had when I first arrived in El Obeid seven months ago. There were many mentions of Al Jazeera on the few signs that were written in English but I couldn't see any mention of Wad Medani anywhere! Eventually we pulled into a large bus station called Al Jazeera Transportation, which my fellow travelling companions assured me was in fact Wad Medani.

Needless to say I was extremely relieved to see Jess walking towards me! We took a short amjad ride back to her colleague Selwa's house, where Jess had been helping Selwa prepare for our arrival. I had heard so much about Selwa, it was lovely to meet her at last - especially as she was every bit as lovely as I'd imagined! She totally dotes on Jess, treating her like a daughter and had invited us all to stay at her home whilst we were in Medani. Selwa's English is excellent and she is like an oracle - she knows so much about so many things! After a very pleasant afternoon, chatting, eating and meeting Selwa's family, Jess and I went to the Church to investigate the possibility of a Maundy Thursday service. The church was all locked up so we headed back to the Continental Hotel, where Jess lives. 

On Good Friday morning Jess prepared a cake, whilst I relaxed on her very comfortable (if a little high!) spare bed. Then we went over to Selwa's where Jess baked her cake and we helped prepare breakfast before going and meeting the others who had arrived from Khartoum. After a fabulous breakfast, we spent a few hours gossiping with eachother, Selwa and her family before going to Church. Whilst we were sat in the service we'd noticed that many people were going outside for something - that something we soon found out was the opening ceremony for a new IT Suite in the Church school. Jess' friend Rose, kindly translated the opening ceremony, presided over by the Bishop of Wad Medani, who addressed us in perfect English.
The Bishop of Wad Medani opening the IT Suite

Having spent 7 months in Sudan the importance and excitement of this new community facility was not lost on me - as one of my students beautifully described it - "The internet makes the world a small village." We take it completely for granted in the developed world, but having worked with university students who do not have easy access to computers or the internet, I realise now more than ever that technology holds the key to development and education in the developing world.

After church we enjoy a juice and the view across the Nile opposite Jess' hotel. Later that evening we join a group of Jess' friends further along the bank of the Nile and sit chatting and drinking tea as the sun goes down. For me this is such a treat - El Obeid is one of the furtherest places in Sudan from the Nile, and this stretch of the Nile in Medani is much more picturesque than in Khartoum. We return to Selwa's to be fed and watered - as if anyone could ever go hungry amongst the Sudanese people, who pride themselves on keeping you full and making you welcome! 

Full moon over Wad Medani
Selwa gives us sheets and pillows and we settle down for the night. It is a very hot night and there are two spare beds by Selwa's in the yard. Jess and I are elected to sleep outside as neither of us are able to do so at home. I am so thrilled to be sleeping under the full moon and beautiful stars that I don't see at home due to the light pollution of living in a large town. It is such a fantastic end to a beautiful night.

When dawn breaks I wake up the coldest I've ever been since I arrived in Sudan, but it's a welcomed feeling! I pull my sheet tightly round my head and carry on sleeping for a few more hours, finally waking up when people are up and about and walking past my bed!

As Selwa has to go and give her condolences to a relative, she leaves us tea and biscuits and tells us to make ourselves at home whilst she is out. After an hour or so during which we slowly get ourselves up and dressed, Selwa returns and a hearty breakfast is prepared, after which we pack up our belongings and thank Selwa heartily for her fabulous hospitality.

We take our bags back to Jess' hotel and meet Tamador and her sister May who take us on a boat trip across the river to the beach on the other side where we paddle and splash each other in the water. There are lots of young boys swimming and its so tempting to just run straight into the water and get thoroughly soaked! Swimming is something I've really missed in Sudan - there is nothing like a refreshing dip in this heat! Sadly it's not the right time or place - there are places where ladies may swim but not in public. After playing around in the water for a bit, we soon dry out and take the boat back across the river and head to a cafe near the Jazeera University.

The cafe only opened the day before and is owned by a friend of Tamador's who insists on us trying out half the menu as his guests. So we happily sample Tiramasu and a range of delicious crepes before going back to Tamador and May's large and beautiful home, where we spend the night. Once there we meet Mirian, their other sister, and the three girls set about cooking a lovely meal for us all. It is a great girly evening with the six of us and the three sisters, who all speak excellent English. Tamador is a doctor and Mirian and May are University Students. Their older sister Selma has recently married and is in the area visiting a relative nearby and promises to stop by and visit, although it's quite late. Some of us are flagging by this stage and are forced to give in and go to bed upstairs in the guest apartment. 

Being Sunday the next day, the girls are up and gone to work and university by the time we surface. Tea, cake and biscuits have been prepared for us to enjoy before we leave. As it's Easter Sunday we go to the Church for the service, which normally starts around 930am. However as it is a special service, today it begins at 10am. It is an amazing service, with lots of singing and excited trilling and clapping. Being a large group of foreign guests, we are invited up to the front to sing a hymn for the congregation! Luckily Jess' knows an easy one for us and we proceed to sing "We are marching in the light of god" to delighted cheers and clapping! Another truly embarrassing feat to add to my list of "Sudan Moments!" Thankfully we are the first of many groups of singers - the others of course much more prepared and harmonised than us with our impromptu performance! Most of the service is in Arabic, however we are lucky to have a member of the congregation translate the sermon for us over the microphone. In true Sudanese style this celebration of Jesus' resurrection is a little on the long side! There are songs, prayers, awards, rejoicing, praise and thanks and after around four and a half hours we finally emerge from the church.

