Archaeologists say the pyramids, cemeteries and ancient palaces of the Nubian Desert in northern Sudan hold mysteries to rival ancient Egypt and as I meandered through the forgotten pyramids of Meroe with not another tourist in sight (apart from the other 22 people of course) I knew I was one of the privileged few who has ever experienced this. It really sets them apart from the pyramids of Egypt which I feel are slightly overshadowed by the hundreds of other people you have to share the experience with. And this is just one of the many attractions that Sudan hosts.
The war story however is a real war story, as with hope in this country comes misery, violence and death in Darfur. For over three years, everyone from the UN Secretary-General to the President of the United States to actors George Clooney and Mia Farrow have been calling for a stop to the conflict in Darfur. And nothing changes.
For four years the Government has been content in letting humanitarian agencies do the work of the Government and provide basic services to two-thirds of the entire population of Sudan’s Western region. The outcome, affluent suburbs in Khartoum and complete desolation in Southern Sudan and Darfur's states.
When I said I was going to Sudan the response that I got wasn't all unexpected. I'm the first to admit that I was cautious yet curious about the country that we have read so much about in terms of the civil war. But as the oracle that is the Lonely Planet said to me '"Khartoum (the capital of Sudan) is one of the friendliest and safest cities in the world", and of course the Planet didn't disappoint.
I arrived first in Wadi Halfa, the bordering town with Luxor, Egypt after a long and hectic ferry journey across miles of crocodile infested waters (so I was told!) to be greeted with smiling faces and offers of help.I wandered around this very small, very dusty border town and had not one, not two but three marriage proposals! I settled down on a wall with a bottle of Coke bought from a very nice man in a local shop to people watch. I love to people watch, airports and train stations are usually my favourite places but an alien town in Sudan was a great substitute.
I watched families passing, children laughing and the odd donkey trotting past. Men sat in nearby cafe's drinking Sudanese tea and women shopped for the family meal at the local market. Darfur right now could be a million miles away.
This was the first and last opportunity to stock up on anything we needed before a six-day drive across the desert toward Meroe and then on to Khartoum, with nothing and no one except sand, sand and well more sand. The once a week train running from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum was cancelled and not due until the following week, I suddenly felt relief for the 'cheat a truck' that I was going to be on and felt genuine pity for the cyclists that I met on the ferry who were biking from Cairo to Cape Town for charity.The desert was vast, we could have been anywhere on earth, an alien country, an alien planet. We spent six days and six nights driving alongside the train track, camping under the stars. I was completely mesmerised by the desert and although the heat took a little getting used to, this began my love story with Sudan.
I read a book by a Sudanese doctor from Darfur the week before arriving to 'prepare' myself for the country. 'Tears of the desert ' is the memoirs of Halima Bashir and focuses on her life as a doctor and the terrors that she faced against the government and the rival militia. It was hard to comprehend that in the same country hundreds of people were being killed right now, bombs could be going off, soldiers killing innocent civilians, government officials allowing this to happen. We have all seen Darfur on the news and watched time and time again when a new peace agreement is issued and then fails, the civil war remains and it is surreal to think that a country with such hospitality and such warmth from the people could be the same country with so much war and bloodshed.
Arriving in Khartoum, the desert roads gradually forming into paved roads and then motorways spilling off from shops and housing blocks was an intense feeling. Amidst the car horns and exhaust fumes, men climbed out of their cars in the crisp white Muslim attire – the tagia (cap) and gelabia (long shirt), escorting their wives wrapped in colourful and shimmering toaps. The Southern Sudanese refugees bustled around, trying to keep busy washing cars or selling sunglasses or other pointless items on the side of the road to try to earn a living. People notice us walking down the street, perhaps the only 'tourist' and wave and shout. Women smile coyly with their eyes through their headscarves or burka's, children look at us in utter amazement at the clear difference of them and us and we smile back soaking in the chaos and culture that is a Sudanese city.Khartoum clearly doesn't need tourism, perhaps that is why the visas are so hard to obtain and are only valid for two weeks. The reports of wealth being generated in Khartoum from oil from the South seem clear as the signs of affluence tower above me in the form of apartment blocks and sky scrapers. Although there are signs of your typical African city with the markets and homelessness and beggars the roads and developed shops are the indicator that Khartoum is head above the rest in the wealth stakes
It is a lot more urbanised than I could possibly have imaged. It is reported that the Darfur crisis began when Darfurians insisted that the government was neglecting their arid and desolate region and instead focusing the wealth on the country's capital and the investment capital in hope of making it the 'Dubai' of North Africa.
With the expansion of Khartoum steadily growing the standard of life for the Sudanese living in Khartoum is gradually getting better but what is to be said of Darfurians and those living in Southern Sudan? Oil and private investment is funding the expansion of Khartoum. However, oil revenue is not making its way to the vastly under resourced and under-developed South.
My point remains, Khartoum is a safe and lively city which is growing rapidly as we speak and although the reason for the growth is controversial and there is wide speculation on the Sudanese government the Sudanese people in and around Khartoum make the city their own and welcome any tourist with fascination and genuine hospitality. Perhaps it is because they are proud of their city or perhaps it is because they are thankful that tourists want to visit their problematic country but I do know that Sudan is a country that I will return to one day to find out more about state of the country.
My first hand encounters of the places that I visited within the country are completely authentic and memorable with not a bad experience to mention, with meaningful moments spent with Sudanese. Like the lady at the Ethnographic museum who offered us fresh figs and taught us how to play the drum, or the man who kindly showed us to the market but expected no money in return unlike other similar encounters in countries on my trip, or simply the many many friendly people who were eager to ask about our lives and our country. The only negatives I can muster is that which I have read and which you have no doubt read and seen on the news. Sudan is a contradictory and complicated country but it is not one to avoid or to think badly off just because the media says so, it is one to hope for, for the growth of its future and the success of it's people. No matter where in the country they are from. To me it shows that the people of Sudan should not be judged by the state and government of the country.
A Note on Darfur
The Darfur conflict began in 20o3 when Sudan liberation movement/army (SLM/A) and the Justice and equality movement (JEM) accused the government of oppressing black Africans and favouring Arabs in Khartoum. Since then there has been thousands of deaths and casualties through arms and warfare. The World Health Organisation estimates 50,000 deaths caused by militia and government response warfare.
While the USA has recognised the conflict as genocide the UN has not. Many activists, however, refer to the crisis in Darfur as genocide, including the Save Darfur Coalition, the Aegis Trust and the Genocide Intervention Network. Other activist organizations such as Amnesty International avoid the use of the term genocide. It is an international controversy. There have been numerous attempts at peace agreements from various