Sudan: Living with filth
The Wellcome Collection in London recently had an exhibition called
“Dirt”. It explored all the facets of what we (Western, modern people)
think of as dirty: disease, pests, garbage, effluence, human waste. I
will use this exhibit as a loose guideline for this entry, and
contrast the ideal “clean” with my day-to-day living here. As Western,
modern people, who use indoor toilets and Windex and own two different
types of vacuum (hand and motor), there is acceptable and unacceptable
dirt. We associate cleanliness with Civilization (with a capital C), a
connection shared by many cultures. Sudan does keep clean – it’s just
different from American clean.
Watch out, this gets gross.
Part I: Trash
There is no central landfill here. As in Cairo, people take their
trash out to the desert and burn it. I thought there was no organized
rubbish removal service, but I was proven wrong: every two weeks, two
men come to remove the various shopping bags of food wrappers and
tissues and Q-tips we have accumulated as well as the large basket of
kitchen trash. (Some of the compostable kitchen trash goes to feed the
dishwashing lady’s chickens.) Until the men came, this was kept in the
date palm grove adjacent to our courtyard. I’d say we produce a lot
less trash here than at home despite there being eight of us, as most
foods don’t come in packaging. One does occasionally find trash in the
street, but the problem is much less significant than in any large
city. Rather than being filled with trash, streets are filled with
overflow from houses. Making mud bricks and don’t want to mess your
courtyard? Use the street! Need to keep a giant pile of dirt? The
street! Firewood? Rebar? Your donkey? Well, I guess that one makes
sense as it’s transportation, and there’s no in-home parking.
The main thing we have to remove, all day every day, is dirt; more
Part II: Sand, the Bane of Our Existence
Sand is a horrible, horrible thing. In the course of one day of
excavation, I’d say we move over one hundred pounds of sand out of the
ground and into piles away from the site. It’s in every
archaeologist’s job description to come home filthy. You might be
thinking, “But Stacy likes to hike and camp and stuff – isn’t that
dirty too?” No, actually, it’s not. It’s sweaty. When I would go
backpacking, my hands and face and hair would get dirty, and I’d wash
them in a stream, and then come home and have a big shower and feel
nice and clean. Here, there is no such thing as clean. Below the sand
is ancient alluvium, both of which are very fine and can get into
every nook, cranny, and orifice. We sit in holes up to two meters deep
surrounded by this alluvium, and when we dig it flies up in the air as
a fine mist. Additionally, we frequently dig during sandstorms so bad
that we have to wear safety goggles and surgical masks like some kind
of biohazard unit. I’ve barely used my sunscreen because I am so
covered in shirts and scarves. None of these measures prevents sand
from intruding. Below I list the instances when sand is a nuisance or
worse, in no particular order.
1. Sand gums up machinery. I have no idea how the Land Rovers still
work after six weeks of desert driving, but often the doors and
seatbelts stick. When we stop to fix a puncture (flat tire), the jack requires
copious amounts of WD-40. Tupperware doesn’t close properly. Zippers
stop zipping. When I finally tugged hard enough to close the zip on my
backpack, a huge puff of sand came out. I have to attempt the zipper
on my jacket at least six times per morning, and I’ve given up on the
pockets. The zipper on my suitcase has started to stick, and it’s
never even been outside. My watch still works, but it’s waterproof to
30 meters so I presume all its bits are sealed.
2. I have to empty all my pants pockets before I wash them. There were
two tablespoons of dirt in a single back pocket this week.
3. Sand gets under your nails and never comes out. Every Sunday we
have a mani-pedi session focused on removing sand from the skin and
nails using a pumice stone and cutting our nails really short. It
doesn’t matter how short they go – the sand still gets in. The skin on
my hands is so dry that I no longer have cuticles: the skin just stops
and the nail starts. I actually thought my thumb nail was falling off
last week because I cut it too short and dirt got into the quick.
4. The inside edges of my index fingers is stained with dirt. The skin
there becomes very rough and the dirt and sand just sort of stick in
the cracks. No amount of washing removes this.
5. I wash my face with a washcloth and an exfoliating scrub every day.
When I dry my face, more dirt comes off onto the clean towel.
6. I wash my hair more than once per shower, and I often wake up with
sand on my pillow.
7. I scrub behind and inside my ears every day. Afterwards, the Q-tip
I use is dirty. Every day.