Lunch by the Nile
We go for a very well deserved lunch at "Istanbul's" our favourite spot overlooking the Nile before setting off for the bus station to say goodbye to the Khartoum gang; Billie, Christine, Martha and Mary and buy my ticket home for the next day.

That evening Jess and I are invited out with Nelson and Monday, two Christian footballers from Uganda and Nigeria who go to the institute where Jess teaches in the evenings. We are treated to ice cream and visit a beautiful local park where we have coffee and ride the aerial cycle which is the most exercise I've had since arriving in Sudan, especially as Monday kindly lets me do all the pedalling!

I wake up the next morning pleasantly surprised to find that my legs are not aching! Then it's off to the bus station to catch my bus back to El Obeid.

17 Mar 2012

Two Shaylas in one week

There are some wonderful traditions in Sudan, and they certainly know how to put on a party!

Before a marriage takes place, the groom buys and prepares gifts which are taken to the bride and her family by his female relatives and friends.  This is known as "shayla".  Last week I was lucky enough to attend two!

The gifts consist of everything that the bride needs to start her new life with her husband; jewellery, clothes, shoes, make-up and toiletries together with the more practical things like charcoal, onions, flour and other foodstuffs to enable the brides family to prepare the various celebratory feasts.
There is also the dowry, which is beautifully displayed and wrapped. The brides gifts presented in a similar way; tobes (the tradition Sudanese dress) together with matching shoes and handbags wrapped together and all packed into a new luggage set.  Could you imagine the average English groom completing this task successfully?  I think every time my husband bought me an item of clothing it had to be returned or exchanged!  One Christmas he bought me a set of lingerie, all be it he managed to get the right size for everything - but in order to achieve this, some of the set was white and the rest cream!  And as for the English male's ability to gift wrap - Enough said!

Before heading to the brides home, the ladies at the groom's house get the atmosphere started with singing, dancing and drumming.  The men's role in the proceedings is merely that of  porter, organiser and chauffeur; waiting patiently outside for the women to complete their preparations, then organising them into the waiting transport.

The shayla is delivered to the brides home by a procession of cars and buses with horns blaring, crammed full of ladies trilling and clapping driving through the streets of the town from the grooms house to the brides via the longest route possible!  You can often see and hear a Shayla procession wending it's way through the town especially at the weekend.

On arrival at the brides house, the Shayla party is greeted by the bride and her female relatives and friends and the gifts are brought in and displayed for all to see.  Drinks and snacks are given to the grooms family and friends, after which they head back to the groom's house and continue the party!

Having attended a few occasions with them, I seem to have become an honorary member of Arsim's family - available for shayla's, weddings and other celebrations!  Which is lovely as they make me feel completely at home in true Sudanese style and even ask after me when I'm not there - I can't wait for the next occasion, Arsim's wedding!

24 Feb 2012

Visitors from Abroad

By the time I felt well enough to travel back to El Obeid, it was the last day of the semester at the university.  As I felt more than a little guilty for taking what turned out to be an extended break in Khartoum, I decided to go straight to the Extra Institute when I got back, then call in at the supermarket on the way home to restock my fridge.  

It was great to catch up with my friends in the Speak Out Club, even though I was tired from the journey.  After we had finished our session I found out I was invited to eat with Mohammed, Hammid, Saleh and their guests from Ethiopia and Northern Ireland, who were visiting El Obeid as part of "Connecting Classrooms", a British Council Initiative.  I suggested going home to freshen up and change, but Hammid insisted I looked fine and we set off to pick up the guests from their hotel.

This was the last night for the 3 guests from Ethiopia, who were travelling early the next day.  All of the group had spent the last week visiting various schools in and around El Obeid, as Mohammed and Hamid had done on their visit last year to Northern Ireland.  When we arrived at the "Roast House" restaurant we were joined by some of the teachers from the local schools, all looking very elegant in their colourful tobes - suddenly I felt shabby and grubby in the clothes I'd been travelling in all day.  I had been to the Roast House many times, but I'd never been upstairs before or fully explored the menu!  

One of the Irish guys, Russell had sausages - I haven't seen sausages since I got to Sudan - they were lovely!  There was plenty of food everywhere in true Sudanese style.  It was wonderful to see my friends being such fantastic hosts, their guests were truly bowled over with everything; the schools they'd visited, places they'd been and the way they'd been looked after and made to feel totally at home - things I suddenly realised had just become an  part of my everyday life in Sudan.  After a wonderful evening we said goodbye to the Ethiopian guests and wished them a safe journey home.

