September 20, 2013


There have been some posts on the web recently about (for lack of a better term) cultural commodification and white privilege. I would like to address some of these.

First, there is apparently a now-MBA student at UofC who went to Kenya for aid work and “became the first female Masai warrior“. She then published a book about her experience. I can’t comment on the content – and whether it was written in humor – but the concept is a little off-putting. As the Guardian article mentions, Kenyan commenters were not impressed. Becoming a Masai warrior takes years, and then you have to dedicate your life to it; you can’t just up and leave. While you’ll often hear me cite Mark Twain’s quote about travel being the best cure for prejudice, and participating as an observer/anthropologist in cultural ceremonies can do you no intellectual harm, I think trying to inculcate yourself into a culture as serious as this is disingenuous. She has no intention of staying on in Kenya and cultivating the tradition of warriorship. If you’re proposed to – as we were many times in Sudan, usually in jest but sometimes leading to uncomfortable harrassy/leery situations – the best response is something like, “I am here to work, but my home is in England/America/etc. I’m not staying here forever.” The treatment we received as white women – being able to work alongside the men and dancing at their hafla, for instance – marks us as different, as not totally part of their culture. That is not our intent. It would be disrespectful to lay out prayer mats and go lalala, look we’re making just like you! (Although our yoga mats did present a difficult concept to explain, especially after a subtitled Dr Oz-type show featured a segment on “toilet yoga”.) I still think about Mazin and Nahet and we wanted to send them gifts last year to let them know we still think of them (travel circumstances prevented this), but I obviously can’t consider myself a Sudanese villager: I was a foreign worker they graciously fed and interacted with. I also think the issue of trying too hard to belong might be more prevalent in Africa because of racism/colonial legacy/feeling out of place, but I think there’s a right and a wrong way to behave when traveling or working in a foreign place. Recognize that you are different. Recognize that you can not understand every facet of the culture. Recognize that you have the opportunity to up and leave and go back to your comfortable life. Don’t try to be something you’re not, especially if that something is a very important (and ancient) part of a culture that has a history before you and future without you.

UPDATE: Here’s how a Masai woman responded.

Second, white privilege! This student wrote about being white in Uganda. One commenter mentioned that being stared at for a few months is nothing compared to being stared at for your entire childhood (he says he is Asian and grew up in the South). Yes! I agree! But you can’t learn what it’s like for people to look at you and yell “Hawaja, hawaja!” and run after you and you get really frustrated and want to say, “I’m a real person with feelings, not just a white face!” and then realize – wait, this must be what it’s like to be a minority in any majority-white country! until it’s happened to you. It’s hard to sympathize with a minority experience until you’ve experienced it. There’re also so many different kinds of staring! The staring in Sudan was totally different from the staring in Egypt and the staring in Peru. (It was actually quite friendly, as staring goes.) So maybe she’s a little naive. Hopefully she’ll learn. She does acknowledge that bloggers get shot down for both over- and under-acknowledging race. I am totally aware of cultural imperialism and racism, and I hope my readers would call me out if I ever said anything outrageous. I have to explain biological vs social concepts of race and ethnicity and sex and gender with regard to the skeleton at least once a week, so it’s not like I live in la-la land. Blogs are around to be diaries that people comment on, and a lot of people are getting attacked for writing their experiences when said experiences don’t match up with any number of political, cultural, or intellectual expectations.

Have I made a point? I don’t even know. I guess, dudes, be sensitive to people’s feelings, whether those are the feelings of the Masai or of some student dealing with being Othered for the first time. Right?

UPDATE: I also came across this tumblr, featuring photos of young white women and African children. It’s super critical and feels really insulting, actually. I do have a lot of photos with the kids from Kasura, and you know what? They wanted to be photographed. “Africans” (cf Africa is a Country) have agency, you know, because they (surprise!) are also people.  I take pictures of white babies too. I take pictures of all babies. We take pictures to remember experiences. Those pictures of us in tobes? The women in our village dressed us up because they thought it was really funny. They painted on ridonkulous makeup a la Egyptian soap operas and laughed at us, and we laughed at ourselves, because that is how you make friends when you aren’t fluent in each other’s languages. One guy we hardly knew came around the field house one day and took photos of all of us together with him, and then (really kindly, at great personal expense) had them printed so we could take home photos and remember him. I think it’s incredibly unfair to mock people who are actually trying to do something useful with their lives (if that’s what they were doing; I assume most people are on some aid project or other). Taking a photo with a kid is not saying anything overtly negative. Now that I’m angry, let’s all go watch the Radi-Aid video and feel ok.

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.


February 29, 2012

Sudan: On being Different.

