In 1985 the Sudan was in considerable trouble. Sudan had been in trouble before but this time the country was almost on its knees. I had been invited to visit relatives of a dear friend of mine, a Sudanese girl I shared an apartment with, and I was hoping to be met by her cousin Zuba.
I arrived in Khartoum at the exact moment the Sudanese decided to sack their incumbent President, Gaafar Muhammad Nimeri. From the first moment of my arrival I could sense the tension; it was an almost tangible thing, raw and exciting. I arrived late at night, tiptoeing over the sleeping bundles of rags propped against scant furniture in the weirdly utility building rumored to be the arrivals hall. At least I was assured it was the arrivals hall.
There were piles of unclaimed baggage strewn in every direction, with locks hanging loosely; obviously having been tampered with by a series of looters. In my innocence and inexperience of life in Khartoum, I had worn a rather smart white dress and jacket for my journey, rather like selecting a wedding gown to explore a coal pit really, although I was unaware of my idiocy at the time.
I was sitting in what can only described as ultimate chaos. The aircraft I had just alighted from had disgorged over two hundred shell shocked passengers into a room only slightly larger and considerably dustier than a scout hut. Floating sand was everywhere, in the air, on the seats, settled into drifts along the counters and over the Perspex barriers which separated the passengers from barely visible immigration officials. Children were crying, some strange Arabian anthem was crackling across a loudspeaker, and outside the building cars and taxis were honking their horns.
As I sat, fine yellowish brown sand floated down onto the shoulders and lapels of my crisp, white dress and coat and onto the black leather of my dressing case and handbag which I carried, terrified to lose sight of my personal belongings in this bedlam.
A cluster of ragged bodies seemed to be pawing at a pile of baggage just in front of me. On closer inspection I managed to read the back of the tee shirt nearest me. ‘Baggage Handling’ it said. The wearer had on only a pair of worn out Speedo shorts, and flip flops. He was puffing away on an evil smelling clove cigarette and he and his friends had already opened a suitcase further along the line.
They had also opened a bird cage for some reason, and the occupant, an African parrot, had flown out in search of refuge. The parrot was now perched on one of the slowly turning blades of the most enormous ceiling fan I had ever seen, and was hurling selections from his considerable repertoire of phrases at everyone who went near him. Each sentence was couched in the most obscene terms and he had collected a group of admirers who were throwing him peanuts to coax him from his perch. I gathered from one of his young admirers that his name was Maxwell.
The collection of rags was now searching through one of my suitcases so I decided the time had come to assert ownership. Just as I arose from my seat, Zuba arrived. I should explain at this point that Zuba, as we affectionately called her, was 36 years old and, as yet, unmarried. In the Sudan, to be this great age and not yet betrothed or married was an unforgivable sin. She was not unattractive in a strange, Zuba sort of way. By that I mean she was of medium height, huge brown eyes with heavy fringes of lashes, smooth skin of a coffee complexion, and dainty hands and feet. Her voice, however, would cut through steel. Most of her remarks were quickly followed by raucous laughter, usually mistaken for male origin.
Zuba was ungainly in the extreme; she walked as a farmer might, when striding through a pig pen, with feet well apart, taking large strides and swinging her arms as she went. Zuba adored Bob Marley, Peter Sellers and going to parties. She had joined the army upon leaving school and had risen through the ranks, training as a medical officer and then as a Psychologist, until by 1985 she had reached the rank of Colonel.
Wherever Zuba went, so her entourage followed. There were two uniformed private soldiers she informed me were her bodyguards, both of whom were of considerably slighter build than she and terrified of her. A further four soldiers just seemed to trail behind the first two and try to look interested in everything Zuba said, or did. The seventh member of her little band was her driver, whom she pummeled with her handbag whenever he misbehaved.
She came toward me through the arrivals hall at Khartoum airport, dressed in her khaki uniform, pips and eagles adorning each shoulder, a gold lanyard swinging from her tunic, looking extremely official and parting the crowds of people by waving her service revolver at everybody who dared to get in her way. She threw her arms around me and lifted me off my feet, kissing me on both cheeks several times over. By the time she had finished planting kisses all over my face her emotions had overcome her and she began to actually cry. Her driver handed her a handkerchief and she blew her nose noisily before shouting to one of her troop to grab my suitcases.
Zuba led us through immigration in a flurry of handshakes and toothy smiles, introducing me to everyone and explaining that I was a VIP from diplomatic circles. I actually was a lowly administrator from Leeds so nothing could be further from the truth and it was very obvious none of them believed her, but they seemed not to care and we were soon outside the terminal doors.