8. I only sit on or lie in my bed when I am fully clean, and I only
put clean clothes on the end of the bed. I wipe my feet off before I
get in. Every day, there is dirt inside AND underneath my sleeping
9. I bang the sand out of my sneakers as soon as I take them off, and
have started a ritual called “the Smashing of the Socks” to try to
beat the daily dirt out of them. When we all do bucket laundry on
Sundays, we frequently have to rinse the socks three times after they
have been washed, and then just give up because the water is still
black. I wait as long as possible in the morning to put on my shoes
and socks because I know they are still full of sand.
10. And at the end of the day, there is dirt caked between my toes.
11. Sand gets in our eyes and scratches them. We constantly have red,
itchy eyes. At the end of the day, the gunk in the corners of our eyes
is black and crusty.
12. Dirt gets in our noses. Today, chunks of dirt came out of my nose
without any snot to hold it together. Just huge clumps of collected
dirt. The tissues we use turn black.
13. The floors in the kitchen and dining room are made of dirt. The
courtyard is similarly unpaved. Our room is two steps up on a cement
ledge, but the door doesn’t close properly and the windows have no
14. I get sand down my pants every day. Because of the cold, I
frequently wear four shirts plus a jacket, and I tuck them in in
certain ways to avoid sand getting down my pants. Today, in the
sandstorm, I had on long underwear and army pants, a camisole pulled
over the long underwear, a long-sleeve shirt over the camisole, a long
tank top pulled over the army pants, an Oxford shirt with the collar
popped, and a puff jacket. I tied a scarf around my head and neck. I
thought I was safe. At about 8:30, I sat back against the north wall
of my grave to avoid the sand blowing in from the south (the north
half was covered by a corrugated zinc sheet). I happened to sit by a
crack that led straight to the surface. Sand poured in over my head,
and the very, very fine sand went straight down my back and directly
into my underwear. When I shook out my underwear, it only fell into my
long underwear and pooled at my knees. (And all this is besides the
regular sand/dust/dirt layer that covers our face, neck, and arms.)
Oddly, the cleanest part of my body is often my armpits.
Part III: Pests
By far the cutest pests are the little sparrows that hang around the
courtyard. They sit on the electric wire chirping, and occasionally
fly into the bedrooms. Which is adorable, except when they poo on
things. They also offer an auto-cleaning service for the earthen
kitchen floor, picking up little scraps. One brave sparrow hops up
onto the counter and picks nuts out of the bowl. I don’t know if they
We also have flies, the terror of the world. These aren’t tsetse flies
or anything dangerous, just your normal, everyday annoying flies. They
show up at the end of meals trying to land on things. I’ve given up on
keeping them out of the bread bowl. Around 1:30, the flies show up on
site. Each person generally attracts a single fly that sticks around
until the end of the day, buzzing between ears, eyes, nose, and mouth
in the most frustrating possible way, only landing when you’ve just
started brushing a very fragile piece of bone that needs utmost
And there are nimiti, the biting flies. Again, these don’t carry
diseases – they just bug the hell out of everyone. They are tiny, tiny
insects that buzz around, landing frequently and biting often. They’re
pretty easy to kill, but their bites swell up into red lumps and itch
like mad. One bit me on my finger four weeks ago, and it looked like
someone had injected a pea between my knuckle and nail. As of last
week it was only down to half a pea, and it is currently slightly
raised. Fortunately Ruth seems to attract them all away from the rest
There are also sand flies, whose bites turn into giant wounds. Safa,
our dishwasher, was bitten this week in the courtyard. Hopefully it
was a one-time incident.
Part IV: The Toilet
There are two things you need to know before I tell you about the
toilet. The first is that while Europe has been steadily progressing
towards the indoor, climate-controlled, power flushing toilet for the
last 2500 years, the rest of the world (Japan and its Washlet
excepted) has maintained the squat toilet. If you’re traveling outside
Europe, the Americas, or most former British colonies, unless you only
use the fancy hotel toilets, you are going to encounter the squat
toilet. In Beijing, I opened a stall door in one of the Olympic venues
to find a porcelain urinal turned sideways. Fortunately, it had a
flusher and toilet paper. These countries have a culture of squatting
like we have a culture of sitting – if I were waiting for a bucket to
fill, I’d stand or sit for a brief time, but here they do a
flat-footed squat. They squat in the fields, they squat when they eat
breakfast, and they squat when they use the toilet. Unlike Americans,
who will squat with heels lifted, the rest of the world uses a
flat-footed squat with the knees up by the elbows. I can’t say this is
super-comfortable, but I’m better at it than the others. I see how
it’s fine if you’ve grown up squatting, but I like a comfy rest when
I’m on the toilet. A moment to sit. That’s what Americans like – a
The second thing to keep in mind is that Muslim countries generally do
not use toilet paper. If it is provided, it’s meant for tourists.
