At a reading, someone once asked what inspired my poem, ‘Sudan! Sudan!’ The short answer was: crossing the longest river in the world, during a visit to the largest country in Africa. The long answer would have read something like this:
A Nigerian Accent and a Comedy of Errors
It all started as a little misunderstanding. I’d told my host, Ahmed, that I had to get to Meroe for some research on my novel, The Extinction of Menai. Merwi? he’d asked, that’s easy! I was to catch an early bus at the central station in Omdurman, Khatoum’s twin city, travel two hundred kilometres north, and by Ipm I would see all the Sudanese pyramids my heart desired. That suited me just fine. It was a good idea to get all the travelling under one’s belt just as the strength of the Sudanese sun came into its own. So that Saturday morning, I was up well before the sun. I was bathed and dressed and waiting for the lift to the station. I finally made it by 7am, not as early as some of my fellow travellers – Alwasa, for instance had been there since 5.30am. Osman, the last passenger, arrived by 8.30am and we were off.
Our journey was perhaps divided 80-20 between brand-new tarmac and dirt track, but because we whizzed through the tarmac and bumped through the dirt tracks our time was divided 20-80 between the surfaces.
That journey brought one closest to the thoughts of the lobster, in the moments before it expires in the pot. I had a seat by the window but once the sun had risen it was far preferable to shut the window against the blast of hot air from outside. This then was the eloquent reason why recipes recommend the reduction of cooking times when working with fan-assisted ovens.
Still the journey went swimmingly. It is difficult of conceive of more amiable travelling companions. In a nation of Arabic speakers with English as a second language trailing far behind, it is difficult to communicate. But I have learnt my first Arabic word: moya for water. It will come in useful on the trip, for I carry none.
Some Aggressive Hospitality
At Tam Tam camp, halfway through our journey, I make friends with Alwasa. My host had spoken with him earlier to keep an eye on the helpless English-speaker on board. He takes his assignment seriously and soon I am disputing hotly with him on the payment for our drinks. I lost the argument, despite the fact that I was probably twice his age and he was heading out for his first job as an electrician in a road construction company in El Geneina. His trump was that I was a guest in his country, although I did counter that no African was an alien in Africa. We end up on a compromise: I was to buy our second round of drinks.
I get a lesson on amity during the forty minutes of our break. While we stand drinking and chatting, a lanky steward carrying a tray of dirty plates gets into an affray with a violent wind and a half-eaten plate of food is upended on my companion’s foot. He laughs through it all, and as he goes to wash himself at the tap outside, he sees the expression on my face: We like to take life easy, he advises. When he returns it is to break his word. We have another heated argument over the payment for the drinks for the road. Clearly he had only agreed I could buy a second round because he didn’t realise we would stay long enough for a second round. But by now I had learnt some lessons on the winning of the hospitality battle: I simply hung in there after the other person’s face had clouded into fury. So there we were: money held out to the soft drinks vendor like two bidders for the last seat on the last ferry of the day; but the embarrassed vendor had overheard the earlier agreement and he took my money. Alwasa was a cheerful loser and we soon began the hotter leg of the journey.
Taking Life Easy
As we arrived at ‘Meroe’, I saw the first English sign announcing the ‘Merwi’ dam and I knew I was in the wrong town. Time to put Alwasa’s lesson into practice. It was no calamity anyway. The real Meroe was only three hundred kilometres away, I was five days into a two-week-trip and I had days enough to find Meroe. My brief was also to get to know something about the biggest country in Africa, which had to cover the stumbling upon strange but providential towns.
When I got off the bus another contact made by my host at the beginning of the trip begins to yield dividend: one of the bus staff (well, it was hard to know his role, he was no driver, no conductor, but he certainly was something or the other on the bus) hands me over to another passenger who gets off the bus at my stop. So where do I want to go? He asks in good English. I tell him I am looking for pyramids. He corrects me: I first want to find a hotel, then I want to look for pyramids. Then he corrects himself: We are first going to share a cup of tea, then the business of hotels can come afterwards.Turns out that ‘we’ meant two other passengers as well, a father and son, the younger of whom had sat silently beside me all through the journey. I do not contend for payment rights with my new benefactor, who turns out to be Ahmed Osman, an advocate who was in Merwi to pursue a case on behalf of a father who lost his son in a dam building accident. He had been called to the bar since 1994 and we swap some professional tales over Pepsis. He finds out from the locals that we are sandwiched by pyramids. There’s one to the right of the bar we are sitting in and a bunch of them across the Nile. Ahmed fixes up an itinerary for me: I am to check into a hotel, have a wander around the local digs and catch the ferry first thing next morning for the pyramids at Karima. Then he takes me to a hotel next door.
