Tuesday, 30 October 2012

26th – 29th October – Eid visit to Bagrawiyah

It is now the Islamic festival of Eid, which celebrates the sacrifice of Abraham.  Muslims celebrate this by sacrificing a sheep each year. 

In the Bible we are told that the intended victim was Isaac, the ancestor of the Jewish people.  According to Islam however, it was Abraham’s older son by a slave woman, Ishmael, who is the ancestor of the Arabs.  Without access to a time machine, I am not in a position to say who is correct, and in any case I have no intention of taking sides.  All I can say is, it looks as though the root of Arab/Jewish problems is an extreme case of sibling rivalry.  ‘My father loved me better than you!’  Perhaps it is time, after several thousand years, to bury the hatchet.  Both sides agree that God, seeing that Abraham was willing to sacrifice a much-loved son for Him, then supplied a sheep as a substitute.  A lot of lives would be saved if everyone could focus on that.  In my opinion the sacrifice of Abraham would gain a far more powerful meaning if as a result of Isaac/Ishmael’s life being saved, people in our own time stopped killing each other (more saved lives).  I know this is a vast over-simplification, but perhaps those in the hot seats could give this some thought.
I have been told that in the run-up to Eid, Sudan has had a shortage of sheep due to exports to other Islamic countries.  This has led to extremely high prices for sheep but doesn’t seem to have got in the way of buying a sheep.  On our journey out of Khartoum just before Eid, we saw numerous ad-hoc sheep sellers with their flocks by the roadside.  Over the past few days I have seen bizarre sights, such as a police vehicle in the centre of Khartoum with uniformed officers clutching a sheep between them.  On another occasion I saw a vendor trying to sell stuffed toy sheep to stationary cars at the traffic lights.  A similarity with Christmas gimmicks such as toy Father Christmas’ comes to mind. 

As happens in the western world at Christmas time, everything closes down for Eid.  Also like Christmas, it is a time for family.  Sudanese families invite people living on their own to come and join them.  Rami invited all SVP volunteers to visit his village, Bagrawiyah, to join the Eid celebrations there.  Unlike last time when there were only a small number of us, we were divided into male and female and housed separately.  Based on my previous stay in the village and also at Ed Damer, I suggested that we sleep outdoors.  Everyone enjoyed the refreshing cool and watching the stars after the extreme heat of daylight hours.
One of many Eid meals
On our first full day we were invited to witness the slaughter of a sheep and have sheep for breakfast.  Surprisingly, given the religious origins of this feast, the whole event was very down-to-earth with no religious aspects at all as far as I could see.  The sheep was killed just before we arrived in the courtyard.  I thought it might be a problem for the squeamish, but in fact there was remarkably little blood.  A professional butcher arrived and within a short space of time the corpse had been skinned, jointed and prepared ready for the kitchen.  Again, very rapidly, we were invited to eat.  The sheep was served in three forms; a broth, raw innards and chopped (cooked) meat.  Over the next two days, we continued to eat the sheep at every meal.  The Sudanese don’t generally eat a lot of meat as it is very expensive, so Eid meals are exceptional.  One of the volunteers is a vegetarian so bean stew, salad, cheese and egg were also provided. 
In the evening we 'girls' went by donkey cart to see a village football match between Khartoum and Bagrawiyah.  Some of the 'boys' were on the Khartoum team and let the side down very badly! 
On our second day we visited the Royal City of Meroe, which had been flooded on my last visit.  My guidebook had prepared me for seeing very little, but in fact there is quite a lot above ground, including a very well preserved bathhouse and plunge pool.  In the afternoon we visited the pyramids, some of us for a second time.  In the evening some of the volunteers returned to camp overnight and look at the quarry where the stone for the pyramids was sourced. 
On our third day we walked to the Nile through the village’s farmland.  It was a lovely walk, refreshingly green after the desert conditions of the village itself.  It felt almost like going on a Ramblers walk in England. Rami took us to a part of the Nile where it is possible to swim, although there was a strong undertow.  The water is very shallow, even quite far out.  It was also surprisingly cool so it was a very refreshing dip.  By the time we walked back it was dusk.  The perfect end to our stay.
Yesterday we set off back to Khartoum, stopping in Shendi for a fish breakfast.  In true Sudanese style, throughout our stay Rami has paid for all eleven of us, again and again, refusing to let us contribute in spite of the fact that we know he is on quite a low wage and has to contribute money to family members.  We all signed a card in gratitude for his extreme generosity. 
On our return to Khartoum, all the shops were still shut and there were far fewer street traders than usual.  We are all very glad that we were able to join in and be a part of a Sudanese Eid celebration.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

