Letters from Darfur: Leaking toilets, AK-47s and Gadaffi’s Egg

2010-11-29 14:21

If the world cared to check, Khartoum would possibly be the city with the most leaking bathrooms. At least that’s what became apparent on my first day in Sudan’s capital.

Being in a Muslim country, Khartoum’s toilets are fittingly of the squatting variety, though non-locals are accommodated with leaking sitters of their own.

Okay, maybe rest room issues can wait for now.

Consider that I landed here after dark and was driven straight to the Sandy Hotel in the heart of the city. My first impression couldn’t have been of the local cops with their colourful rubber flip-flops, turquoise fatigues and AK-47s. Yes, the infamous leader, it appears, has a sense of humour. Otherwise, what’s with this uniform?

Another explanation is the unforgiving heat and that it’s easier to kick the flip-flops off before the daily prayers. Muslims observe five mandatory prayers daily. These begin with an ablution ritual call “wuzu” in Arabic.

The people here are very polite – the women are modest, and the men courteous and guarded. Our fixer, the guy tasked with the loathsome duty of ferrying me and five other media workers from South Africa, is an unassuming guy. He’s a northerner of Arabic designation and speaks scant English.

Mustafa shares a fashion sense with John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He is employed by the Information Ministry and does a good job – I guess, because he managed to keep me from being arrested. Yes, on the first day, for behaving like a regular tourist with a camera.

In Sudan people need special permission to take pictures, especially near public buildings. So you can imagine the feeling I got when uniforms came storming towards our minibus with AK-47s in hand.

The first major gathering of our visit is a meeting at the Great Hall (Gaat Sadaga) near the building famously known as Gadaffi’s Egg because it was donated by the Libyans and it’s said to be shaped like and egg. To me it looked more like a sailing boat – which would make more sense because it’s meant to pay tribute to this mode of transport and the Nile.

The Great Hall gathering was hosted by the governor of the Khartoum State, Abdel Rahman Elkhidir. In the audience were leaders of the Southern Sudan groups. The main issues are complaints about the problems with voter registration for the January referendum.

It’s here that I learned to differentiate between the tall and stately men of Dinka and the Nore ethnic groups of Southern Sudan – they have cultural tattoos on their foreheads. These ethnic groups are neither Christian nor Muslim as most commentators on Sudan tend to generalise.

Such diversity gives Sudan its sedate charm.

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