Our transport was an open army jeep complete with flags and hooters. We raced through the hot, dusty trails, you could certainly not call them roads, and after what seemed like hours, we arrived at Zuba’s family home on the outskirts of Omdurman. Tired, caked with dust and filth, I entered the ruined splendor of Zuba’s home.
It was easy to see how in the old days her family had considerable wealth and influence. Now, the marble floors beneath my feet were gritty from sand, brown at the edges where the floors met the walls, bare light bulbs hanging from light fittings, threadbare rugs scattered everywhere. Zuba brought two young girls forward and introduced them as servants. ‘It’s okay Jan, you don’t have to kiss them, they are very black!’ she said! Shocked, I started to scold her about talking of the girls in that manner but she laughed loudly and began dragging me upstairs to unpack.
Zuba’s bedroom had not been decorated since she was nine years old and still had pink painted furniture and posters of pop stars of the sixties adorning the walls. A very young Donny Osmond grinned down at me from above a bed I assumed to be Zubas; cotton throws in bright colors were draped over the chairs to hide the childish Disney transfers of Snow White pasted to the backs. Zuba explained that her bedroom had been left in this state by her mother as a punishment for not getting married at a respectable age. I murmured something sympathetic and she continued to show me around her private quarters.
There was a heavy metal door at one end of the room which turned out to be the door to the flat roof. I stepped through the door, looking forward to seeing a roof garden with perhaps a dining area. Instead I was greeted by a collection of discarded cardboard boxes, some of which still had the smelly remains of fruit adhering to the sides. Beyond the boxes was another door, this time to a bathroom, containing a tap high up on the wall which was the only means of showering, and a toilet, the smell from which was beginning to make me gag. Everything up here was coated in brown dust. The rest of the roof was just an open space with a low wall.
A drunken washing line was strung between the bathroom wall and a hook on the parapet, and obviously it would be impossible to peg washing from it except at its highest point. At the far end of the roof was a plastic chair and table with a suspicious looking object trailing a wire through the wall.‘Here, Jan you can ring your family and tell them you are in Zuba’s wonderful house,’ she said, pointing to the object which I now recognized as a telephone without is plastic cover.
Zuba discreetly retired to the ground floor, leaving me to phone home. It was then I realized there was no dial on the object either, therefore there were no numbers to choose from. I sat on the plastic chair and laughed.
I stayed with Zuba and her family for six wonderful months. I was 31 and had been working as a secretary in the service branch of an engineering company for the past two years. I had been suffering from boredom for so long I was now beginning to accustom myself to the perpetual ennui of my set routine and I was terrified of waking up one morning on the wrong side of fifty and wondering where my life had gone. Sudan was exactly the kind of adventure I needed and I launched myself into the business of living on a knife edge with passionate abandon. I found a job as a temporary secretary with a local oil company and agreed to attend every single function I was invited to for the next three months.
Khartoum was overrun by American pilots who were there to train the local air force. They invited me to their parties and barbecues and treated me like royalty. I joined the Sudan Club, the last relic of British occupation and still inhabited by one or two live-in residents left over from the fifties when the Sudan still had roads and pavements.
At first I was content to stay with Zuba and learn about the way Sudanese families lived. After a few weeks though, I began to understand that I must be a drain on the family resources, in a city where food shortages were becoming more and more worrying each day.
Bread was queued for, sometimes for hours. The two servant girls were sent to wait for hours in the sun outside the bread shop, the grocery shop, and the worst of all, the gas depot, where gas bottles were rationed to those residents who had enough money to bribe the depot officials, thus enabling them to cook and to light their houses. The gas depot was a long walk away, no shelter from the sun when you got there, and no guarantee of coming home with gas.
One of Zuba’s cousins, Ozzy, was a regular visitor to the house. He would arrive late morning and greet Zuba politely, then retire to the front patio with her brothers, to smoke and drink ‘Sid’ – a disgusting concoction of ninety proof alcohol which passed for cocktails in these difficult times. The entire family was devout Moslem I must point out and therefore strictly forbidden to consume alcohol. As in all things, the consumption of alcohol was overlooked and deemed a necessary evil to help overcome the daily tiresomeness of living in reduced circumstances.
One evening about a week after my arrival, Ozzy invited me to visit his mother. I was delighted to be invited as Ozzy’s mother was reputed to be a great beauty of her generation and a highly sophisticated woman. We set out just before dinner and I was fascinated at how Ozzy could find his way around the sandy wasteland of Khartoum. There were no street signs, no signposts, and no stop signs. The sands of time had covered a once beautiful city. Ozzy informed me that long ago, when the British were in residence, the city had fire hydrants, post boxes, beautifully paved sidewalks, shops and taxi ranks and post offices. Now there were just tired, dusty houses facing other tired, dusty houses with a desert wasteland between. You had to use a compass to get around.
