February 6, 2013

Sudan: Well, the sunrises are great.

Can you believe, I wrote this entry almost a year ago and never posted it. Well then – all the better for you, a Sudan surprise!

New Years Eve camping. photo by Anna P.

You, my readers, may be concerned that I haven’t enjoyed Sudan. To some extent this is true. However, the reasons are complex, and I don’t want to waste time complaining (or slandering). Part of the reason is that at least one team member was ill at any given time. Part was because the particular type of illness made squat toilets unpleasant. Part may have been the fact that we had the windiest season in 20 years. But the one entirely redeeming feature was the Sudanese people. Of everywhere I’ve traveled, I have never met a culture so welcoming, hospitable, and friendly. The thing I really enjoy as an archaeologist is getting to travel and “anthropologize”, and here we really got to interact with local people and become friends. I thought I’d do my final post for this expedition on what I’ve observed, and try not to throw in too much theory.

The Government

If you read international papers, you know that the government here is pretty crap. They have complete control of the presses and don’t allow foreign educational materials into the country, which makes progress really hard. They set up checkpoints along the roads, which are a hassle. They are overly religious; I asked our inspector how many Sudanese would drink alcohol if it wasn’t forbidden, and he said everybody! Apparently drinking is not actually forbidden in Islam, but people get overenthusiastic and ban it altogether. Lots of people brew moonshine, and I had a home-brewed beer the British sand expert brought up from Khartoum. Abdul-Majid, the father of our landlord, can generally be found lying on his bed-couch or in our date palm. Someone asked if he lies down because he was old, and the response was that he’s always lying down because he’s always drunk. (No idea how much of this was a joke.) They also smoke strong shisha, which has now been banned in Khartoum because women were starting to do it, and some other marijuana-like drug that I’m sure is also forbidden (although we’re suspicious our cook was continually stoned; no actual evidence for this besides his tendency towards giggles and laid-back attitude). While the government does terrible things like attacking the south while claiming that the war ended 7 years ago (actual quote from yesterday’s newspaper), people in the north are quite happy because with the new president, they now have roads and electricity. So, yes, if you’re in a small village and you never had a fridge or a television or a fan to keep cool, and dangerous roads preventing you from getting anywhere, and suddenly someone comes into power far away and gives you all these things, you’re going to be pretty appreciative.

The gorgeously paved roads. Photo by Anna P.


Some people have expressed concern for my safety because there are no less than four wars going on in Sudan, as well as riots in Khartoum. That was the first I’d ever heard of these things. The news in the village is who’s picking their foul, who’s getting married, and who’s having a baby. All the village women were gossiping about us, saying that we bought mish (yogurt with cumin and fenugreek) in the shop. This was a complete fabrication, as we had no idea this even existed, but after we heard the news about us eating it we went out and bought some (delicious!). I didn’t see any newspapers in the village (in fact, I didn’t see any reading materials at all). Theoretically, everyone (at least young people – not sure when the law was instituted) is literate because they are all required to attend school. However, it doesn’t look like anyone reads. They all have tv, and Ezu’s shop has a satellite tv, but they seem to only watch Egyptian and Syrian soap operas. (Whether the government allows broadcasts of news about the south or Darfur is unknown, but I suspect the worst.) They must be connected to the outside world because the prices of crops and imported products do fluctuate with gas prices, but nobody ever talked about the news to us. There was also no danger of imminent invasion by anyone other than the biting flies. In a country this big (or, a country formerly very big) with extremely limited internet, news travels sloooow.

-The Military

I have never seen a military or police force less organized. Sometimes the police wore uniforms, but some at the checkpoints could only be identified as police because they were asking for papers at a checkpoint. One checkpoint was a man sitting by the roadblock (made of a tire and two cones) with a camo pickup truck (Toyota Hilux, I presume) with a big machine gun mounted on the bed. Because a lone policeman checking travel permints in the middle of the desert really, really needs a machine gun. Sometimes it seems like they just want to chat. Sometimes one dude waves you on and another puts up his hand to stop you, and you have no idea which one to obey. Sometimes they want to see your license, your registration, or the driver’s travel permit; sometimes they want to see everyone’s travel permit. Fortunately all the times we were stopped the driver was our director. Sarah drove the second Land Rover, and although she has an international driving license, I’m not sure how they’d react to a non-Sudanese document.

