January 11, 2012

Sudan: the workmen (and others)

UPDATE: We have now excavated 50 graves!

At the beginning of the season (three weeks ago), the director hired
14 workmen. Every day 14 workmen arrive. These are not, however, the
same ones we started with. Workers here look at a job as sort of a
family post – if you can’t come, send your younger brother. This is
completely antithetical to Western work habits: you might be perfectly
qualified for your job as a  Digging Technician, but no way would your
financial analyst brother be qualified to tell a human
bone from a rock. But that’s not how it works in Sudan, at least in
the villages. If you can’t plow your field because you have to take
your donkey to market, of course your brother can do it! Although they
were told not to send substitutes more than one or two times in the
season, they already have done so many times – all you have to do is
dig holes, right? I have more important things to do!

This is not to say that they’re just slacking off for the sake of it.
Nasser and Salla haven’t been in all week because they’re helping
Salla’s brother Ezu build an addition to his shop. I learned since
writing the last entry that although some of them do go to the mosque
on Fridays, some do catch-up work on their farms. We were also told
that they “take unnecessary breaks, spend too long in the toilet [that
is, behind a bush], and take too long carrying sand away.” I haven’t
found these to be true; when your job is to dig holes 8 hours a day,
it’s nice to walk eeeeeextra slowly to the toilet, enjoying standing
upright for a bit. I know I do it after being crouched in a hole. They
are actually very conscientious and friendly and enjoy being helpful –
they don’t treat the job as a drudgery. (Maybe it helps that it’s
different what they do the rest of the year, and also get a nice
salary – there isn’t really a “salary” in farm work, so it’s a bunch
of extra cash.)

I don’t know everyone’s names since they keep switching out, but here are a few:
Omda – everyone’s favorite since he’s really patient and excellent at
cleaning bones. Really, I wish I had his skills. He’s pretty young,
maybe early 20s, and has been on site every day; it’s likely he’s the
youngest in his family. He listens to music on his cellphone with a
shared pair of headphones, which inspired me to bring my ipod out. He
also has ridiculously prehensile toes, managing to grab things out of
deep trenches without using the ladder. Everyone knows he’s the
favorite and the other men sometimes call him Omda Habibi.

Said – Omda-in-training. He told us he was twenty, but can’t be more
than 17. He’s quite good at cleaning bones and often gets his own tent
to work in. We pointed out all the skeleton parts, and he corrected me
the other day. In my defense, he was right in the hole and I was six
feet away.

Walid – This is actually his second income; his other job is as one of
the “tourist police” at Kawa, the biggest archaeological site in the
area. I’m not sure who guards it while he’s with us.Since he’s sort of
in charge of things, he’s the only one allowed to answer his cellphone
on site. He’s 26 and very sweet: he sees that we don’t get paid every
Thursday, and actually offers us his salary. We tried to explain that
we are paid at the end, but he still tries since we just sit around
while everyone else is counting their bills. To site, he wears
trousers and a collared shirt under a blue wool overcoat and faux
snakeskin loafers. Walid is very loud, and likes to sing and listen to
Akon on his phone in the car; he can often be heard shouting across
the site, typically “aybu igri!” which is Nubian for “I am weeping!” –
sarcastically, of course, since he’s usually lying on the ground
helping Anna move handfuls of dirt from the deep pit or relaxing in an
empty wheelbarrow.

Abdul Azim – Possibly the oldest of the lot, he may be in his 60s. He
was clearly very handsome in his youth, and commands the respect of
the younger guys. He always gets the window seat in the car.

Nasser – A lovely gentleman in his 30s. He speaks English shyly and
apparently reads English books. I was told that everyone learns
English in school (and everyone goes to school from age 6-13) but that
he really works at it. He wears a talit as a scarf, which I’ve been
told people here like because of the pattern (and are unaware of its
significance). He is kind and helpful and quiet but unfortunately has
been off building Ezu’s store for the last week.

Yasser – I wish I could write a Goofus & Gallant about Nasser and
Yasser. Yasser is without a doubt the most annoying human being on
earth. While everyone else wears white galabiyas or men’s work
clothes, he wears pink women’s sweatpants and a towel as a scarf. He
never works when told, and when he decides to work he messes things
up. He is incredibly loud and will sing off-key all day. When we asked
the director why he hires him year after year despite his obvious
ineptitude, he answered, “Well, he’s consistent, and he plays the
drums at the party. You can’t fire the drummer.” All bands ever beg to

Saddam – A young guy who speaks a little English. He’s one of the
substitutes, and is only interesting because he comes on the same days

Gaddafi – To complete the Arab Leaders quad. He speaks English a
little bit, but manages to effectively communicate considering our poor Arabic skills. When I was in the
tent he was emptying my bags of sand, and he said, “In here I not see
you. If need me, telephone,” indicating that I should call for him.

Shekadin – The village’s mechanic. Appropriately, he wears his
mechanic’s jumpsuit every day and helped with the numerous punctures (flat tires)
we’ve had.

Back at the house, we have a few women who come to wash dishes twice
daily. I know one is Safa, who is looking for a foreign husband and is
consistently disappointed by our all-female troupe, and one is her
mother; I haven’t caught the names of the other two. They come dressed
in bright floral tobes and sit on a low stool to scrub the plates and
pots (with soap! I found the soap! It exists!)

Mohammed, our cook, owns a restaurant in Karima, which is south of
here. Cooking is usually the role of women, but I guess it’s ok since
he’s paid. He’s quite good, although the food here is generally
would-you-like-some-oil-with-your-oil? Since yesterday we’ve had
pumpkin stew, rigla (lentils with local untranslatable herbs), lentil
soup, and potato and pea curry. He also makes really good falafel,
which are called tami’a here.

Next time: Speaking Arabic, mostly in hand gestures


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