January 26, 2012

Sudan: Things Fall Apart – this country is made of mud brick

I haven’t written yet about what Sudan looks like. First, I really
only know what northern Sudan looks like. I heard South Sudan (and the
south of Sudan, as they’re separate now) is mountainous and forested
and generally more “tropical Africa”. Here, it’s the desert. The
Sahara. Khartoum is also in the desert, which makes it similar to
here, although on a much larger scale. There are also much stronger
connections with the Muslim world, while the south is Christian and/or
“traditional African religions”, as Wikipedia told me before I left.
Khartoum, as I explained before, is absolutely confusing to anyone who
doesn’t live there (and also most taxi drivers). Buildings are two to
three stories tall, with the exception of some tall modern buildings
by the Nile, generally built by the Chinese for their company
headquarters. Sudan has a variety of precious metals and oil, and the
Chinese have staked their claim on the mining and on the landscape.

I read a while ago that a significant amount of American roads –
something ridiculous like 60% – are unpaved. I don’t know when this
statistic was recorded, but I have hardly ever driven on an unpaved
public road in the US. Perhaps they are including the thousands of
miles of park service trails through various mountain ranges. Either
way, after the alphabet soup projects of the 1930s and Ike’s Big
Highways, I doubt that number still stands. What we tend to forget,
driving off our highways into our parking lots and suburbs, is that
most of the world doesn’t pave their roads. They don’t have the money
or the infrastructure or the government just doesn’t care, or the
people just don’t care. I know we complain about the poor state of
roads in some places – Chicago after every winter, for instance – but
that’s because cars and tarmac are essential to our American suburban
lives. Or urban lives, as even residents of walking cities like to
have sidewalks. But when you’re a subsistence farmer in a little
village, you don’t need to take a car most places. You don’t need
long, straight sidewalks to get to far away office buildings or gyms
or restaurants, because most things you want are in your village.
Paved roads are a very new thing in Sudan. Khartoum has had paved
roads for a while now, but not all of them are. The house we stayed in
and the Hotel Acropole are both on unpaved roads. The big paved roads
through town are the ones that turn into bridges that cross the Nile;
they’re about two lanes in each direction, but there seems to be an
additional lane on each side that’s made of dirt. On either side of
this are generally large ditches caused by the seasonal monsoons, and
next to those are giant piles of dirt, bricks, and debris from various
construction efforts. I asked why they don’t fill the ditches in with
the debris: the response was, well, they’ll only come back next

As we drove out of Khartoum, the buildings began to spread out, and
there seemed to be more and more piles of dirt. The houses became
smaller, and fewer were plastered, leaving red bricks exposed. At a
certain point, we crossed straight from “clearly inhabited place” to
“desert”. There were no more buildings, only shrubs and sand.
Occasionally we’d see a little mud brick building, or a group of
camels hanging out. Northern Sudan, like Egypt, is really a vast
desert with a tiny strip of arable land alongside the Nile. Khartoum
can only be as big as it is because it’s at the confluence of two
branches. (Yes, the US puts cities smack in the middle of the desert –
ahem, Vegas – but it’s harder to do when you have severely limited
resources.) I think all buildings outside Khartoum are made of
mudbrick, with the rare exception of some made of cement. This was
generally the state of things until we got to Dongola. Fortunately, we
were able to drive the entire 700 kilometers on a paved two-way road
built as recently as five years ago. Prior to that, the main highway
north was a dirt track. We were also able to cross from Dongola to
Kasura on the new (3-year-old) bridge built by the Chinese; before,
one could wait up to 3 hours for a ferry. (I heard the Sudanese
attempted a bridge twice, but each time it fell into the river.)
Shortly after crossing, we pulled off onto the dirt road through the
village. Kasura is laid out in a grid, with blocks of about 80 by 80
feet, each of which is a single home. The roads are at least 20 feet
wide – but you can’t drive on all of them. Our daily route is
circuitous because we have to avoid big shade trees, piles of bricks,
dirt, and rocks, holes in the road, and people lounging. It’s common
to see children playing in the street, donkeys on the loose, and on
Fridays, men in clean white galabiyas lying on a blanket chatting. I
guess it’s a neutral place, and open to anyone rather than enclosed in
someone’s yard.