We often saw soldiers in Dongola out getting lunch. Really, American soldiers would be embarrassed to be seen in public as they were: boots unlaced, too-big trousers rolled up, shirts open. Carrying machine guns. At least I feel like the 18-year-old machine-gun-toting Israeli and American soldiers (the only ones I’ve seen up close) look professional. These looked like just some kids dressed up in older bro’s clothes. They also sing when they’re marching in public.


There are many different regional styles of Sudanese dance. A great one to see on youtube is the Nubian type, where they leap in the air. I got to see our workmen dancing (Yasser on drum) at the end-of-season party – they do a kind of sideways shuffle-step with one arm in the air and head facing the ground, swaying to the music. Occasionally they will switch and clap in time. I don’t know the restrictions on women dancing with men, but we were invited to join them. (Although as Western women we have a sort of “honorary men” status, especially since we are doing what’s typically men’s work – digging holes. Generally hired workers are all men except in the Nile delta, where women carry the baskets on their heads, according to Anna.) It would have been great to see if women dance differently, but we didn’t get the chance.

Dancing. Photo by Ruth H.


After a few weeks in town, the workmen started inviting us over for tea. Teatime here is around 7 pm – it’s called “shay maghrib”, sunset tea – and it’s the only time of day when they have milky tea. Instead of English tea with milk added, “shay bi laban” is strong Sudanese tea boiled in milk with lots and lots of sugar. Traditional accompaniments are zellabia, the doughnuts, and little pieces of cake. After Safi’s aunt made us “esh balal”, date bread, word got around that we liked it and soon everybody was making date bread for us. When we go to people’s homes, we get to meet every member of the family. Everyone comes out and shakes our hands, even if they immediately go back to whatever they were doing in another room. Shaking hands and greeting everyone is a BIG thing. If someone is working and has dirty or wet hands, they’ll present their wrist to shake. Even small children will shyly shake your hand when prompted by mothers. It’s freaking adorable.

The really sad thing about the teas is that we never actually wanted to go. We worked from 7:30 (waking up at 6:30) to 2 in the hot sun, then had a long hot drive, lunch, and a short break before more work at 4:30. Anna and I were lucky in that we could only work in natural light because we couldn’t see the bones in the poor fluorescent light, but Ruth and Sarah would do paperwork right up until they fell asleep. When someone invited us for tea, it meant getting changed into appropriate clean clothes (not pajamas or tank tops) and talking to people for at least an hour in another language. There are only so many ways to compliment someone’s home and food and children and ask after their wellbeing with a limited vocabulary. It’s very, very tiring. I only skipped one tea, though, as the desire to be polite and also to check out other people’s houses slightly tipped the scales. (The conclusion: everyone had a nicer house than ours, with clean latrines, new paint, and pressed-earth or tile floors. They all had fridges for their leftovers. They all had fans and screens on the windows. Their doors closed properly. They had nice tiled outdoor sinks instead of just a tap. We were not living like locals, we were living like crap compared to the locals.) I wonder what they thought when they came to visit our place – probably wondering how people can live like that. Crazy Euros! They can’t even mop properly, and the women and men share a shower.

-Male and Female Roles

Compared to Saudi Arabia or Iran, women are living it up. Compared to Western countries, women are stuck in the marriage and family role with no mobility. Our dishwashers were a mother and daughter, Atana and Safa. Atana is looking pretty good for sixty and 17 children and two husbands, both of whom she outlived! Her first husband died after 7 children, an in accordance with tradition she married his brother. This is biblical, and is supposed to be in the widow’s advantage as she’ll have extra support. Her second husband’s support came in the form of 10 more children. Now she basically runs a house full of women, which is pretty cool.

The typical age for marriage is much younger for women than for men. Women get married around 18-25, although some younger and some older. Men don’t marry until at least 30, and some at least 40, because they have to earn money to support the family and build a house first. I was surprised to learn that Gaddafi, who is in his early forties, only has two very young children. Nasser, in his late 30s, works in construction and moved around the country on jobs before moving here, to his cousin’s village, to get married. Marriages can be for love or they can be arranged, but it’s easy to get out of an arranged one. Our director’s wife knows a woman who was engaged to her cousin, off working in Libya. When he returned, she decided to break it off as she didn’t like him that much.