Let’s do an exercise for a minute. In the early 2000s, hundreds of Sudanese refugees, mostly boys, were shipped to the US. There have been books written and documentaries made about this. Imagine what it’s like to be thrown into another culture where you don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, and – most of all – look completely different. How would that feel? To not know how to flush a toilet? To not know that you don’t haggle in stores? To have people stare at you all the time, not only because you look different but because you have no idea what constitutes normalcy in this culture?

I’ll say first that it’s a very different situation for me, as I am here on a work visa with a British expedition and not a refugee. I don’t have quandaries over whether or not I can afford food and medicine, and I know that in a few days I’ll return to the familiarity of my home culture. But the questions still hold. When we first arrived and walked down the street, people stared at us. There are other white people (and Chinese) in Khartoum, but as three girls in Western dress walking down the street, stopping for tea, taking photos of strange new vegetables, and trying to buy groceries, we got a lot of looks. People wanted to know where we were from, what we were doing here, how long we were staying, and do we like the country. One man in a store actually recognized us: he had been on our flight from Cairo. People in the north, to my eyes, look very much like Egyptians with much darker skin, although there are some people, like Omda, who look more central African (and his friends make fun of him for this, calling him a monkey (!!!)). According to Ruth, the northerners don’t think of themselves as “black” (though that’s what box they’d tick on an admission application if they were American) – it’s the southerners who are black. I bet this is data for a whole book, and I really don’t know enough to write about it with confidence. Men wear white galabiyas (or slacks and an Oxford shirt in the cities) and women wear colorful tobes (sort of like a sari? rhymes with robe) with another outfit underneath. It seems more like cultural tradition than religious edict to cover their hair, which is worn in small braids or a twist. The other day some children  came up behind me in the National Museum and touched my hair (the reverse of white people not knowing how to react to African-American natural hair).

The Sudanese word for foreigner is “hawaja”. As I understand it, it has less negative connotations than the Japanese gaijin, and can generally be used in a positive way. Hawaja refers to anyone who doesn’t look Sudanese/Arabic, so it’s used for Asians and South Asians and I assume some Africans as well. In Dongola, there are significantly fewer white people, so we got stared at more often. One man leaned out of a moto-rickshaw and took photos of us with his cell phone. Which is where it started to get strange, as in my culture it’s rude to take pictures of people you don’t know, at least in an obvious way. So it was a little shocking in Sudan. When we drove through small streets in the Land Rover, children would often run up yelling “Hawaja! Hawaja!” Sometimes adults waved at us and yelled it too. Mostly, though, they’d just wave hello. Yesterday, sitting in the car in the Omdurman market near Khartoum, people would come up to the window, look in, and walk away. Today a taxi driver said, “Hawaja! Taxi!” I’m used to it now, but it was strange to have my “foreigner” status pointed out all the time (not that I didn’t realize it – I never blended in. I hardly speak the language and wear pants).

It’s important to note that when people approach us, it’s not in a creepy way. I never feel threatened here.* It’s true that the men take more liberties with Western women than with Sudanese women, but this seems to amount to coming up to us and asking where we’re from, what are our names. And then they go away. (We’ve been told it’s more appropriate to ask directions etc from women so as not to seem provocative. As much as this irks my feminist self, I’m part of a team and don’t want to endanger myself or others just to make a point.) We often have conversations with random women on the street. People want to shake our hands, say hello, and ask if we are enjoying Sudan. They tell us to tell everyone how great it is here, how nice the people are, and it’s really true. Although I feel more different here than in other places where I look odd, here I receive the most positive reactions to being different (the other options, which I haven’t experienced here, being suspicion and saccharine smiles, as in Jordan.)

In Kasura and on the site, I stopped feeling different very quickly. Our workmen were a group of lovely men, all very friendly. They made us feel very much at home despite the language barrier (although I have learned a bunch and can actually convey concepts now!) I think a lot of that is that we were stuck in the same terrible situation – trying to dig holes in extreme wind, only to find them filled up with sand the next morning. We also had some bonding time with the ladies of the village, involving them dressing us up like Egyptian soap opera actors. It’s surprisingly easy to get to know people here despite only a small vocabulary, especially when they are actually such wonderful people. (Note that the excessive makeup was entirely their idea!!!) Ruth had some great henna done as well, except that what they call henna here is actually black hair dye.

As I hope you noticed, I am now back in Khartoum and have only one more “sleep” until the plane. I am so overjoyed to be using a Western toilet and not having to avoid eating foul at every step. I had an amazing shwarma at the same place we went on the first day, and got hibiscus tea from the side of the street. I am, however, very much looking forward to wearing different clothes (the same T-shirt for three months: it’s very soft now) and having thoroughly clean feet. Our flight is at 4:30 am tomorrow; I arrive in London at noon after a layover in Cairo. I then have an extended (18-hour) layover in London, which is enough time to go into town and buy some hard cheese, which I’ve also been missing. Home again, home again, Friday evening!

*Sarah was propositioned by an important man in the village (who wasn’t one of the workers). We all had to protect her by declining invitations to his house. It was a really skeezy situation.

