First Impressions of Khartoum

Khartoum literally means “elephant’s trunk”, implying that larger African mammals used to roam the plains here before the Sahara formed, eliminating their food source and making the land inhospitable for these and many other species.


The SVP volunteer flat is in the old town, Souq Arabi, a run down and gritty neighbourhood. There are people working all around us, selling things or doing hard labour. The flat overlooks a washing house, where I can see people ironing and washing, wringing and hanging out clothes on the roof all day long. There are no expats in this area: most Westerners (or khawijas; the word for white people) live in Amarat or Riyadh, so we have had some surprised reactions when telling Sudanese that we live in this area. So far I have received “Hellohowareyou”s, “Welcome” and many people asking where we are from. There are vendors all along the streets and a large market (the Arabic word is souq), selling everything from vegetables to flip flops and razor blades. The market is interspersed with food vendors (which I have told to be wary of due to hygiene) and sita shay, or tea ladies. They sell strong, gritty black coffee scented with cardamom or black tea with mint (shay we nana), which is delicious. A lot of these women apparently also work as prostitutes, and men will come to drink tea, perhaps smile and leave the change as a signal that they are interested in more than just shay.

Contradictorily, at the end of our street is a huge, modern, air-conditioned shopping mall called Al Waha. The mall is very sparsely populated with shops, and its unofficial purpose appears to be as a cool refuge from the harsh sun. People congregate at the entrance; gaggles of teenagers and couples on dates. It is a strange place to walk into: as all shopping malls are relatively faceless, you could really be anywhere. It also attracts a lot more westernized Arabs, and women can be spotted wearing jeans, with their hair uncovered.

On my second day in the city, we experienced a sandstorm, which broke the window of our balcony door. There was a strange haze over the city and visibility decreased to around 100m. The orange sand gets into everything – your hair, eyes, mouth and nose; and a layer of dust settles over anything stationary. At the end of the day, my unfortunate choice of a white skirt had received a distinct orange tint.

I went on a merry dance with one of the other volunteers, trying to find someone who sold SIM cards and credit. We managed to buy the former from a man on the street, and subsequently realized there were separate vendors for both SIMs and credit. In a mixture of crude Arabic and English, we tried our luck with someone manning a stall that appeared be selling credit, who looked at us with a blank face and shook his head as though we had asked him for cheddar cheese, before gesturing further down the street to an identical vendor. This performance happened a couple more times before we had any success. Amused, I felt I would still need some time to get used to the Sudanese way of running things. Disturbingly, that evening I received a mysterious phone call and text message in Arabic, leading me to believe that the vendors have handed my number out. My first lesson learnt…

The daily prayer (Azaan) occurs five times a day, including at four in the morning, when you awake to an eerie melodic sound that rings over the whole city. Spoken through a megaphone by the imam, it reminds me of a school tannoy announcement, in that everyone must stand to attention, stop what they are doing and take time out to focus on their devout faith. Men pray in the street, gathering in groups at designated areas where they wash their feet with small watering cans, then face East towards Mecca (they seem to have some sort of built-in compass) and drop to their knees on prayer mats. You must be careful not walk in front of the men during this ritual.

Moving on to talk about the food! Everything I’ve eaten so far has been very stodgy: there are lots of white carbohydrates and pulses; flatbread, beans and lentils. I am still in the process of figuring out what to eat here to create a balanced diet for myself. At the supermarket in Al Waha, there are many “Western” foods available, though they tend to be more expensive, having been imported from Saudi Arabia. The best thing I have discovered so far is fresh mango juice.

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