My name is not “Khawaja”

Since coming to Sudan I’ve been faced with something of an identity crisis, to do with how I am perceived by society here. Although, as I mentioned in former posts, most people are very welcoming and although my presence here generally provokes an extremely positive response, there is another side to the coin.

Yesterday I had a horrible experience with a rickshaw driver. Before entering the vehicle, we agreed upon the price of “ashra” or 10 guinees for the ride. However, as we approached my destination, the driver began looking hungrily at me and mentioning “garoosh” (money).  He then increased the price to “talateen” (30 guinees). Eager to argue my point despite my poor Arabic skills, I reeled off every word and phrase I knew that meant “no, too expensive, that’s a rip off.” He said something along the lines of “white people have money, in Sudan there is no money: give us your money”. Highly irritated by now, I told him to stop the rickshaw and he obliged. I waved my 10 SDG note at him, which he declined in disgust. Not willing to pay more for such a short journey, where even 10 guinees was pushing it, I shrugged and walked off. Moments later I hear yelling and realize that the driver has got out of the rickshaw and is walking behind me, shouting what were most likely obscenities. Unsure of what to do, I pick up my pace and aim for the arts centre around the corner, where I work. A couple of people stop to observe this scene and I look to them for help. They argue in Arabic with the driver, until I suggest that he comes to speak to my boss. I continue to my workplace and, thinking he must have given up by now, I go upstairs to the office. Suddenly the centre’s gardener comes  to find me, stating that there is a rickshaw driver causing trouble in the garden. Dara, my colleague and I, go downstairs to find out what is going on. Dara demands answers from the driver and is met with a fresh stream of insults. Later on I found out that the main gist of it all was him complaining about stingy foreigners. We offer to pay him the 10 guinees and this time he says that he does not want any money, which seems ironic considering the fuss he is making.

Dara thinks he did not like being told what to do by a woman, whereas I feel he had a larger chip of his shoulder that caused him to snap and turn aggressive so quickly. Perhaps he disliked the West, in which case Dara’s fighting for my cause in her imperfect Arabic may have fuelled the flames. Or perhaps, like many Sudanese, he simply lumped me into the category of “rich white woman”.

Unfortunately, this does ring true in some cases. There is a fraction of the expat community, for instance UN workers, who have disposable salaries, are driven around in air-conditioned cars and spend their spare time at the Rotana Hotel. However, my situation here is totally different. My low income forces me to participate in local life; not that I am opposed to this. I ride the rickety buses around town; I argue with Amjad drivers and fruit sellers about prices; I eat fuul and tamia; I visit tea ladies. I would see my identity here more as a traveller. For this reason, I find it difficult to live in a place where people are constantly trying to rip me off and take advantage of me due to the colour of my skin. I even feel guilty bartering, as people are convinced that I can afford more.

I am also tired of being hit on by men, simply for being myself and being friendly. This is not an invitation for sex, let alone marriage. Many Sudanese men want a khawaja wife, both as a trophy and as a means of getting out of the country. Thus, I am a constant target to be preyed upon. Smile too enthusiastically and men here will propose on the spot.

Neither do I like the special treatment I receive for being European. With every good thing that happens, I can never be sure if it was good fortune, due to my own efforts or simply my colouring. People find it difficult to refuse a khawaja, which puts you in an odd position of power. I don’t like this elitism at all, as I want to feel that I am in control of my own destiny and can make things happen for myself.

The question is how can we change people’s perceptions of foreigners in Sudan? I want to tell them how life is not easy for everyone in the West; just because you live in a wealthy country does not mean you are automatically entitled to share of the wealth. And how one of the reasons I came to Sudan was to escape financial troubles in my own country, namely debt.

Since I can’t ever hope to make a huge impact, I will start small and try to enlighten the small fraction of the population that I make acquaintance with while I am here.

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3 comments
  1. Krista said:

    Do you really feel that people in Sudan are constantly trying to rip you off and take advantage of you??

    Go to somewhere like Egypt, India, Morocco and you will see what that is like, but even then I think it’s a bit lazy to perpetuate those kind of stereotypes. The words you write on the internet have power, and Sudan has a lot of things wrong with it, but that’s not in any way my experience of Sudan. On the contrary, the majority of people are unbelievably kind and generous. I know you’ve experienced this generosity.

    This individual was very rude to you and I’m sure it was an uncomfortable or scary situation for you, so I’m sorry it happened. But the reality is that your ‘poorness’ is very different from the poverty that too many people here experience. He doesn’t know your problems, but you don’t know his either. We do have more disposable income than him, debt notwithstanding, even if it’s nowhere near as much as he thinks.

    Of course he’s not right to take this anger out on you, but he’s not wrong to be angry. It’s the weltschmerz getting him down 🙂

    • I have already mentioned Sudanese generosity in previous posts. I am simply saying that in my experience, there is another side of the coin. The purpose of this blog is to process my own thoughts and experiences and to share them with my friends and family. I certainly don’t expect everything I write here to be taken as gospel and my perceptions of this country and its people are constantly changing. If you had a different experience then great – write about it! 🙂

  2. Krista said:

    Well let’s continue this discussion offline. But for what it’s worth, I do write occasionally at secondstorysudan.tumblr.com

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