[SH note: I have strong feelings about voluntourism, which is always in the news and NOT what we were doing here, but I can say that I dearly hope anyone who “goes to build houses in Africa” has a similar experience of feeling out of place. It was really helpful for me to have this experience to gain some idea of what it feels like to be in the minority, to be stared at, to be underestimated. It doesn’t begin to cover the immigrant/POC experience of being denied privileges, but it’s a small step towards understanding and supporting friends and colleagues who are different in any way. What I didn’t note in this post is that I couldn’t share with my Sudanese colleagues that I’m Jewish and queer, which wasn’t terribly distressing at the time, but did cause an emotional conflict because I felt like I had to suppress parts of my identity in order to get our work done safely.]

February 19, 2012

Sudan: Update on the dig

After scraping the mound with mattocks numerous times, we have
determined that there are “no more graves”. Well, one more that’s been
cleaned and needs to be recorded and excavated, which will result in
Anna or my going to site and spending two hours working and then six
hours sitting around “looking busy”. But don’t take the lack of
evident graves as an indication that we have exhaustively (however
exhaustingly) excavated the entire cemetery mound: Just because we
don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not just a little bit deeper, a
little bit more covered by 4000 years of sand. The only way to find
guaranteed 100% of the graves would be to bulldoze the entire thing
and then check what turns up; however, we don’t have the time or
resources to do this, and it’s pretty destructive and thus a poor
archaeological method (although the British show “Time Team” would beg
to differ). As it is, there’s only a couple woman-hours left for the
physical anthropology work, which means most of this week will be
spent in the house, out of the wind, analyzing skeletons. We have 97
total, and a bunch of commingled remains we need to spend the better
part of a day sorting en mass.

Anna and I have done some preliminary analyses with about 2/3 of the
assemblage. (We use the word “assemblage” to describe an
archaeological collection from one site rather than “population”,
which implies a complete and coherent group. We don’t know if these 97
individuals are representative of the population from which they came,
and they definitely aren’t the totality.) While sitting in my tent one
day, hiding from the wind, I made a mortality profile in my notebook –
the way people did it before Excel made things terribly easy – which
shows the amount of dead individuals from each age group. Age is
difficult to estimate from skeletal remains, but there are some
methods we use that are easy to explain. The first is the appearance
of the pubic symphysis, the point where your pubic bones join. As
individuals age, the outline and texture of the join change. Some
researchers claim they can also use this to tell if a female has given
birth, but this is highly questionable. Another method is analyzing
the auricular surface, which is where your sacrum meets your pelvis.
This, too, experiences often-predictable changes with age. We can also
look for certain age-related diseases like osteoarthritis, the
prevalence of which increases with age. For children, we use dental
development, which is a lot more accurate than the methods used for
adults. Teeth form and erupt on a highly predictable schedule, from
milk teeth emerging at 9 months to wisdom teeth at 15-18. We can also
look at fusion of long bones: the middle of the bone grows separately
from the ends and fuses in the early or late teens (growing pains are
the result of the massive growth that takes place in early puberty
before they finally fuse). Since children experience so many changes
over a relatively short time, they are much easier to age, often to
within 12 or 24 months, and teenagers to within 3-4 years. As adults
are more difficult, we assign them to one of three categories: Young
Adult (20-35 years), Middle Adult (35-50 years), and Older Adult

We found that most people in our cemetery assemblage were in the
“Child” and “Young Adult” categories – that is, most people in Kerma
times in this area died when they were 3-7 years old or 20-35. Fewer
people died in the range of 8-16, which is expected since that’s a
pretty healthy time: your immune system is fully developed and you’re
no longer susceptible to fatal childhood illnesses, and girls aren’t
exposed to the dangers of childbirth nor boys to hunting/farming/war
accidents. There were few people dying in the 35-50 group, probably
because they barely squeaked to 35; only one female was over 50, and
she was decked out in over 600 beads. When we analyzed the children
separately, we found that 0-5 was the most dangerous time, with over
half of child deaths occurring then. A mortality curve I made shows
that 83% of infants born into this assemblage could expect to survive
to their first birthday, then 50% to their second, 20% to their third,
down to 4% to their fifth. (However, it should be noted that we often
give ages like “2-3” or “3-5” and have only found two infants under 1
year, so the curve might be overestimating.) These figures fit
perfectly with what one should expect to see in any cemetery anywhere
in the world before 1850, which pleases me and Anna because it implies
we’ve done a pretty good job at determining age. (Sanitation,
pasteurization, and improvements in medicine in the early 19th century
drastically reduced child mortality. With antibiotics in the mid-20th
century, young adult mortality declined as well.) So, if your Kerma
kid made it to 5 years old, he or she could expect to live another 30
years or so, unless they were very lucky. That’s just the way it was.