We stopped suddenly outside a house with a locked metal gate. There was a Mercedes parked outside the house and Ozzy got out of the car, opened the trunk and took out a plastic canister and a hose pipe. To my horror and disbelief, he began the process of siphoning petrol out of the parked Mercedes into our car! I objected strenuously to this blatant theft but Ozzy just smiled, ignored me and continued to his destination.
My visit to Ozzy’s mother, Una, was the first of a series of visits, each one more enjoyable than the last, and we became close friends. She helped me to find an apartment in Khartoum and I managed to furnish it with donated furniture from a collection of concerned friends.
I felt more comfortable now that I was not draining Zuba’s family’s limited supplies and in fact I was now able to supply them with a few luxuries such as shampoo and toothpaste which I bought at the American commissary, a perk of working for an American oil company. Some days were good and some were unspeakably bad.
One morning I woke to find my apartment flooded. There had been no water for three days and I stupidly left the taps turned to the on position. The water supply had been restored in the middle of the night and overflowed everywhere. On arriving in the street I found my driver, Khamis, busy under the bonnet of the company car allocated to me. After recruiting the assistance of a series of passersby it was concluded there was no petrol in the car.
It was stifling hot in the back seat and I demanded to know why I could not open the windows. Khamis informed me solemnly that he had super glued the windows shut to deter thieves. The front windows were not glued, I pointed out. No, he said, that was because he found it too hot with them shut.
Arriving at my office it would be quite normal to find the telephones did not work, the electricity had been cut off, the water was off, or the caretakers had not shown up to open the building, resulting in a mass adjournment to the cafes for endless cups of coffee until lunchtime. The Sudan Club supplied food most days. It would not do to be too fussy, you had to eat whatever was on the menu for the day. My lunch on some days consisted of a curious collection of pickles and a slice of bread, at other times there would be a veritable feast due to the arrival of a consignment of food which was then distributed by the resourceful characters in charge of imported goods through the ports.
Zuba was a regular visitor to my apartment and she made herself at home, arranging herself on the sofa with her feet on the coffee table and viewing my collection of library videos which I borrowed weekly from the American commissary shop. She would tuck into a large bowl of cereal, her latest fad, glue herself to the television and refuse to talk until she had come to the end of her movie.
I was amazed one morning to spy Zuba alighting from her staff car outside my apartment, in full dress uniform complete with white gloves and sunglasses, looking like a female version of Idi Amin, accompanied by her feckless driver who failed to catch her when she stepped off the sill of her jeep and she stumbled into a hole in the road, slapping him over the head with her handbag and screaming abuse at him top volume. She had been to the hairdresser, and her shoulder length hair had been braided into hundreds of tiny plaits, and secured at the end with multi colored beads; very attractive for party wear, but hardly suitable to accessorize an army uniform. Over the top of her uniform cap she had jammed a set of headphones, and she proceeded to dance up the stairs of the building to the tune of Bob Marley.
Zuba casually asked me what I did at work, and when I told her I typed, processed papers, made coffee, etc, she froze in shock. What did I mean by ‘make coffee?’ I explained that in the modern world secretaries make coffee for their bosses, it was no big deal. The next day she showed up at my office complete with entourage and service revolver, which she waved at my boss and warned him darkly that he was not to ask her friend to make his coffee again if he wanted to survive his term of service in the Sudan. I assured him after she had gone that he did not have to worry, I was quite happy to make his coffee. Nonetheless he never asked me to again.
During my time in Khartoum I explored the seam where the blue and the white Niles meet, helped in a crocodile hunt, survived the onslaught of numerous haboobs (sand storms) and flew into the wilderness near El Obaid, courtesy of the World Bank to meet the field Geologists studying desert life in isolated camps with their families; two years in the desert without any contact with the outside world made them very pleased to see us.
I experienced the discomfort of tear gas during the coup and had to bath in bottled soda water when water supplies completely dried up, and I watched with delight when Nimeri was finally ousted from power, joining the dancing and celebrations in the streets which went on for days. I visited the camps where my friend Marguerita was in charge of vaccines, nursing the children with so many famine connected diseases, and eventually nursed Marguerita while she died of cholera in my little apartment. She was so brave and strong, it seemed unthinkable she should end her days in such horrible circumstances.
My stay in Sudan came to an end when I had the opportunity to visit Dubai over a year later. I found modern desert life fascinating and a new platform for adventure. The Sudan and Dubai were at opposite ends of the spectrum of civilization. Whereas Sudan was poor, underprivileged and shabby, Dubai was sleek, rich and super efficient. I needed the change and went into my new life in the modern Emirates with the same rush of enthusiasm I had felt when I first stepped off the plane in Khartoum. I will always remember them; the Sudan, Khartoum, Marguerita, and Zuba.