When Mustafa suggests we have dinner together, we are a little uncertain. Earlier in the day, Sudanese border control officials banged on our cabin door, inviting us to complete various forms in a sweaty room just opposite the kitchen. What happens in the kitchen should probably stay in the kitchen. But before we know it, we are sitting around a table in the dining area of the ferry from Egypt crossing Lake Nasser into Sudan.
We noticed a few foreigners making the train journey from Cairo to Aswan along with us on the previous day. On the ferry, however, and the remainder of our journey to Khartoum, we are the only foreigners using public transport.
Photo: Ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa.
We are joined by four of Mustafa’s Sudanese friends, one of whom bears an uncanny resemblance to the American comedian, Steve Harvey. Most of them work in other Arab countries, where they complain that their accented Arabic is not easily understood. We can relate somewhat, since it’s pretty much how we feel when upon hearing our Cape Flats accent, some Americans ask us whether English is our first language.
The cook brings us bowls of beans, fresh vegetables and yoghurt, which are mixed together with boiled eggs.
Photo: Nubian house in Aswan
As we join our hosts in dipping our fingers into the bowl and scooping the delicious mixture into our mouths, we look at each other. We discover later that one of us was thinking about hand sanitiser. The other remembered that the Steve Harvey doppelgänger was playing with his toes earlier that evening as we sat on the deck watching the sun set. Mustafa, sensing our apprehension, explains that all Sudanese wash their hands before eating.
The music of Mahmood Abdel Aziz plays in the background as we enjoy our excellent meal, completed with some oranges and a strong ginger-infused coffee. The warmth and generosity of the Sudanese continue to surprise us as our new group of friends check on us during the 17-hour ferry ride to the border town of Wadi Halfa.
Photo: Group photo on the ferry
Since almost every travel guide we’ve come across provides a male perspective, we thought it important that the rest of the journey be articulated through Farzana’s voice:
The small dusty desert village of Wadi Halfa is made up of buildings that resemble shacks. “Smells like feet” is the first thing I say to Kayum when we are shown to our hostel room. I’m the only woman in this section, sharing a communal bathroom with seven other men.
PIC 4: Hotel Cleopatra in Wadi Halfa
PIC 5: Hotel room
Wisely, I unpack my brand new “She-wee” – a hard, silicone funnel type urination aid for women. I discover an Eastern-style toilet with a shower and drain directly in front of it. No shower head, just a pipe with an opening, water dripping on my head as I perform the task at hand. She-wee works well on the first test drive. ‘Act Like a Lady, Pee Like a Man’ – a rather apt description derived from Steve Harvey’s best-selling book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.
After a sleepless night we converge at the bus depot at 4:30am to catch the daily bus to Khartoum. We find the rest of our ferry friends having coffee and zelabia – a delicacy much like the “bolla” my mum makes on Sunday mornings.
Photo: Coffee and zelabia at the bus stop
Endless security checkpoints and 13 hours of televised Sudanese entertainment later, we reach Khartoum. It is an unremarkable city peppered with futuristic gleaming steel and blue skyscrapers courtesy of the Chinese. Election posters of Omar al-Bashir (and only al-Bashir) cover walls and signposts along the way to our B’nB.
Our modest B’nB on the edge of the city seems like an oasis. The B’nB is unofficially permitted to serve alcohol – the only place in Khartoum that does so, thereby barring locals from entering the grounds. Foreigners based in the city converge here on Thursday evenings to mark the start of the weekend. By 10pm Kayum and I are dancing to Nigerian hip-hop while one of the guests plays music using his phone and a speaker. The B’nB owner says he’s received warnings by security police to keep things quiet, particularly during election season. So at about 3am, when people start jumping into the pool, he turns off the lights, signalling the end of the party.
A few hours later, we find ourselves in sweltering heat, swaying to another beat. This time, that of drums and melodious recitations by whirling Dervishes dancing in praise of Hamed-el Nil. Hundreds of men, some spinning around, others moving rhythmically from side to side, all smiling faces pointing upward. The mood is festive and there are even a handful of women who join in some distance away from the men, their movements more measured, heads bowed down with some faces completely covered.
My attempts at discussing religion are thwarted. Discussing politics is not welcome either, despite the impending election. If the people who inhabit a place represent that place, then Sudan can be described as a friendly and generous nation, but one that does not allow outsiders to scratch beneath the surface. The Sudanese go to the polls this week with an outcome already pre-determined, no hope of democracy, let alone freedom of expression. Living in a country without the guarantee of free speech and fair elections seems rather empty. I’ve begun to appreciate that in South Africa, these are hard-won freedoms that should never be taken for granted. DM
Main photo: Dervishes.
Watch Pauli van Wyk’s Cat Play The Piano Here!
No, not really. But now that we have your attention, we wanted to tell you a little bit about what happened at SARS.
Tom Moyane and his cronies bequeathed South Africa with a R48-billion tax shortfall, as of February 2018. It's the only thing that grew under Moyane's tenure... the year before, the hole had been R30.7-billion. And to fund those shortfalls, you know who has to cough up? You - the South African taxpayer.
It was the sterling work of a team of investigative journalists, Scorpio’s Pauli van Wyk and Marianne Thamm along with our great friends at amaBhungane, that caused the SARS capturers to be finally flushed out of the system. Moyane, Makwakwa… the lot of them... gone.
But our job is not yet done. We need more readers to become Maverick Insiders, the friends who will help ensure that many more investigations will come. Contributions go directly towards growing our editorial team and ensuring that Daily Maverick and Scorpio have a sustainable future. We can’t rely on advertising and don't want to restrict access to only those who can afford a paywall subscription. Membership is about more than just contributing financially – it is about how we Defend Truth, together.
So, if you feel so inclined, and would like a way to support the cause, please join our community of Maverick Insiders.... you could view it as the opposite of a sin tax. And if you are already Maverick Insider, tell your mother, call a friend, whisper to your loved one, shout at your boss, write to a stranger, announce it on your social network. The battle for the future of South Africa is on, and you can be part of it.
A lightning bolt is 5 times hotter than the sun's surface.