Anyway, back to modern times. Yesterday we started packing up the
skeletons into boxes for transport. We pad the boxes with cotton from
old mattresses and then put in the bags of skeletons, with more
padding on the top and sides. We also try to leave air in the bags so
they’re a little cushioned, and always pack them with heavy legs on
the bottom and fragile skulls and teeth at the top. These will be
driven down to the Khartoum National Museum, where we will pack them
into metal trunks and send them air freight back to London. We are
also keeping lists of which skeleton goes into which box so we’ll know
if any disappear en route. Our final week here will be spent packing
up artifacts, counting beads, and closing up the house; we will
probably drive to Khartoum next Monday so we can have a day to unpack
and repack and another day to go to the souk (market) and the museum.
I’m saying now that nobody reading this is receiving any presents from
Sudan as there’s really nothing to buy, but you can will see the
wonderful pictures that my friends have taken, since I lost my
American adapter and my battery died. C’est la vie.

February 15, 2012

Sudan: Sudanese Restaurants – Would you like more oil with that?

Every Sunday we have a day off. Mohammed, our cook, uses his day off
to visit his relatives, so we have to fend for ourselves. Sometimes we
go on a trip to see other sites, necessitating a breakfast stop, and
sometimes we just go for breakfast because nobody bothers to cook. As
such, I have now been in a number of Sudanese restaurants and have
taken extremely careful notes, and am now able to reproduce a sample
menu for you. A typical Sudanese restaurant will have:
-Foul (fava bean mixture), eaten with bread and fingers
-Lentils, eaten with bread and fingers
-Fried fish, eaten with fingers
-Tea or coffee

This exhaustive list is only a sample. For instance, there is often
cheese with the foul.

All jokes aside, there are really only three main dishes. I commented
on this to Ruth, who assured me that at least all the food is fresh –
if they run out, that’s it. They only have what’s available, and they
also sell it really cheap: a typical lunch for eight is 35 Sudanese
pounds (6 British pounds / less than $10!). Foul, the national staple, is by far the
most popular. It often comes with jibneh, the sheep cheese, or another
type called “hair cheese” (because of its shape) that’s a bit saltier.
There is also salt, chili sauce, and sometimes a little salad of
cucumbers, herbs, and lime.

The lentils come in two styles, depending on the location. The first,
which I much prefer, is a chunky stew flavored with chili or peanuts.
In Kerma I had a really excellent one that tasted pretty much half
lentil and half peanut. Like foul, it’s served less than hot so you
can eat it with your hands and a piece of bread. The other style is
actually bread soaked in lentil stew. It’s not as good because – as
one might guess – you’re just eating a bunch of soggy bread that
tastes like lentils.

The third dish actually varies between restaurants. A common dish is
fried fish. I am not a fish person, so I have no idea what kind it is.
All I know is that it is an entire fish, about 8 inches long, gutted
and fried. When one eats it, they have to remove every tiny bone,
since they’re all in there. Sometimes the cooks cut up the fish first,
and woe to whoever gets the head since it doesn’t really have any meat
– it’s all bones. One restaurant we go to in Dongola has a dish called
fizik, which looks immensely more appetizing. Fizik is a stew of
pureed fish mixed with peanut sauce. It even lacks the repulsive fishy
smell I hate, but I’m still not willing to risk it. This is served in
a bowl on top of a flatbread – either ghurassa, a puffy pancake-like
bread or kissera, which is more like a crepe. The restaurant in
Dongola appears to be unique in that they usually have fish and meat.
The meat is always a beef stew served on flatbread, which I got really
excited about the first time but have since resigned myself to eating as the place doesn’t make lentils. It’s a beef stock with onions and
lots of chili, which is very tasty, but the only meat to be found is
one big bone in the middle. (There is really very little nutrition in
the beef stew.) Occasionally there are little chunks of what you think
are meat but are actually gristle. It really sucks to think you’re
about to eat a piece of meat and then get gristle. Plus, it’s all
communal bowls, so there’s nowhere to spit unless you have stealthily
removed a tissue from your bag with your greasy right hand and keeping
your left hand thoroughly uninvolved.

Which brings me to how people eat. I have given up on actually eating
the Sudanese way and now bring my LightMyFire, my combination
spoon-fork-knife Swedish utensil, to all our restaurant excursions. As
I wrote earlier, in Sudanese eating the bread is held in the four
fingers, and the entire hand is used to scoop food onto the bread.
Everyone shares the same bowls. This is why Sudanese food is always
served as a stew – so you can scoop it onto bread. Everyone’s right
hand becomes covered in beans or lentils or whatever in some sort or
horror movie made especially for obsessive-compulsives and Miss
Manners. Anna, being celiac, requires her own bowl. (Her being left-handed presents another issue entirely!)