23rd October 2012 – visit to the Ministry of Education

A new volunteer, Kate, has arrived in Sudan who will be partnered with me in Ed Damer.  Much to my relief SVP has helped to find a much more suitable place for the two of us to live in, courtesy of Griselda Tayib, who I have mentioned in a previous post.  This still needs to be formally agreed by the Ministry of Education.  Separate accommodation will make a huge difference to our day to day lives in Ed Damer. 

Yesterday evening Kate and I were told that we should go to the Ministry of Education today to discuss our placement and accommodation at Ed Damer.  After meeting with Aifa, the original brains behind SVP sending volunteers to schools (they had previously been to universities only), she took us upstairs to ‘meet the Minister of Education’.  The Minister was at a meeting of the Council of Ministers but was due back shortly.  While we waited we were taken to a conference room where a comedy act was in progress on stage, accompanied by Sudanese music.  Kate and I were very bemused – it seemed such an unlikely thing to find in a government ministry.  Following the music and comedy, there were speeches and a presentation to a young man called Ahmed who has serious physical disabilities.  He was being honoured for his achievements in gaining a Masters degree and for his assistance to other disabled students.  Once the presentation was over, the music started again.  Everyone got up and danced in the Sudanese style, with plenty of finger clicking, clapping and linking of arms.  We all joined in.  It was lovely to see the Ministry’s recognition of his achievements done in such a human way.  No cold commendation or medal, but a real Sudanese-style knees up.  Ahmed and his mother looked completely over the moon. 
Aifa then took us to the Minister’s very plush suite of offices to await her arrival.  We waited in the boardroom.  While we were waiting a group of people from UNICEF arrived to set up a presentation for the Minister.  Kate and I both felt very small and insignificant by contrast to this vast NGO.  However when the Minister arrived, and before she did anything else, she took us into a smaller office and talked to us very enthusiastically about the importance of our work in helping Sudanese teachers learn modern teaching methods and students to improve their spoken English.  As with Ahmed’s presentation, the personal touch was very clear.  The Minister even said that if we faced any difficulties she would be happy to speak directly to people!  The whole experience made a refreshing change from the multi-layer bureaucracy we all know so well in the UK.

Friday, 19 October 2012

19th October – Nuba wrestling

Today, I went with Becca (the SVP coordinator) and her sister to see Nuba wrestling.  The Nuba people live in the Nuba Mountains in the south of the Republic of Sudan (not South Sudan).  Wrestling is a very important part of their culture. 

We arrived early enough to have proper seats close to the arena.  A solitary drummer walked around the arena keeping a steady beat, which he continued throughout the event.  There were a lot of contestants, all wearing shorts and t-shirts.  According to my guidebook, in the Nuba Mountains the wrestlers would be semi-naked, but dress in Khartoum to comply with Islamic expectations.  At the start, they all processed around the arena, before competing against each other.  The aim is to knock your opponent to the ground.  The wrestlers start very cautiously, circling and dusting themselves with sand from the ground until they see an opportunity to latch onto the other.  There was clearly a lot of skill involved so it was quite fascinating to watch.  Some of the bouts ended with very dramatic flinging of opponents to the ground, and standing ovations from the audience. 
I hadn’t put Nuba wrestling very high in my priority list of ‘things to see’ because I found it hard to imagine enjoying any form of wrestling.  How wrong I was. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A break in Khartoum – whirling dervishes

I said in a previous post on my blog that I would have a full timetable directly after the school exams.  This turned out to be a misunderstanding.  After the exams, it will be the long Eid holiday which lasts until 11th November.  As I am therefore at a loose end, I decided to return to Khartoum for a break.  So last Thursday (11th October) Osman drove me to the bus station, and off I went, on the four hour trip to Khartoum.  Suzanna and Tanya, two volunteers based in Khartoum kindly agreed to let me stay with them as the SVP flat is full at the moment.

