Yesterday's Magazette

4 – Long Ago

Long Ago and Far Away

By Cynthia Trem


When Allah made the Sudan, Allah laughed

–– Sudanese proverb

In the spring of 1956, my husband and I left England for the Sudan, the year the country had gained Independence from Britain and Egypt. We were newlyweds and I left home and family in England with mixed feelings. I knew I was going to miss my family; however, I was excited about entering a new stage in my life and in a foreign country.

We sailed on a small passenger ship from Liverpool in England to Port Sudan, a bustling city on the Red Sea, where we disembarked into a temperature of 112 F and humidity of 100%.  I longed for a cold shower.

YM:LongAgo

A taxi took us from the harbour through the dusty pedestrian-crowded street,   the cabbie driving with one hand on the taxi horn, the other gesturing out of the window while he shouted what we clearly recognised as Arabic curses. We registered at the hotel and, as was expected, handed in our passports to the Arab desk clerk before riding the creaking elevator to our room.

My first action was to make for the bathroom, only to find there was no shower. However, there was a bathtub. I turned on the cold water tap and, after noisy gurgling and splattering, a stream of sand mixed with boiling hot, brown water spurted into the tub.

“You have to expect that in the Sudan,” my husband said with a shrug, when I complained to him. “The water tank is open on the roof and the sun heats the water. Then desert sand from the haboobs, the sand storms, blows into the water. Just leave it be until the water cools.”

He was right. The sand settled at the bottom as the water cooled, but it was an hour before I could slowly kneel in the bath and carefully pour the tepid water over me without disturbing the sandy beach at the bottom of the tub.

The train we were to take to Khartoum would be two days late, we were informed.  Sandstorms had caused the delay. We had already learned the Sudanese favourite saying, “Bukra, insha’allah.” Tomorrow, God willing. Why hurry when everything can be done tomorrow, so we knew there could be more than a two day wait. And we were right. We waited four steaming days. “Malesh,” never mind.

The three carriage steam train had one carriage for the dining area and the other with two separate bedrooms, each of which had bunk beds and a washbasin. The third carriage had seating accommodations for the local people traveling second class. The railway had been built in the late 19th century for Earl Kitchener’s British relief expedition to Khartoum, which was besieged by the Mahdi forces.  In the twentieth century the train was adapted for civilian use, the tracks laid directly on the sand of the vast Nubian Desert that we were to cross.  Our journey would take three days to reach Khartoum.

At the first stop passengers alighted while sand from the haboob, the previous day, was brushed off the tracks. By the second day the sun had heated the tracks so the wheels were not gripping. Another long halt as sand was now thrown onto the tracks to give the wheels a better hold.

Each morning a Sudanese bearer brought a tray of tea and cookies to wake us and start the day. The rest of the day was spent in the dining car, conversing and playing cards with the other first class travelers, an American missionary couple returning to the Southern Sudan at the end of their Sabbatical. I wondered about their life there, so far from what we called civilization.

We were served typical English breakfasts of bacon and eggs, a light lunch and in the evenings a filling and well-cooked supper of Western origin.  It seemed obvious that the Sudanese cook had been trained by Europeans.

I looked out the window at the golden desert stretching to the distant horizon, the sand sparkling in the glaring sunshine, the brilliant clear sky a dazzling blue.  At times we rode past bleached bones and carcasses of cattle, thirsty cattle that had wandered through searing heat towards the glint of railway tracks that they took for water, and then died beside those tracks.

Four small children in tattered clothing appeared out of the wilderness, laughing and waving as they ran beside the train for a short distance, and then disappeared. I wondered where they came from, where did they go? There was no sign of habitation. Suddenly and unexpectedly I saw the Nile sparkling on the western horizon, boats sailing on the water and palm trees along the river bank. Khartoum at last!

I was wrong.  It was a mirage and we still had another day of travel.

The train drew into the Railway Station in the city of Khartoum, where the Blue and White Niles converge. We were met by my husband’s colleague who drove us beside the wide River Nile along an Avenue of tall evergreen trees, the canopy of leaves overhead giving us shade from the hot desert sun.

We passed the impressive Governor’s Palace where, in the late nineteenth century, on the staircase of the Palace, General Charles Gordon had been beheaded by the Mahdi enemy after the fall of Khartoum when Kitchener’s relief expedition arrived too late.  After the re-conquest, Kitchener had a wide cross of trees planted from west to east and north to south of the city, intersected by narrow tree-lined streets,  the whole laid out as the Union Jack of Great Britain.

We arrived at a white-washed bungalow in an estate of other small homes at the edge of the desert on the outskirts of Khartoum.  A lonely ancient and thorny acacia tree grew inside the wooden fence surrounding the house and rich Nile River soil of a future garden. This was to be my home for the next two years. On the verandah, two young black boys, grinning widely, greeted us with handshakes. Godja was the cleaner, the sweeper, the houseboy. It was he who would make the beds, wash clothes and linen by hand, clean the house and sweep the floors of the inches of sand after a sandstorm.

He was short and plump, always ready with a toothy white smile, ever-cheery and unable to speak a word of English. Samuel, slim, tall and serious, almost sullen, spoke a smattering of English.  He would do the shopping in the marketplace, cook edible meals on the paraffin stove in the kitchen, serve at table and wash dishes.  These were my boys, my helpers, in my new home in Khartoum.

Godja and Samuel had their own small accommodation beside the University bungalow occupied by my husband and me. Every Sunday their friends visited them and, dressed in spotlessly clean khaki shorts and dazzling white shirts, they proudly marched away together to attend the Baptist Church. The boys were Missionary Christians from the Southern Sudan and, like many Southern Sudanese, they worked as houseboys in the Moslem Northern Sudan until they had earned enough money to take back to their families in their primitive villages.

In the months and years to come my boys would be my right hand men when I entertained and dined friends and strangers, when I warded off the locust swarm from my newly-planted and treasured garden, when I ran indoors for shelter, day and night, from the howling gale force winds and brownout sands of the haboobs. They killed the scorpion I found in the bedroom, removed the tarantula from the bathroom wall and assured me that the gecko lizards on the walls were harmless.

They would bring me my early morning cup of tea and during the searing desert heat of the day they would supply me with refreshing iced drinks. Godja nodded and smiled cheerfully in agreement when I explained in sign language that a hot iron and nylon blouse were not compatible; Samuel agreed not to serve cottage pie followed by Jell-O for dinner parties. They were willing, hardworking, respectful and completely trustworthy.

Time came for us to leave Khartoum. We said tearful goodbyes to friends with whom we had dined and enjoyed many parties and dances;  with whom we had  played tennis in the midday sun; with whom we had shared laughter and worries; ex-patriates who, like us, were far from families in a foreign land.

Many of them were at the airport to bid us farewell. Godja and Samuel were not there. Worsening political relationships between Northern and Southern Sudan led to hostilities, and Samuel and Godja were forced to return to their impoverished villages in the South.

Over the decades there has been conflict and violence in the Sudan with horrendous situations of humanitarian disasters. Now, in 2010, our boys would be old men. If they survived.

Vol. 37 No. 1 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Spring- 2010

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