Water is served in restaurants, but we don’t drink it since
it’s not filtered. It’s brought to the table in a plastic bucket with
an empty bowl. The bowl is for drinking: you scoop up some water,
drink a bit, then pour the rest to the ground. It’s quite convenient
that the ground is made of dirt.

Oh wait, I didn’t tell you about the décor? Let me tell you about the
décor. Most buildings around here are mud brick. The walls are all
plastered and painted pretty colors – blue, yellow, pinkish. The
ordering system is kind of like a burger joint where you order at the
counter and then sit; the kitchen is open for all to see, with big
pots bubbling away. And behind them, the walls are stained with grease
and char. The tables and chairs are plastic and can be rearranged in
any combination, but they are usually crowded together. The restaurant
we frequent in Dongola is actually different: it has a back section
made of mud brick and a front porch of corrugated metal and blue
tarps with holes in them. (That’s what puzzles me: why do they never
fix the holes? This country isn’t made for the obsessives.) All the waiters – generally young men – wear yellow
smocks. The cooks – slightly older men – also wear the smocks; the
Dongola restaurant has one female cook who just wears regular clothes.

Most of the customers are male, but there are always a few women
around. I’ll write about women later, but they apparently have a lot of
freedom compared to the more religious Muslim countries. As I was told, they don’t go to
restaurants so much because they’re often cooking at home, not because
of any prejudice against them; it’s still almost entirely a “men out of the home/women in the home” spheres of behavior thing. I don’t see many children, but Sunday
is a school day here.

After the meal, we always have tea or coffee. The tea is served with a
bowl of sugar (no milk – milk tea is only for the evening), which it
never needs. If you tell a Sudanese person that you don’t want sugar,
they’ll put in one heaping spoonful. One place in Mushra had at least
3 spoonfuls in a 3-ounce tea glass, and I had to subtly pour it out
under the table. (Thank goodness for dirt floors.)

Time to go – we’re supposed to be finishing up, but we keep finding
more graves! Up to 90 by now, but the end is in sight!

EDIT 3/9/12: I forgot to write the key restaurant experience that gives this post its title! We were sitting in a restaurant with a bowl of foul, and the waiter comes over with a plastic bottle of oil – basically, a water bottle with a hole punched in the lid – and squirts a ton of oil into the foul. No questions. Just more oil.

February 12, 2012

Sudan: Everybody’s got something to hide ‘cept for me and my donkey

Like in Cairo, the streets here are disproportionately filled with the
same type of car. In this region of Sudan, there are three forms of
transportation that make up 90% of the private vehicles on the road.
The first is the Toyota Hilux, a white pickup truck with orange and
yellow stripes along each side. I don’t know if these models are
actually from the 1980s or if they have just been casting the same
1980s design for the last 30 years, but they all look like something
from Footloose. The Toyota Hilux can be rigged up in a number of ways:
I’ve seen it loaded with crops, filled with people sitting in the bed,
and tricked out with benches and a cover for use as a professional
minibus. (Apparently it’s mildly inappropriate for strange men and
women to sit together, so men take one side and women take the other –
but I’ve seen exceptions.) The Hilux is mainly used on back roads and
out in the desert, generally for farm work. The second vehicle, more
for family use, is the Kia Vista. It’s a small, roundish sedan from
the 2000s available in many metallic colors – green, silver, pink,
blue – and generally filled with all the family’s children. The Vista
is not as common in the village as the Hilux, but Dongola is
absolutely filled with them. It’s also trendy to attach window decals
all over. These tend to be the kind that you get from gumball vending
machines in the US, with winking smiley faces and flags and hip
slogans, except that none of them make sense. The car owned by the
house katty-corner to us has “YOU CAN SEE ME” stuck underneath a hand
in an OK sign. Looney Tunes characters – in full color or in outline –
are incredibly popular.

But the main method of transport around here is (duh duh duh) the donkey.

That’s right.

The donkey.