Baby camels
Adult camels feed from an old boat
The next day I decided to visit the new volunteers in the SVP flat.  I timed it beautifully, as some of them were about to go to Omdurman to see the camel market and the whirling dervishes at the Sufi shrine.  Both the whirling dervishes and the camel market are events which always take place on a Friday.  For one reason or another I had not managed to see them when I was in Khartoum previously.  We were a bit late for the camel market, but did see some camels including babies (see photos).  Then we took a bus to see the Sufi dancing.  This was the first time I have been anywhere where there were other tourists.  I met a Sudanese man and his son who told me that they come to the shrine every Friday just for the opportunity to practise their English with the tourists.  According to the internet, a lot of these events are ‘choreographed’ for tourists, however this one certainly felt very spontaneous.
Dervishes in procession
The Sufi version of Islam takes a far more emotional and mystical approach than is usual in Islam.  This includes ‘whirling’ dances to drums and cymbals.  Adherents follow the teachings of Shaykh Hamdu Niil (whose shrine it is), and the dancing is called ‘dhikr’. Dhikr is a ritual, where techniques are used to bring participants out of their ordinary life, and into a sphere of existence where the truths of reality can be experienced, and closer contact with God is made possible. I think the nearest equivalent would be meditation.  There is a distinctly African quality to it, both in the dancing and singing.  I enjoyed it very much.
Interior of Buren Temple
Exterior of Kumma Temple
Yesterday (13th) I went to the National Museum for a second visit as I was aware that I hadn’t done it justice last time.  There are several temples which have been moved from the north of Sudan to rescue them from the flooding caused by the building of the Nasser Dam.  They have been re-erected in large sheds to protect them from the elements. 
Wall carving from Semna Temple
As I have almost a month until I go back to Ed Damer, I am planning to book myself onto a holiday tour and see something of the country.  Many places beckon.  I think in the end price will be the determining factor.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

11th October – beauty treatments Sudanese style

As you may know from previous postings, I have had my hands and feet hennaed twice in the short time I have been in Sudan.  I have since been told that this is only ever done for married women and is considered very beautiful.  I have been complimented frequently on my henna and told enthusiastically that I am now a ‘Sudanese lady’.  The simpler henna process that I have experienced takes around 2 – 2 ½ hours from start to finish.  Some women have very complicated henna designs on their arms and legs which have particular meanings and undoubtedly take considerably longer to do.

Generally, women in Sudan wear Islamic dress, but the face and hands are not covered.  However, I have seen some women who do cover completely so that you can only see their eyes.  At first I was under the impression that this type of dress was due to passionate religious feeling.  Not necessarily so.  The reason is often to allow the skin to become paler in advance of the woman’s wedding, when she will use creams to make it even whiter. 
What started me on this train of thought?

Yesterday evening my friend Huida was sitting over an incense burner, with smoke billowing around her and sweat trickling down her face.  I was completely mystified.  Then she took me out into the courtyard and showed me a large sack which she told me contained a special type of rather expensive wood.  To my even greater bafflement she then showed me a pit in the ground where a charcoal fire was still burning.  She told me that this is a traditional way for Sudanese women to make themselves attractive for their husbands.  Women take off their clothes, cover themselves in a large blanket and sit directly over the charcoal pit so that they get the full effect of the smoke and heat for as long as they can stand it (up to an hour for the hardiest).  Apparently the smoke from this type of wood colours the skin very beautifully.  Additionally the heat makes the woman sweat profusely which is supposed to increase the appetite, causing her to eat much more than usual.  Fat, as in many non-western countries, is considered beautiful.  Once the smoking process outside is finished, she dresses, comes inside and sits over the incense burner to add its fragrance.  Huida told me that this is common practice across the whole of Sudan.  Remember that this is all done in what are already extremely hot conditions. 

