Huh, Khartoum? Are you crazy? Don’t go there, it’s dangerous!
Many people react this way when you tell them you’re going to Sudan. It’s the almost generic fear they harbor about places in Africa that don’t involve safari-holidays. Being a square peg in a round hole in many ways, I’d be the one to be curious about local histories, social issues and political dynamics anywhere I go. So this time I wanted to know more about the daily civilian protest demonstrations against the thirty-year old military dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. All we ever hear about are the wars and ethnic conflicts in Africa, variously mismanaged or escalated by a ruling elite and often abetted by foreign interference or, more succinctly, by the international arms trade. Local populations largely continue to live in a state of material poverty and compromised ambitions. ‘It’s not the people, it’s their government,’ goes the saying. And so it is with the good, friendly and un-jaded Sudanese I met.
After my Bayuda desert trek in January 2019, I spent a week by myself in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. It’s located at the point where the White and Blue Nile merge, but what surprised me was that it’s not a beautiful, historic city in the way that Cairo is, for instance. It lacks an identifiable city centre or any kind of historical medina or remarkable mosque, perhaps because Sudan was a relative late arrival in the Islamic realm and struggles to this day with its mixed Black African – Arab identity. Khartoum’s architecture is of the ‘modern, internationalist’ kind you see all over the Third World, with its unfinished, multi-storey rebar-exposed concrete buildings, potholes in sidewalks, half-paved streets, markets and messes everywhere, with the occasional shiny avant-garde building sticking out like a vigorous invasive weed in a badly groomed park.
The few remotely historical sites I could find were the formerly British Grand Hotel and the old colonial ‘country club’ where you could enjoy a drink on comfortable lounge chairs surrounded by clipped lawns and flower beds, in relative quiet away from the frenetic city’s noise. Both are located along the Nile Corniche, or Boulevard, on either side of the extensive, equally green Presidential Palace compound. The remains of what was meant to be a pleasurable stroll along the Nile is maintained only along the few kilometres between those three points of interest, but most of it has become a crumbly mess and the noise along what’s now a major traffic artery doesn’t help. The majestic tropical trees that provide shade along the walk suggest how lovely it once was, but the most attractive stretch of the walk is closed off to the public: the besieged President ordered a double wall to be built around the palace and security is super-tight.
On any regular day in Khartoum, you see military vehicles racing around the city. The presidential palace facing the Nile River is cordoned off by troops. Soldiers sit around all day long looking royally bored, in groups of six in the back of machine-gun toting pick-up trucks parked in front of buildings that apparently need ‘security.’ They’re heavily armed and fully outfitted in brand-new camouflage fatigues, some blue, others in beige or green. It’s not clear to the outsider who represents what because there’s so many of them: military, paramilitary, state or local police, private hired security, the Popular Defence Forces – an arm of the National Islamic Front, or the National Intelligence and Security Service or NISS, the most dangerous of all because sometimes, members of the latter don’t wear uniforms but operate stealthily, kidnapping, beating, imprisoning and torturing citizens.
To maintain some kind of a social life in a ‘fun is against the law’ Muslim country – alcohol, bars and clubs, live music and dancing are prohibited – you turn to one kind of improvised small business enterprise: the ubiquitous ‘tea ladies’ of Khartoum who set up shop on most every street corner. They’ll make you a nice sugar-laden glass of tea or the typical ginger or cardamom-spiked coffee. You sit on a tiny stool in a circle talking to locals who learned some English at school, or who speak the little English that’s still lingering from the British-Egyptian reign of Sudan before Independence in 1956. But mostly, they speak Arabic or a tribal language, so communication means gesturing with face and hands, or, in my case, by way of the life drawing I do. When it’s dark by eight o’clock at night, the city is deserted. Sharia law (established during Sudan’s 1990’ies era of Islamist radicalism when it hosted Osama Bin Laden for a while; reason for economic sanctions by the USA against ‘terrorist’ Sudan) would seem to be completely against the nature of most lively, fun-loving Africans, whether Muslim or not, and I met plenty of cell-phone talking and walking urbanites who’d like to see it come to an end. When you’re a guy, you can wear hip Western clothes, when you’re a woman, not so much.
I always felt welcome at any one of these tea circles where I was met with kind curiosity. During one such a session I felt a sudden stir around us, and, without a chance to ask what was going on, this visitor was decisively escorted off the street and into the lobby of the nearest hotel. Windows, doors and blinds were rapidly closed. Then, people sat quietly waiting in the dark while the noise of sirens, car engines, shouting and even gunshots came nearer. I didn’t immediately realize I was now caught in the middle of a very real African uprising of the sort we only read about in newspapers. Where were the events of that day going to end? Was it going to be another, possibly bloody, military crackdown with more civilian casualties?