I bet most people reading this have never seen a donkey up close. Let
me tell you a midrash (a Jewish explanatory tale) about the creation
of the donkey. So, God is handing out features to all the animals in
Eden, right? And he has a few sets of hoofed legs. “The skinny ones go
to the cow,” he says, “because they need all their fat up top. And the
muscular ones go to the horse, so they can run beautifully. And the
short ones go to the goat, so they can scrabble across rocks. And… I
guess I have these kinda knobbly guys left. Donkey, I guess.”
And God is handing out tails: “This long and elegant one goes to the
horse… the prehensile striped one to the lemur… the waggly one to the
dog… and hey, here’s one that’s a combination of a cat and a horse, I
guess donkey can have it.”
And God is handing out noises: “The hyena has to scare people away at
night, so I’ll give them a cackle. The cat needs a bunch of noises, to
signal happiness and contentment and displeasure. And I have this one,
a combination of an asthma attack, a choke, and someone standing on
your toe… donkey’s all that’s left.”
And when Adam was called to review all his animals, he figured the donkey was enough like a horse that he could ride it. Except that its
back was slightly too wide to ride comfortably, so he had to sit
sidesaddle, and when it walked it bounced too much, and when it ran it
didn’t bounce enough. And God had forgotten to tell Adam that he had
had too much stubbornness left over after creation and he just dumped
it all on the donkey. “Aw, man,” said Adam. “AUUUUUgghhuuUUUUUggghh,”
said the donkey.
I hope I have fully conveyed that the donkey is the most awkward,
weird, annoying animal ever. Every night a donkey across the street
(whom we’ve named Bernie) has some sort of fit that sounds like an
asthmatic kid on a roller coaster. It’s awkward to see someone riding
a donkey, because they have to sit not-quite-sidesaddle, but just kind
of hanging off. The donkeys come in two colors: a nice silver coat
that hides the dirt, and a white coat that shows the dirt. When
donkeys aren’t being ridden directly, they are used to pull
two-wheeled carts. These can be loaded up with produce or boxes or
used to seat up to eight people. They go very slowly and have a wide
turning radius, so it’s annoying to get stuck behind them on the road.
They also park at odd angles, taking up valuable pedestrian space.

Our inspector grew up on a farm in the Nuba mountains, and he told us
a story about his childhood: one day, he was asked to go out with the
donkey cart to fetch something. Halfway through, the donkey just
stopped. He yelled and pleaded and hit and it just refused. So he sat
down and started to cry. I don’t know how much this impacted his
decision to become a geologist, but it sounds like a good enough
reason to say, “I’m choosing a career with no donkeys in it.”

I actually got to pet a donkey today, and they have one thing going
for them: incredibly soft ears. However, seeing the ears makes me
think of the scary part in the Disney version of Pinocchio. So there.
All bad.

There are also camels, but these aren’t used for human transport.
People often walk alongside camels loaded with crops, or lead them
while riding a donkey. Apparently there are nomads out in the desert,
but they drive Hiluxes rather than ride camels; I’ve heard that they
still raise camels, though, and often transport them in the bed of the

Between private and public transport are hired cars, used exclusively
by tourists (yup! There are tourists in Sudan); this is a big
Mitsubishi pickup truck, also with yellow and orange stripes. I have
often stated that it’s a Western misconception that one needs a big
car made specifically for off-roading in order to go off-road. I’ve
seen Peruvian bus drivers make turns on dirt roads you wouldn’t
believe, and we certainly went off-road at the pyramids in an old
taxi. While the locals seem to have no trouble crossing the desert in
a Hilux, tourists with hired drivers prefer the souped-up Mitsubishis
with raised wheels and tinted windows. Some excavation teams use these.

As with private vehicles, there are three types of public transport.
First, the taxis. They are all Hyundai Ataz, a car that looks
strikingly similar to the Kia Vista, all painted green. I have not
been in a taxi yet, but I doubt they exceed the quality I experienced
in Cairo (fuzzy dashboard cover included). The taxi drivers are
particularly fond of window decals.

Second, there are the large inter-city buses. Drivers in Sudan usually
go very slowly, which makes up for their overall lack of skill; the
buses are the sole exception, as they speed along at over 100 km/h,
leaving trails of dust to blind anyone following too closely. The
buses are European-style (puppy-dog mirrors instead of elbow mirrors),
but – once again – covered in window decals. We stopped for gas once,
and I was able to observe a bus up close that was covered in Tweety
Bird and tribal design stickers. I’ve heard the buses are quite
comfortable, offering tea and a little cake at least once per journey;
they stop at little shacks in the desert for toilet breaks, which are
only appropriate for men to take. Apparently the Dongola-Khartoum bus
stops in a town with a “not terribly disgusting” women’s toilet. Good
thing I’m not taking the bus.

Third, there are moto-rickshaws. These are absolutely everywhere. The
driver sits in front with a scooter-style steering wheel, and the back
takes up to three passengers; however, the driver may compromise and
take a fourth in the front. They have no doors or windows on the sides
(only on the back, so they can put stickers on them). Today I was the
fourth, and rode about three kilometers half hanging out the side,
clinging on for dear life. They are also by far the most tricked out
of all vehicles here, with decals out the wazoo, foot straps and
handlebars hanging off the sides, tassels everywhere, and – best of
all – some have spikes coming out of each wheel. That’s right: spikes
coming out of each wheel. Clearly there is some late-night rickshaw
drag racing we are not privy to as tourists.