As anyone who knows me will already be aware, I have never been one for beauty treatments of any kind, so I am not looking at this from a personal point of view, whether I am considering UK treatments or Sudanese ones.  Strange as they may seem, looked at objectively I am not sure that Sudanese treatments are any more outlandish (and considerably less harmful) than botox, tatoos, tanning salons and cosmetic surgery.  Henna I can cope with.  If anyone suggests I smoke myself I think the answer will be a decided 'no' though.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

2 - 4 October - visit to Timerab

At the school I share the single teacher’s accommodation with Esan and Waheeda.  Ever since I arrived Esan has been talking about taking me to visit her village, Timerab.  I have been told that Timerab is on the banks of the Nile and is most famous as the birthplace of a scholar called Abdullah Tayib, who is extremely famous throughout the Arabic-speaking world.  Abdullah Tayib’s widow is an English woman called Griselda.  They married in the 1940s.  She now lives in Khartoum, and frequently visits the village and Ed Damer still.  Griselda is coincidentally a supporter of the Sudan Volunteer Programme.

I have been told that until three years ago there was no electricity here or in most other villages in the area.  Following the building of a major hydro-electric dam on the Nile, the Government has now provided electricity across the whole state.  People have taken advantage of this to have TV and lights, but on the whole haven’t gone as far as fridges or freezers, so things are still very basic.  The Nile provides the water, but it is much cleaner than in Ed Damer.  It is as clear as tap water in London.  As far as I can see, the only local transport is by donkey or donkey cart.
We left for Timerab on Tuesday afternoon by pick-up truck, which is also the local taxi, bus service and home-school transport between the country and Ed Damer (see photo of the school run).  Once we had crossed the Nile, the road quickly became something which in England would be classed as a rural footpath.  We stopped to let people on and off all the way.  Esan and I were dropped right at her front door.

Home-school transport
The Village
The village looks as though it is a very elaborate set of sandcastles, which is pretty much what it is.  When she isn’t at the school, Esan lives at home with her widowed mother, younger sister and three brothers.  As is standard practice in Sudan, there are separate sides of the compound for men and women, so I saw very little of her brothers, who even eat separately.  I noticed that they also wash their own clothes, so apart from the actual cooking the men-folk are largely self-sufficient.  The toilet facilities are by far the best I have seen in the area: very clean even though it is still the basic 'hole in the ground' type. 
The whole family and all their neighbours made me very welcome, although we had no language in common beyond my very basic Arabic greetings.  A succession of neighbours came to say hello to me throughout my stay (see photo on right).
That evening I experienced my first rain in Sudan.  It started with distant thunder which became nearer and almost continuous.  Then the first raindrops, which were beautifully cool on the skin.  After a while the rain intensified to a major downpour, at which point we took shelter.  The sand underfoot becomes very slippery and boggy in places in the rain. 
After the rain stopped we put the beds outside for the night.  It wasn’t until the morning that I realised that my face had been eaten alive by mosquitoes.  I have never been bitten on such a scale before, although fortunately they are not particularly itchy.  Esan and her family were very concerned and unearthed a mosquito net for me for the next night.  Although I have a mosquito net and used it in Khartoum, I hadn’t thought of bringing it with me.  I haven’t used it in Ed Damer as there are no mosquitoes at the school.  I do take anti-malarial tablets every day.
On Wednesday, Esan took me on a tour of the village to visit her neighbours, who are all one extended family.  Due to the lack of a common language, I have no idea of the exact relationships.  For some reason, although I make full use of mime to try to make myself understood, there seems to be a general aversion to doing this in the Ed Damer area, so I remain deeply puzzled about a lot of things!
On the third day, I awoke to find that (in spite of the net and liberally applied repellent) the mosquitoes had decided to feast on my hands.  A neighbour came and re-hennaed my hands and feet, which provided a morning’s activity (see photo of the end result). 