Well, it is a hotel meet for a village of a few hundreds. Do I want a bed in a courtyard or a room? Asks the hotelier. A room I tell him. That would be two thousand Sudanese Dinars, he says. Yet, he won’t take my money without the permission of the local police. There is a war in progress and strangers are not accommodated in towns without a certification that they were not enemy spies. Indeed in a couple of days I was to be arrested by the security police, but that is clearly another story. For the moment, I get directions to the police station, which is two streets away overlooking the ferry stage. I take Ahmed’s card and we exchange goodbyes.
At the station, there is no English-speaking policeman but we soon find a prisoner who can speak the lingo. I am standing there with a slew of excited Arabic-speaking policemen on one side of the cell and a young nonplussed prisoner on the other side who cannot quite decide if he is still deep in his siesta; but before he can get into the groove of official interpreter to his captors, another policeman enters and finds the entire procedure degrading. So it’s back to the front office to wait for a more fitting interpreter.
This takes a while. I am beginning to feel under arrest, especially since, at 4.30pm, I have only a few minutes to get a sim card for my phone so I can reconnect with my family and the world at large.
The more fitting interpreter arrives in the shape of a young soldier three days into his Merwi posting. He is Yusuf and he takes me under his wing right away. He tells the police what I want and they cannot seem to figure out why I need their permission to get a hotel room. They advise me to try the bigger hotels across the river, which would be less provincial in outlook. Yusuf agrees. Concerning hotels, he advises, Merwi is strictly small beans. Karima is the place to be. This is music to my own ears. Now I’m not talking about Michelin stars here, but just then I did not mind some big town comforts after a desert crossing.
But it was almost five oclock. Yusuf offers to help me find a shop that will sell me a sim card for my mobile phone. We do the rounds of the local shops and Merwi confirms its ranking as a small player in the big town stakes. There are no sim cards to be had. By this time we have been joined by four of Yusuf’s fellow soldiers, friends and relatives. I am unsure whether to feel chagrined about this or upbeat. Although they converse in Arabic I can see from the questions he puts to me that they are in turns suspicious about my security status – what was a Nigerian visitor doing in their little town. It is at times like this that you recall that Sudan is at war. A few hundred miles in a certain direction Darfur was spilling guts in line after the bloodletting of Southern Sudan.
Then courtesy his friends, Yusuf offers another solution. One of his ‘brothers’ will sell me his sim card. How much I say? Two hundred dinars. He says. I have previously been caught out by the dollar/dinar, hundred/thousand, confusion. Two hundred or two thousand dinars? I ask. Two hundred dinars he smiles amiably. Now that was cheap, even if I said so myself. It was an answer to prayer. Only thing was: we had to take a short taxi trip to his ‘brother’s’ house to get the sim card. The ‘short trip’ was close to five kilometres and cost seven hundred and fifty dinars. Now this was rather a strange way to do the business of a two hundred dinars sim card, especially as, once again, he refused to allow me to pay for the taxi. I loaded up the sim card and it worked on my ancient Nokia Communicator. I bought a thousand dinar credit and loaded it. It worked. It was time to pay. Turns out he meant two hundred thousand, not two hundred.
Now, this was silly money, but his friend was apparently serious about it. Yusuf was really apologetic about it all, offering me his sim card free of charge for the duration of my trip. It was an offer I couldn’t accept. But I did take his number in case I ran into more lingo trouble. I also managed to pay for a drink for him before catching the ferry across.
Walking in Sudan was strangely unnerving. I had lived too long with my hand on my wallet, here it was a struggle to pay my way. At least I had managed to load up a sim card I didn’t buy eventually. That had to count for something.
I got off the ferry across the Nile and tried to pay. The boatman refused my money. Why??? I asked, a little desperately. He was after all, collecting fares from other passengers. He did not have the English to explain and I did not have the Arabic to understand. Near as I could fathom it, I was not Sudanese; I was therefore both a guest in his country and his boat.
It was close to six o’clock and I needed a good hotel. I had not eaten since a breakfast of a few buns fried on a roadside brazier, shared with my host as we waited for the bus to load up. Yet, I wasn’t hungry. In the lap of Ahmed’s family, I had eaten so much in the past few days that I could easily run another couple of days without food. I caught a Daihatsu Damas bus to Karima. It was one of the tiny buses that was the staple of public transportation in Sudan. It sat some 7 in basic comfort but it did the job. Merwi continued across the river, My driver was a native of Karima and he drove me past houses precariously perched on the cliff edge of historic riverbanks. I wondered how anyone could get a good sleep in homes so tentative situated.
Karima was another couple of kilometres from the river bank and on our way there a massif loomed. It reminded me of the rock that rose up in front of the road on the southern approach to Abuja from Lagos. This sense of deja vu is to strike again and again as I consciously remind myself that I was not in some other neighbourhood of Africa. I took a photograph and as we approached, I saw the pyramids. It was certainly worth the visit. They looked like Lego blocks from a distance, something small enough to pick up and go away with. But two young men jogged across them as we passed, and their tiny outlines put the structures in perspective. In the distance, Gebel (mount) Barkal glowered. Karima town was the next turning and as we turned into the settlement, I could still see the pyramids of the Meroitic kings in the distance. I wondered what it felt like to live with such illustrious history for backdrop.