What do we drive, you ask? Well, to accommodate all of us, fourteen
workers, and the equipment, we have two white Land Rovers. The Land
Rover, I’m told, is a “good British car” invented just for this
purpose. I mean driving on uneven and rough terrain, not administering
colonies (although at one point these activities were one and the
same). They were bought new in England but couldn’t be shipped to
Sudan due to the embargo on shipping new cars that can be used for
military purposes, so they were dismantled, fitted an old chassis that
can support a tank, and rebuilt from the ground up: hence, no longer
new Land Rovers. The interior is a car stripped to its bare minimum:
instead of air conditioning, a lever opens a flap to the outside, and
I believe the interiors can be hosed out. They have enormous tires
that still burst quite frequently, and so I have learned to change a
tire here. It’s easier than I expected, but really annoying when you’re smack in the middle of the desert with no shade.

Speaking of the desert, I haven’t mentioned yet that people often get
around in humanity’s oldest way – on foot. I was once on a beach in Crete
when a Pakistani man started chatting up our gang. I asked how he came
to Greece, and he said that he had walked. “You walked?” I asked
incredulously. “Yes,” he said, “I walked to Turkey and then I took a
boat.” That was one of those  moments of incredible realization for
me. When people want things badly enough (in this case, to get out of
Pakistan), they just do it. Walk to Turkey? Sure. There was a big
debate in December about African illegal immigrants to Israel, mostly
from Sudan. How did they get to Israel? They walked. Across the big
desert. Compare that to my recent situation, when I was about 800
meters from the car, across a big plain of sand, and thought I was
going to pass out 300 meters in. Or walking back from the toilet bush
to the site, which is a short 200m, but I found that it’s so hot and
desolate that if I don’t keep my eyes on the site the entire time, I
end up going the wrong way, or in a circle, and when I get there I
take a long sip of water. There are also mirages, which are an awesome
trick of the light in which the sand ahead appears to be a
constantly-receding pool of water, reflecting anything behind it: a
lone palm becomes a beautiful grove.

People walk like this every day.

I am so spoiled by a civilization with cars.

We were driving home one day when we came across a hitchhiker. It’s
quite common and safe to hitchhike here, at least for men (women have
less need to go long distances without accompaniment), and we stopped
and offered him a ride. He looked in the backseat and saw it was full,
looked in the back of the car and saw it was almost full, and asked
where we were going. Here we are, in the middle of the desert, with
only one set of tracks, at least 2 km from anything green, and he
wants to know where we’re going? We all pointed to the tracks ahead.
He shook his head – no, I’m going the other way. I’ll wait for another
car. Since then, we’ve actually seen more people walking across the
desert, the best being two women in a pink and an orange tobe, with
all the extra cloth fanning out behind them.

Now a short update: we have excavated 83 burials, and only have two
more to go! However, this doesn’t mean I’ll get to come home early, as
we still have to process and pack all the bones, and then help finish
up all the other work. This means that I’ll probably be helping Ruth
count beads into the next millennium. I can’t believe how many there
are. One burial I excavated had 268 beads just from a necklace. If
anybody wants to do an experiment, buy some seed beads from Michael’s
and string 268 together. Then tell me how long it is, as we’re anxious
to see! (These are too delicate to restring.) I also found a big, chunky bead carved from red carnelian and a lip plug made of wood or
ivory. The best, though, is to find beads in situ around the wrists or
ankles, so you can imagine how the string would have looked. It’s
lovely to be reminded that these are real people we’re digging up,
individuals who wore beautiful jewelry into the grave.

February 8, 2012

Sudan, Week 8: Cabin Fever

Occasionally we have visitors around here. Last weekend we had some
people I knew from the Oriental Institute (where I worked when I was at U of Chicago), although they are both with
other parties now. It was only when they brought us information from
the outside world that we realized how isolated we are – there are
nine of us in the house, eight of whom speak English, and seven of
whom spend all day together; we follow the same routine every day,
Sundays excepted, when we all travel together to visit a site.
As I sat laughing to myself in front of our guests, it occurred to me
that Anna and I have been repeating the same jokes multiple times a
day for seven weeks now. And they weren’t even new jokes – we’ve been
laughing at the same 1-minute youtube video since January.
(It’s the BBC Talking Animals clip, which was the preview for a show where
nature videos were dubbed by comedians, and our favorite ones are
called “Cup of Sugar” and “Nightime/Daytime”. I will describe them for
you below.
1)      Two owls are sitting next to other. One says in a Midlands accent,
“I don’t like that new neighbor of ours,” and the other replies, “Ooh,
yeah, he’s really creepy.” CUT to the big barn owl on a branch, zoom
in on his eyes, Psycho-style, and he goes: “HEELLLLLOOOOOO, can I
trouble you for a cup of sugaaaaaaaar???” We repeat this every time
someone says hello with an elongated pause.
2)      A crane keeps hiding under his feathers and saying
“niiiightiiiime…” and then popping up: “daytime!” He does this a couple
of times until other cranes show up, and he asks if they want to have
a game of nighttime/daytime. The other one responds that he doesn’t
have to play, he has an X-box. We have merged this with a sort of
whack-a-mole in our holes, but it only works when we’re in
shoulder-deep holes. We’ve even taught Omda to play, and have
translated it to “alayl… naha!”
One day, about two weeks ago, a camel died on the route home. Since we
are all very weird and very bored, we took to making a daily “camel
update” where we compare notes on the camel’s decomposition, since we
take two cars and may notice different things. We even named that
stretch of road Rue du Chamel Mort in its honor. It took a few days to
expand with gas, then there was a pop, then various bits of it started
disappearing as it was eaten by various desert creatures. In the last
few days it has stabilized as a pile of bones and fur.