My re-hennaed hand
After some discussion with Esan, I decided that I would like to return to Ed Damer.  Although it has been interesting to see village life and I have been made very welcome, it has been very difficult due to the language barrier.  Once you have seen the village, it is not possible to go further afield due to the heat, so there is only a limited amount to see and nothing to do.  I was also becoming increasingly conscious of the need for online/computer preparation for my lessons in the next week when I have been told I will have a full timetable.  This was impossible to do at Esan’s house due to the constant social calls.  The real clincher though was the thought of yet more mosquitoes overnight.  I recall a quote from The Lord of the Rings, when journeying through the Midgewater Swamp: ‘What do they eat when they can’t get Hobbit?’
So, after we had had lunch, Esan called the pick-up truck.  As before the pick-up truck picked up a full load of passengers on the way back to Ed Damer.  Then, much to my alarm, the driver ended the route in the middle of town, far from the school.  I phoned Osman, who explained that the driver had called him and told him where to pick me up.  This is the thoughtful way things work here.  Where in London would you find a bus driver who didn’t just casually abandon foreign passengers in the middle of nowhere?

Monday, 1 October 2012

Monday 1st October – the difficulties the school faces

Yesterday evening as we teachers sat outside the classrooms, supervising the boarders’ study time as we do every evening, Osman told me about the difficulties the school faces.  I had mentioned the lack of scientific equipment and computers to him.  He said that, yes, this was a major problem.  However, the worst is the constant struggle to keep the students physically healthy.  He said that if there is any way I can find of getting outside help it would be greatly appreciated.

When Osman became headteacher the school expected to send around 10 students a day to hospital due to malaria, drinking contaminated water or eating bad food.  There was no plumbing for waste water (including the toilets) so that it all drained into the ground making for wet and insanitary conditions, ideal for mosquitoes to breed.  The kitchens were old, dirty, unventilated and had no fans.  The dining tables were filthy. 
Zeer in their new contamination free shed
All these problems have been rectified.  The ‘zeer’ (traditional earthenware pots containing water) are now in a covered area to avoid contamination, with pipes leading to drinking water taps.  The water still comes direct from the Nile, but this is a problem which is expected to change soon because the government is currently building a water treatment plant for the town.  Even so, it is now much rarer to send students to hospital for this reason.  The kitchens have been re-decorated, fans installed and new dining tables (regularly cleaned) purchased.
Girls drink at the drinking water taps
The next headache is that there is insufficient water for the size of the school.  Osman has found that the work needed to increase the water supply will cost S£20,000 (UK£2,800 or US$4,534) which is a very daunting amount in a rural third world town such as Ed Damer. 

Because of the political relationships with the outside world including US sanctions, and the relentlessly bad press Sudan receives in the western media, there are difficulties getting outside help.  However, no matter what a country’s politics, it is deeply unjust that the children should suffer. 
The girls at Ed Damer High School work in bare classrooms sitting on uncomfortable broken chairs at rickety desks, often three students to a small desk.  As I said before, there is no scientific equipment or access to computers.  All work is therefore textbook or blackboard-based. 
Yet in spite of all the problems of their environment, students here are incredibly positive, cheerful and hardworking.  It is rare to see a glum face.  Again and again they tell me how they want to become doctors or travel abroad and see the world. 
Today, the English exam was in progress.  There is one blind girl at the school.  In order for her to sit her exams, a teacher has to read out the questions and scribe the answers for her in a room with constant interruptions.  In a just world this girl should have the same access to Braille resources as her UK peers, and of course the same opportunities.
I think the school does a terrific and very conscientious job under difficult circumstances.  Time for some help from elsewhere, don’t you think?