The next day I went to meet Mohammed and had a lovely breakfast at his home with his family before we headed off for a picnic.  Our destination turned out to be not very far from my apartment, a beautiful spot at the local reservoir.  It was the first time I had seen an expanse of water in El Obeid - I never knew such a place existed, and when I said as much to Mohammed's wife, she said she had lived in El Obeid all her life and not visited it either!  Of course a picnic in Sudan is not just a small blanket on the ground, a few sandwiches and other cold foods - there were plenty of plastic chairs, large mats, salads, bread, agashay (meat cooked over coals), 
cold drinks, fruit and tea.  We spent a lovely day walking, chatting, eating and drinking before saying a tearful farewell to the Irish visitors.  As I watched the emotional hugs and handshakes all I could think was,  if it's this hard parting after 5 days,  how will it feel saying goodbye to all these wonderful people after 9 months here?  Luckily I still have 5 months to go before I have to worry about that!

11 Feb 2012


Just after I returned to El Obeid end of semester exams began.  Suddenly the university seemed full of students carrying around armfuls of revision notes and wearing worried expressions.  As there are no lectures I have a new role - typing exam papers!

A couple of days after my return I invigilated my first exam, which was held in one of the classrooms near to the English Office.  Students were packed in like sardines with barely any space between desks, those who came late had to bring their own desks, and one poor girl didn't even have a desk as we couldn't fit any more in the room!  

It reminded me of my own university exams, that feeling of complete dread, the echoing sports hall and the two cheery pensioner invigilators complete with flasks, snacks and squeaky shoes.  Total silence abounded except for one occasion when the fire alarm went off and we were told "not to worry - that often happens - someone will let us know if there IS a fire!"  People walking past the exam areas were castigated if they dared to speak let alone make some serious noise.  You sat and waited with baited breath to be told you may begin, and kept a careful eye on the clock throughout the exam, dreading the words - Stop Writing.

In Sudan? - not a bit of it -  Invigilating in Sudan comes complete with regular supplies; cups of tea and breakfast or lunch depending on the time of day.  Students breeze in casually (some over half an hour late!) and start as soon as they get settle and have their paper.  There is not a clock to be seen anywhere,  from time to time the lead invigilator checks his mobile phone to see how long is left.  Life outside the exam room carries on as normal - During that first exam there was a celebration outside for the opening of new water fountains, with speeches, cheering and clapping.  I was about to go and complain on behalf of the students when someone bought me a lovely breakfast and told me to "take my rest."   For the mature students, the exams take place in the large lecture hall at the Centre Campus of the University, just below the windows there are tea ladies where groups gather to engage in lively banter.  Many students seem to finish the exams long before the time is up - at the half way point when students are allowed to leave, there is almost a stampede.  Some students seem to prefer to "take their rest" during the exam, and will sit with their head on the desk seemingly asleep for an hour or so before springing into action towards the end of the time.  After 3 weeks of invigilating; two exams a day on some occasions; I was glad of the diversion of travelling to Khartoum to attend an English Teaching forum.

A couple of days before I travelled to Khartoum I had been getting stomach pains again, and was considering seeing the doctor.  However, I didn't want to miss the trip to Khartoum and felt well enough to travel so off I went.  Luckily for me, my friend Mohammed from Extra was also travelling to Khartoum, so he kindly arranged my ticket and met me at the bus station so we could travel together.  Not only did he manage to get me a discounted ticket for just 50SDP, but he also negotiated the price for my taxi to Billie's once we arrived in Khartoum.  All the SVP gang were in town for the forum, so it was a great chance to catch up with everyone again.  Unfortunately after the forum I was feeling unwell again, so Billie kindly took me to the doctors, where I was thoroughly examined and asked to take various tests.  

Well, obtaining samples for tests is difficult enough at the best of times, but have you ever tried it whilst trying to hold your maxi skirt up above the hole in the ground toilet, concentrate on the job in hand and keep your balance at the same time?  Mission eventually accomplished, I flushed the cistern and a great tidal wave of water surged towards me, completely soaking my skirt and feet!  Great!  And then to add insult to injury as I came out I noticed that the previously occupied next door cubicle had a standard toilet after all!  Still nice to know that the samples were not produced in vain - I was diagnosed to have a parasitic infection in my stomach, and prescribed various drugs to clear up the problem.  Just to be sure that there was nothing else serious going on they asked me to come back the next day for an ultra sound.  Mary kindly accompanied me, complete with dictionary, should my diagnosis prove beyond the realms of normal everyday Arabic conversation!  As it turned out we need not have worried as the Doctor had lived in Norwich for 14 years!  Still at least Mary got to see some of the football whilst she waited for me!  I was subsequently reassured that there was nothing major to worry about and I should soon start to feel better once the medication kicked in.  Feeling just a tad sorry for myself, I then preceded to lay around Billie and Mary's apartment for a few days doing a very convincing impression of a dying swan until I felt up to chancing the 8 hour bus journey back home, feeling thoroughly grateful that I have such wonderful friends here!