Where Arab hospitality trumps the Western day planner

A visit to a Sudanese midwife takes longer – and is more satisfying – than anticipated.

We weren't lost. We knew exactly where we were: in the flat sandy desert north of Khartoum, west of the Nile. All we had to do to find our way home was drive due east, away from the afternoon sun, and we'd eventually drive right up to the Big Drink itself. Then head south. Easy.

But taking a ride with folks from the United Nations Population Fund into the desert to find a midwife was starting to seem like a wild goose chase. One Arab villager, vaulting over his mud wall to meet the first stranger he'd seen in ages, gave us directions as if going to the corner store. "Drive until you see a green mosque, and then take the next street to the right."

We looked in the direction of where he was pointing. What green mosque? What street? We hadn't seen pavement for an hour or more. The only roads were tracks in the shifting sand.

Trips like this one – the end of a week and a half of traveling in Sudan and the western region of Darfur – remind one of the different concepts of space and time between East and West. In the West, we pack as many meetings as we can into a day, a half-hour apiece, each starting and ending with a handshake. In the East, and particularly a remote Sudanese village, a meeting is something to be anticipated weeks in advance, savored for hours with endless cups of tea, and repeated in memory for weeks, months, and even years afterward. Out here, nothing ever happens in just a half hour.

When we reached the village of Abu Saleh, guided by a succession of hitchhiking friends and relatives, our midwife, Kultoon Mohammad Alameen, was in the middle of a house call for a first-time mother. "Don't worry, she's a day away from giving birth," said Kultoon, leaving the cool shade of the dark concrete house. The expectant mother's relatives hung on her every word. "When she's ready to give birth, she'll know it."

Kultoon was the daughter of the local village chief, or sheikh. She started delivering babies about 37 years ago, but realized after a particularly difficult birth that it would be better for everyone if she took a proper one-year midwifery course in Khartoum. Now, in her mid-50s, she is the model of a modern Sudanese midwife.

One thinks of Sudan as a traditional society, and it is. But women like Kultoon become leaders of their community. They are often the only healthcare for miles, in a country with some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. For the women in the village of Abu Saleh, Kultoon is a hero, an angel, a friend.

Unfortunately, Kultoon doesn't have a successor to take over when her time is done. "I'm always encouraging young women, but the response is weak," she says. "Young women just don't want to become midwives." In fact, for those villagers who can afford it, a trip to Khartoum to the maternity hospital has become more fashionable than a free visit from the local midwife, she says.

Our planned half hour has already turned into an hour, but when we rise to leave, Kultoon bars the door and becomes gravely serious. "I have been preparing lunch for you people since 8 o'clock this morning. If you leave now, I will never forgive you. We have become friends, but now, if I see you on the street, I will walk right past you."

There it is again, the word "street." Out in the courtyard, Kultoon's brother, the new sheikh, rounds up wandering UN personnel like a shepherd rounding up sheep. Arab hospitality trumps the Western day planner.

We call up our next appointment, cancel it, and settle down for a massive lunch of okra stew with spongy injera bread, grilled chicken, lamb stew with flat bread, spinach, and rice. The sheikh has a playful glint in his eye, and he inquires about the marital status of each of the women in the UN team. Finding out that I'm married to an Indian woman, he says with a dreamy look in his eye, "Ah, yes, Indian women have long hair."

Even here, Bollywood has cast its spell.

Washing our hands in a tin basin, we prepare to leave. We came as strangers, we part as friends. Men pat their right hands on the shoulders of other men, in the Arabic way, and women hug likewise. Kultoon crosses the gender line and hugs us all.

Three hours of road await us, but all I can feel is gratitude for choosing to stay longer than half an hour.

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