Islam strongly recommends frequent washing – note how clean and
groomed the Egyptians are – and there is a certain way to wash (the
hands three times, the arms three times, the face three times, etc)
before prayer. Thus fancy Muslim establishments use bidets. Sometimes
the bidet is a separate unit, sometimes it’s an extra squirter in the
toilet bowl, and sometimes it’s a small hose like a detachable
showerhead. Here in the country, it’s a little water jug you carry
with you to the toilet.
In Khartoum, the French archaeologist’s house had Western toilets. For
some reason, perhaps because I was not informed otherwise, I expected
this would be the case for the entire season. I was wrong. We made a
stop at the National Museum and tried to use their toilets – not only
were they squat, but they were broken and had not been cleaned in what
seemed like years. There was filth of all kinds everywhere. Thank
goodness I brought tissues because there was only a bucket of dirty
water and a cup for washing. The water was turned off, so neither the
flushers nor the sinks worked. The hand sanitizer made its first
appearance. (To note, I’m comfortable using squat toilets! I’d just like them to be, you know, not awful. I’ve squatted in Turkey and China and on numerous camping trips.)
Our first toilet experience in Kasura was the night we arrived, at
Salim’s house. I asked where it was and was directed to a building
detached from the house. I presumed that since the plumbing was
outside, there would also be a flushing toilet outside. I opened a
metal door and was almost blown backward by the stink. It was a small
enclosed cubicle with a latrine hole in the floor, and it would have
stunk to high heaven if it had a ceiling. Having learned
from the museum experience, I had my tissues, but they got stuck in
the hole and I couldn’t figure out how to get them down. Only later
was I told that I needed to bring the small pitcher of water that had
been sitting by the tap (I assumed it was for the plants). The smell
got so bad overnight that we could barely go in without vomiting, and
were all looking forward to using a cleaner, nicer toilet (squat or otherwise) at the dig house.
As you might have expected, this was not to be. Our toilet is also a
latrine hole, situated across a small date palm grove from the house.
Fortunately, it’s open to the sky, so the smell isn’t so bad (except
in the afternoons, in the heat). It also has no door, so we use a palm
frond as a sign: crossed over means it’s occupied. Having examined the
latrine (it’s all for you, readers, giving you the best info), it
appears to be about 25 feet deep. The hole is eight inches in
diameter, so we’ve all gotten really good at aiming. We really want to
know how long it takes to fill one up, and what happens when it’s
filled. Do they dig a new one? Empty it out? Close it up? Do they
re-use the cement hole?
Anna and I have been wondering how the water-pitcher system actually
works. We have to bring one for propriety’s sake to the toilet –
otherwise visitors who don’t use toilet paper might be shocked at our
lack of hygiene – and it’s a useful signal to everyone that it’s
occupied without having to cross the grove. But without using toilet
paper after washing, how do they get truly clean? And do they pull
their pants back up with a wet crotch?
On Sunday I asked our director how it works. (I find that it’s easy to
ask embarrassing questions if you do it with a very straight face.)
Perhaps you were wondering earlier about people eating with only their
right hands. This is why: the left is for wiping. I thought that
meant, the left is for pouring the water. No. Holding the pitcher with
the right hand, one wets the left hand, pours down the crack, and
wipes until clean.
This is how the world works.
Our question about the wet butt went unanswered.
I should follow up that in our house here, use of the toilet is
followed by vigorous hand washing at the tap with soap, so we’re all
clean. I’m not sure it works the same elsewhere, although there is a
very strong social incentive to wash.
I would leave you with that, but let me remind you to look out the
next time you’re in a public restroom. How many people wash their
hands there? Probably a lot less than here. And they’ve touched the
door handles and flushers as well. Without that, I feel like there are
actually less germs here. Surprising, eh?