Sand and sounds of old Khartoum. Social unrest, a dust-filled swimming pool, and a people determined to `make things work' welcome reporter to a city rich in legend
Khartoum, Sudan — The only way to embark on the journey, I had decided, was spiritually. That is, clasping one's Herodotus and sailing by steamer from Athens to Alexandria, then proceeding up the Nile to Wadi Halfa. A gradual way of easing oneself into Africa.
From the desolate frontier town it would be a matter of several days' travel along the small-gauge railroad built by English Gen. H. H. Kitchener in the late 19th century through the baking wastes of northern Sudan to Khartoum.
Politics and unforeseen circumstances on this continent, however, have a nasty habit of disrupting carefully laid plans.
Initially, I had intended to drive by Land Rover from Cairo to Cape Town. But gasoline shortages throughout Sudan and spreading civil war had made it foolhardy if not virtually impossible to try the overland route.
Not only would one have to wait for hours, if not days, for three or four gallons at the pumps, but there was also the risk of being kidnapped or shot at by rebels between Khartoum and Juba. Nor was transporting a vehicle up the White Nile a good idea. Guerrilla fire had already sunk barges trying to pass through the Sudd, the giant, mosquito-ridden swamp in the south.
``What's more,'' commented one of those grizzled, seemingly imperturbable American aid workers from Juba, ``you've got to run a gauntlet of bandits along the Kenyan border. They'll take everything from you but your car and your decency, namely your underclothes.''
With Khartoum full of abandoned or unsold cars of travelers unable to drive any farther, I reluctantly opted for shipping my Land Rover, purchased second hand in Britain, directly to Mombasa, Kenya. Despite the drawbacks, I was still determined to be romantic about the venture.
I thus found myself waiting in Athens at the beginning of April for the weekly ferry to Egypt. But BBC reports of riots and demonstrations in Khartoum strongly suggested that the regime of President Jaafar Nimeiry, Sudan's strong man for the past 16 years, had run its course.
I caught the next plane to Khartoum. As it happened, it proved to be the last for many days. At the airport an immigration official who recognized me from a trip last January smiled wryly and waved me through without checking bags or papers.
``Ah, my journalist friend. Welcome. I think you will find things very interesting in our country now,'' he said with only a hint of irony.
Within hours after I landed, a penetrating haboob (sandstorm) swept ominously across the Nile and over the drab, once imposing colonial buildings of the Sudanese capital. Then the country was shut down in a general strike and all communications to the outside world were cut.
There was little encouragement at the hotel. Over the years, deteriorating economic conditions have led to an increasing number of power cuts, the worst lasting three weeks. As I walked into the Oasis Hotel, a sad, typically misnamed establishment sporting an empty swimming pool filling with dust, there was neither light nor air conditioning, and an early evening temperature of a hundred degrees.
At the front desk two Indian businessmen from London, stranded in Khartoum because of the riots, bemoaned their plight.
``It is ve-rry bad, ve-rry, ve-rry bad,'' one of them lamented, shaking his head. ``We cannot leave. Can you imagine that? And now they are shooting people in the streets. Not only that, we cannot find matches. I have been looking for days. But there are also no candles, so I really wonder why I bother looking for matches.''
Three days later, on April 6, President Nimeiry was ousted in a popularly backed military coup. The airport, however, remained closed for another week with seats out of the country overbooked for days. I still wonder how long it finally took my Indian friends to leave.
The ``revolution,'' as the Sudanese passionately refer to the overthrow, immediately inspired a blossoming of hopes and expectations, as if the nation had only just discovered its innocence. In January, with Nimeiry's security police everywhere, people in Khartoum were doleful, cautious about what they said to strangers. Now you could not get them to stop talking.
``After 16 years of Nimeiry, there was nothing left for the Sudanese. They have been drained of inspiration. Wiped out. Bored,'' a young, Western-educated engineer told me as we enjoyed the cool of the evening at a friend's house some 10 days later.
``They see this as a new era. Before, if I went out at night, I could get stopped by the security police. Now we can breathe again.''
Six weeks have passed since the revolution. The euphoria that characterized its early days, and the first signs of impatience with the transitional government's apparent lack of decision, are beginning to creep in. People want change now.
But there still seems to be a genuine determination to make things work, to create a new society. With almost tedious regularity, Sudanese television rebroadcasts scenes of surging throngs and truckloads of waving soldiers condemning the old (``down with Nimeiry'') and embracing the new (``freedom for all''), a constant reminder that the people and Army are one.
Without a doubt, the revolution has had a far greater impact in Khartoum and other towns than in the countryside.
``It is very rare in Africa to see a revolution triggered by members of the middle class,'' one of the European residents explained, noting that for many rural dwellers, political change at the top has usually meant little or no improvement. Indeed, many farmers are worse off now than at independence in 1956. This prompted some village elders in the western region to inquire of a visitor how much longer ``this independence business'' was going to continue before the British came back.
Nevertheless, the urban Sudanese, after so many years of political void, appear to be taking their new-found democracy very seriously.
Every morning shortly after dawn, carpenters, painters, and construction workers gather at the souk (market) in Omdurman, the teeming Arab-style sister city of Khartoum just below the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, to await work. With the crowded teashops behind them, these highly unionized workers sit or stand on the streetsides, their hammers, shovels, and paint brushes neatly aligned on the ground in front. The foremen then pass to choose their workers.
When I tried to photograph this unusual scene, I was immediately accosted by an angry knot of mainly southern Sudanese. Deeply suspicious of cameras, they demanded to know what I wanted with my pictures. As I tried to reason with the group's self-appointed spokesman -- ``I am an educated man,'' he announced -- a northerner came up to tell us that it was forbidden to form crowds. The mood changed when my interlocutor turned on the other and said, ``We are a democracy now. No one can stop us from speaking.''