The mix of anxiety and annoyance combined with a sense of dejá-vu among the locals was palpable. I was worried of course, but can honestly state that I didn’t feel unsafe, surrounded as I was by a number of caring and protective Sudanese people who generously took me under their wings. Aggressive groups of soldiers were running in and out of buildings, including ours at some point, supposedly to look for protesters trying to hide. That was scary, because it came close. Nonetheless, we were all terribly curious to witness the action so when they left, we ran up six floors to the roof of our building to glance at the streets below at the stream of army pick-ups racing by. We saw snipers standing on top of adjacent bank buildings, and ducked behind the roof’s balustrades.
The only ‘danger’ I ever saw consisted of groups of no more than 30, 40 peaceful, unarmed citizens shouting slogans, carrying placards and the Sudanese flag. Early days, unlike the thousands of protesters in the streets some weeks after my departure. The officials famously ‘over-reacted.’ We heard gunshots in the distance and saw people being beaten in the street. Soon enough, we felt the first signs of teargas floating in through the cracks in our hiding place: a sulphur-like smell, counter-acted by putting tissues dipped in vinegar against our noses. It’s evil stuff; this tiny dose was enough for me to be coughing for another three days afterward. The locals were clearly prepared and rather stoically did what needed to be done: clear the streets, close doors and windows, stay well away from the action, have a bottle of vinegar at the ready and wait. Normal life to be resumed when the dust quite literally settles.
‘Those protests are the most amazing thing I have ever experienced. People are so very peaceful still. Not one officer has been harmed so far but 70 protestors were killed since the beginning and hundreds detained,’ said a European woman who works in Khartoum and witnessed the daily build-up of the unrest since December 2018. I too, was impressed by the positive attitude and frankness of the Sudanese people when discussing their wishes for their country. The younger ones I talked to simply said ‘it’s time for Bashir and his clique to step down, we need a new, modern vision for our country so we can get on with our lives.’ Nobody talked about murdering the President.
Remarkably, there’s one feature in Sudanese society that sets it apart from many African countries: the presence of multiple political parties (meaning: discussion is allowed, but the minute you become an activist for change and lean into the government with your demands, you may be in trouble) and a strong umbrella union movement: both requirements for a potential democratic movement to succeed. The SPA, the Sudanese Professional Association of the public sectors of health and education organized the protests and set the rules for peaceful conduct.
In conversations with various people in Khartoum, I perceived a fear of losing all fruits of one’s labour and investments, due to the continuing uncertainties. As a result, many capable people sit tight for now, wings clipped. It’s Sudan’s loss; its economy is stagnant and has been for too long. Many citizens are getting angrier by the day for lack of income and dearth of fuel and bread. And that’s not all: ongoing troubles in Darfur and the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia increasingly spilling over the borders, make a focused preparation for a representative democratic government a daunting task. I heard wishful thinking of future potential: ‘Sudan would do well to harness its available entrepreneurial energy and, for instance, being a desert country, get into renewable, solar and wind energy production rather than keep fighting over oil with its neighbour, the now independent country of South Sudan.’ Or, ‘stop the expensive and futile support of ever more armed militias fighting dissidents and ethnic minorities in outlying areas, which sets these people up for similar responses against the central government. It does nothing but destroy agriculture and create shortages for the people.’ Or, sandwiched as it is between Egypt and Ethiopia, both with well-developed tourist industries, Sudan could ‘seriously market its considerable archaeological treasures in order to increase its foreign exchange earnings.’ This makes sense. Driving our way back up along the Nile Road to Khartoum after our desert expedition, we visited the well-preserved remains of the Kushitic civilization, dating from 784 BC to 350 AD. Jebel Barkal, Napata, Nuri, Meroë and Naqa. The Sudanese continuation of the pyramidal and sacred architecture along the Nile is very little known as of yet. Why should tourists always stop at Aswan and Abu Simbel in southern Egypt and act as though it all ends there? Western fears continue; another obstacle young Sudanese are up against.
A mere couple of weeks after my stay, al-Bashir was removed and replaced by a provisional government that includes various military (even ‘rebel’ militia leaders) and civilian representatives. It was given two years to prepare the country for legitimate democratic elections. A ‘New Constitutional Document’ has been created since but dissatisfaction with proceedings continues. Civilian protesters are, rightly, keeping up the pressure in the streets. They’re far from satisfied that the current situation is not a ruse for ‘business as usual,’ where the same military elite – meaning the higher echelon of all segments of Sudanese society, whether military, government or business – settles in again and keeps a hold on its privileged powers.
That summer of 2019, back in Vancouver, I was at the busy outdoor downtown Jazz Festival and encountered, on the west side of the Vancouver Art Gallery, a group of about fifteen Sudanese people carrying placards and flags, chanting ‘We want Freedom! We want it NOW!’ It was a sunny day full with happy people on the street, variously eating, drinking, listening to the music, hanging out. No cops to be seen. Living in a free country, blissfully unaware of what that means. They walked right by the Sudanese. Nobody stopped to listen to their plight.
(Last in a series of three about Sudan)