Perhaps you want to know how the excavation is going. Generally things
are good: after the three weeks of severe wind and cold, it got warm
and calm, then warm and windy, and now it is hot without any wind. We
have opened more than sixty graves, but not all of them have been
fully excavated. Our supervisor from the museum, another
bioarchaeologist, arrived here four weeks ago, but is too tall to fit
in the smallest graves, leaving them for me. The workers – Ghazim, the
fat one, in particular – have taken to calling him “Fat Man” because
of the trouble they have holding the ladder for him, to his continual

We are all suffering from stomach illnesses. I never want to even
think about a lentil again.

Three weeks to go…

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!

January 20, 2012

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
specifically, sand.

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
carry diseases.
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
of us.
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?

January 14, 2012

Sudan: Learning Arabic

I spend most of my day down in a pit, alone. This does not foster personal interaction, which is usually what helps one learn a language. However, I do manage to communicate, using the following list of words. (For any Arabic speakers: note that pronunciation and certain words here are very different from Classical or basically any other Arabic dialect. There’s a lot of African influence on the language.) Tamam – OK, all right, fine. A-salaam aleikum – the traditional greeting. The response is wa-aleikum salaam. This is often shortened to a-salaam. Al-hamdel’allah – Thanks to God. You can put these together into the typical greeting around here: A: A-salaam! Tamam?            B: Tamam!             A: Al-hamdel’allah! Instead of (or in addition to) tamam in the response, you can say mia-mia (100%) or aybu igri, Walid’s favorite sarcastic/over exaggerated Nubian phrase meaning “I am weeping”. You can also say good morning,sabach il-khayr, which literally means “morning light”. The response is sabach in-noor, “beautiful morning”. While you are tamaming, you must shake hands. Everyone shakes hands, and everyone is greeted; I believe it is impolite to skip someone, so Safa will often come back across the yard if she notices she’s missed someone. Children will also shake hands with each guest. There is no restriction of male-female touching in greeting. I learned that hugging is the traditional greeting in South Sudan, but here it is only for people who are very close. If you want to emphatically greet someone, you hit their shoulder with your left hand while shaking with your right. If you are meeting someone for the forst time, you can ask their name: ma ismak? And you can introduce yourself: ismi Stacy. Afterwards you can say tasarafna (nice to meet you) or Al-hamdel’allah, or tamam, or some combination of these. Away is yes and la is no. To negate something, however, the word is mish, which gets confusing since mish  is also a type of cumin-garlic yogurt and a peach. What if you don’t want yogurt? Mish mish. No peaches? Also mish mish. Kwais is good. To compliment Mohammed’s food, I point and say kwais! To tell the workers something they’ve done is not good, I say mish kwais. I have also learned a lengthy list of archaeological words, such as: Ramla – sandMushtarin – trowel Korek – shovel Kis – bag (which is confusing as it refers to both the sugar sacks for removing sand and the small plastic bags for storing artifacts) Silim – ladder Adom – bones (this is of African origin and unrelated to the Semitic root a-d-m אדמ) Hina – here (this is related to Hebrew hinei) Sibu alle kidde/hina – leave it like that/here Hawa – wind. We don’t like wind, it makes us aybu igri. We especially don’t like when it’s hawa kitir, strong wind, or when hawa is accompanied by od, cold (in Nubian). Mumkin – maybe Yimkin – possibly Shukran is thank you; people don’t say please here, they suggest – Walid, mumkin kis hina, shukran is a typical request (asking Walid to bring a sack to me). Bukra – tomorrow. Has a similar connotation to mañana in Spanish. It’ll happen, sometime. If you ask someone mumkin bukra? The answer is yimkin, meaning “never gonna happen.” Similarly, one can askwer insh’allah, “if God wills it” – but God doesn’t often will it. It is also important to be able to count, mostly to ask for certain numbers of items or to tell time. I can count to five: wahed, itneen, talata, arba, hamsa; I can also say the tens: ashra, eshrin, talatin, etc.  100 ismia. Another useful phrase is wahed-wahed, meaning “I’m coming/ just one minute”, which is similar to shweya-shweya, “slowly, relax”. If the workmen point at my wrist, I can say wahed-talatin, shweya-shweya! At the end we can say halas, “finished.” So for today halas!