All that – the ruins of the temples, palaces, burial chambers – was for the morrow. For the time, I had to get a hotel. It did not seem that large a town, so I felt no financial apprehension in asking my bus driver (he had no other passengers so I had taken him on as a taxi) to take me to the biggest hotel. We ended up in a similar establishment to the Merwi place. A Sudan-style bungalow: concealed roof, high ceilinged, and with three or four beds in the forecourt. The hotelier was brother to the proprietor. He was a fairish African-Arab. He had curly hair and a modicum of English, enough, certainly, for a Karima hotelier. You want a room or bed? He asked. A room I said. Two thousand Dinars, he told me. Deal, I said.
Plus, you need a police letter, he added.
So off I went again. This time, I had took a wretche, the three-wheeler Indian trike that was all the vogue in Sudan. They seemed to be particularly prolific in Karima. My driver was the efferverscent Nayee whose humour was exactly larger than life. He took me to the police station. There was no sign, whether in English or Arabic, to suggest its official function, and not surprisingly, we knocked and knocked in vain. Siesta time, we surmised.
Eventually, I took Nayee on a hunt for a sim card. We traipsed the sook in Karima, but they were all shut down. There was something vaguely homely about a large, deserted marketplace in a sprawling, somnolent town whose population was too small to make a market bustle more than once or so a week. Then he offered me his own phone and sim card for ten thousand dinars. It seemed like a pretty good deal, but after my last experience I needed to make doubly sure. I showed him what I meant by a thousand dinars and he said he was happy with ten of them. So I bought another thousand dinars Mobitel credit, loaded it up and paid Nayee. At which point I realised that it was a loan. He would pick me up from my hotel the following day and take me to buy my sim card after which I would exchange his sim card for my ten thousand dinars.
From Trike to Donkey
I was more than happy with that, although it meant I had to field a couple of calls from bemused arabic speakers who could not fathom what I was doing with their Nayee’s telephone. Where next? He asked. Forget the police, I said, Take me to the BEST hotel in Karima. He looked at me dubiously, and took me to another hotel. I went in politely, and was quite relieved to be told that all the rooms were booked. Turned out there were only two hotels in Karima.
Back to the police then. They let us in this time, looked at my passport, and tore out a form for me to present to the hotelier. It was all very informal and I never saw a police uniform, even though I was served a few police-issue scowls.
So I paid for a room and moved my travel bag in. I arranged for Nayee to pick me up the following morning for some serious touring and he drove off to do some real work. I had a couple more hours of daylight and I found a donkey and his owner who was happy to take me around in his cart. Back in my hotel, I called it a night. The bed was hard and the room was hot and although I was bone-tired I did not sleep. The sun was dead but the walls retained a fiery memory of his stern reign. I went out. Once outside my room I saw that the dozen beds in the courtyard were almost all taken. A cool breeze dandled the sleeping patrons, a thoroughly more pleasant proposition than mine. I remembered the hotelier’s question: Bed or Room. I had got the wrong end of the bargain then. I eased myself surreptitiously onto a courtyard bed. It was just as hard as the other, but there was something different. The breeze.
And for one night only, I didn’t mind the chorus of snores from my symphony of fellow sleepers.
About that poem? (A video version is now available, YouTube style, here)
Do you hear me call?
Your lure has fallen on the souls
that answer to your ancient name.
With breezing net, Sudan, you seduce me also.
Your sun rises on a horizon of river palms.
Centuries count for slow minutes
beside the longest river in the world.
I found three camels at a sook for sale
and bought and trailed them home
and turned and found a white and blue Khartoum
Stretched on a camel caravan, through Roman times into antiquity
You torch your souls again.
Meroe burns again.
The ruins are walked.
Their buried souls have gone and flowered hope.
No man, no woman walks these dunes
but becomes Sudanese.
Arab and Berber. Nomad and Dinka. Tuareg.
– and now, Igbo.
The sun that claims the high noon for his own
stuns both black and brown alike into submission.
The nights are Khalifa’s dreams,
and Tarhaqa’s dreams,
and the dreams of all that ruled and reigned
across your land, Sudan.
Dripping the fey juices of Kassala grapes,
you count the abacus of war,
counting your casualties into a gourd of sacrifice.
Recount, Sudan. Recount.
From Juba’s fields to Atbara,
from Karima to El Geneina.
Surely, your calabash is full.
Foundations set in the blood and pain of old martyrs
can bear walls of mortar mixed with today’s sweat.
Old tears will drown the cataracts of your Nile
but not her obdurate smiles.
renew the recalcitrant matrixes of hope;
from the plains of Kordofan
to the beaches of Port Sudan,
from the jungles of rebellion
to the alluvial plains of peace,
go, scale Gebel Destiny!
do you see the largest state in Africa,
or her largest cemetery?
I have walked your dunes as well,
do you hear me call your name?
Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.