The houses here are each surrounded by a 7-foot wall. I think this is
not so much for security, as there seem to be no locked doors and the
walls are easy to climb over with a chair, but to create privacy and
keep the animals in. Each house has one exterior metal door, often
with wrought iron over a metal sheet. The walls are all made of mud
brick; some are plastered and painted, and others are left bare. I
think the plastered ones hold up better, since they seem to have less
breaks, although they may have just been kept up better. When mud
brick gets wet, it starts to crack and melt, making many buildings
here look not unlike drippy sandcastles at the beach. Some clearly had
little turrets made out of stacked bricks that have since melted into
triangles. The painted walls are quite pretty: many are white, but
some are dark green with white patterns, and I’ve also seen aqua,
orange, peach, and alternating lime and kelly green. (Mosques are also
painted in patterns, generally with an aqua base and white and orange
trim.) Inside, houses rarely are more than one storey, but have high
ceilings. The ceilings are made of corrugated metal sheets held up by
pipes or small I-beams, but fancier rooms will have the pipes wrapped
in raffia and the ceiling covered in palm sheets. The general house
layout is a courtyard entry with shade trees and a tap for washing
hands and feet, and then a public section with rooms for entertaining.
The kitchen may be attached or a separate outbuilding. They don’t have
sofas here, but they seem to have an abundance of beds; they are all
the traditional Sudanese style, which is a single-size metal frame
laced with rope or plastic lanyard. The beds are arranged as if they
were backless sofas, but are all made up as if someone were to sleep
in them. Entertaining rooms alternate beds and chairs (with the same
strung rope bottom and back); if having tea, there will be little
stools for tea trays. Behind the entertaining house is another little
courtyard and then the women’s quarters. From what I’ve seen this
doesn’t differ in style from the entertaining area, only more private.
(Although there appears to be social segregation, it’s not terribly
strict: our director came with us to move things from a women’s
quarters, and women are certainly welcome in the outer area. I really
think it’s like the outer wall, more for privacy than anything else.)
Our house, and I suppose many others, has a small date palm grove in
an additional courtyard.

Until yesterday, I was surprised at how little decoration there was
apart from the few houses I’ve seen. There are no plants that aren’t
crops or shade trees, and everything is kind of grungy. There are no
paintings on the walls or decorative features. It turns out I’ve just
been in homes that have none, as people everywhere differ in their
tastes (and it’s not good to generalize a culture from two houses
owned by the same person). We were invited to tea by our youngest
worker, Safi. We don’t know who he’s subbing for, but he just showed up
one day last week and said he was fifteen. I highly doubt that. Later
he said he was sixteen. I doubt that even more. Either way, he enjoys
being there, hanging out with the big boys, carrying bags of sand and
telling jokes, and is generally a nice kid. Apparently our director’s
wife knew his mother, but she died a few years ago from malaria;
presumably his father is also deceased as he was treated as the man of
the house. He has at least one younger sister and numerous aunts and
uncles and cousins. His house is absolutely beautiful. In the outer
courtyard is a giant tree, bigger than ours; after passing it, there’s
a second courtyard with a bush grown into an overhang to shade some
small benches. The walls were green with white painted flowers, and
inside the floors were tiled and the beds were set in a reasonably
non-gaudy pattern (nobody in developing countries likes plain sheets,
I think). On the walls were artificial flowers in bunches and small
wooden plaques. Safi greeted us in a clean galabiya and black vest,
which did make him look more grown-up than in his work clothes, but he
still has a round boyish face and a very, very high voice. The house
had a doorsill to keep out the dust and a ceiling fan, which he
proudly turned on despite the chill. His aunts brought in shai me
laban, tea boiled with milk and sugar, zellabia, fried doughnuts with
sugar, and dry bread with dates in it. We sat and chatted and met more
and more of his family, and kept standing to shake everyone’s hand and
sitting down to stuff ourselves with more doughnuts (it’s incredibly
rude not to eat when offered, especially homemade food).

After a while, a woman with severe spinal osteporosis and a leg
problem limped in and sat down, and we all went over to her to shake
hands. She turned out to be the loudest of the aunts, and was very
inquisitive; from her I learned how Sudanese women wrap their hair
into little buns. They all wanted to know where we are from and if we
are married. Safi was very excited when he found out I am single, so
I’ll have to learn to say “I’m waaaay too old for you” in Arabic. When
I said that I’m American, ana Amriki, his face lit up. “Amrika!” he
exclaimed, and everyone repeated it. “Obama,” someone else said, and
everyone repeated it. Someone said that they wished Obama would drop
the embargo on Sudan, and that was the end of the conversation. I’ve
mentioned to other people that I’m American, and they all have the
same opinion: they seem to hold it in high regard and wish the embargo
would end. Today while practicing her Arabic, Ruth found out from Safi
that he knows the names of two American presidents, Barack Obama and
George Bush, but that I would make a much better president than either
of them.

I wish I could post some photos, but the internet is way too slow
here. Expect a photo post in about six weeks!


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