If women don’t marry young, they can wait a while and work. Safa is in her 30s and unmarried, but she has a job. There is really no such thing as a working mother, as a married woman’s job is to take care of the family (very much like the US and Western Europe until 60, 50, 40, 30 years ago, or even now depending on who you ask). If a family can afford to send their daughter to university, she may get married once she’s finished. When people ask if we are married, we have a pretty good excuse: we are still students (none of this “haven’t met the right one/no one likes me/no one’s good enough/it’s not a good time/I’ve got things to do/queer/random excuse”). Marriage also goes along with having children early and often; childless Western women are a continual source of confusion.

Men and women seem to have very “traditional” responsibilities. Men work on their farms and build things and own shops. Women raise families, clean the house, wash dishes, and sometimes sell produce in the market (and with all that dust, the houses need constant attention). As I wrote before, we see more men than women in restaurants because they have responsibilities that bring them into the public sphere more often. However, it’s good to have women around in public (instead of completely absent, as in Jordan, where I felt very uncomfortable) because you can ask them where the toilet is.

Dress for men is the galabiya – always white – and tobes for women. The restrictions on hair covering are not as strict as in the Saudi-esque countries, and women don’t cover up around male family members or in a group of only women (in the privacy of the home, of course). We were invited to go over to Nahet’s (Mazin’s sister) before the party so they could do hair and makeup and tobe us up on Saturday. Somehow, all the village girls heard and flocked to their house to watch us and state their opinions. They lavished attention on Ruth and Sarah, both of whom have long hair, which they tied in tight ponytails (to balance the top of the tobe on) and tried to curl a bit at the front to stick out. They kind of gave up on me and Anna (both with short hair) and just did garish makeup like an Egyptian soap opera. They were all having fun treating us like dolls and having girl time (“Makeoverrrrr!”), and it’s of course rare for them to get four girls with light skin to experiment on. (Considering the lack of the makeup for dark skin available in US/UK, and the fact that most products in Sudan come from China and are dime-store quality: it’s cheap white-people makeup. No subtlety.)

Later, Nahet came over to say goodbye to Ruth, as they’ve hung out more often. And she started weeping and weeping. Ruth and I were discussing it later, both having realized that as sad and narcissistic as it sounds, we are the most exciting thing to happen in that village. If I were a Sudanese author, I’d start a novel with “Every winter the hawajas came to town, bringing sweets for the children and much excitement.” Nahet, who’s my age, bakes bread for us and a few other families, a job that may be compatible with family life as her bread oven is in the house. But her future, Ruth says, is pretty much already written: marriage and children, or living with her family and selling bread. Until cell phones, someone could get married to a cousin in another village and never see or hear from their family again. So it makes sense that she was weeping to see us go: if Ruth doesn’t go back next year, Nahet will literally never hear from her again. There aren’t even addresses to write letters, even if they read the same language.

Additionally, the practice of FGM (female genital mutilation, euphemistically and incorrectly called female circumcision) affects 90% of girls and women in Sudan. So everyone is friendly and having a good time, but chances are high that they’ve been subjected to a dangerous and painful procedure that makes giving birth like, a thousand times riskier. This is for a whole ‘nother entry.


The average annual income for this part of Sudan, according to the CIA, is $2400 per capita. And consider that in most cases, it’s only the men in each family working. In our area, most of the money comes from agriculture – harvesting the foul beans and other vegetables. When they’re working for us, it’s added income as the beans keep growing, but occasionally some men take a few days off to pick beans and send a younger brother in their place. They get the same day wage as we do, which is a significant amount in that area. However, no one is starving. Everyone seems pretty happy. I mean, as an outsider I can’t see whether everyone is really and truly happy, especially since I’m not best friends with anyone here who shares their deepest secrets, but it’s certainly not a UNICEF advert. Everyone in the village eats at least two nutritionally complete meals a day that I see (I bet they have lunch, but we’re too busy eating our own to see), and get meat once a week and cheese more often. Hassan, at my estimate 250 pounds, calls himself “the fat man”. They have families and televisions and bathe more than frequently. They all own shoes, even if they don’t wear them all the time. They definitely have better lives than the refugees we drove by in Khartoum. They’re towards the top of Maslow’s pyramid, is what I’m trying to say. By which I mean: Sudan was different. Very different. But it was great to be here, and wonderful to meet all these new friends, whom I’ll hopefully see again in a couple years.

Photo by Sarah B.



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