Friday, 22 February 2013

22nd February – reflections as the end approaches

Break time at school
Things are winding down here as it is final exam time in schools.  The first and second year students have annual exams.  The third years have their final exams before leaving school, in some cases for university.  The term ends in mid-March.  This is only a rough date because the teachers and schools are incredibly vague about everything time-related, like everyone in Sudan.  My flight leaves on 15th March, so at least I have a firm date, even if nobody else does.
I have said some goodbyes already.  There are more tearful goodbyes to come, which I am not looking forward to, but hopefully I have gained many lasting international friendships.  Many people are keen to visit Britain if they ever get the opportunity.  You never know, some of my new Sudanese friends may eventually manage it. 

Jamal at the Sufi shrine
On my last day at the technical school, Jamal, the English teacher, who is a Sufi Muslim, decided to take me to the local, very historical, Sufi shrine called Sheikh El Maizoo Jelal Adeen.  The shrine is the tomb of a holy man who founded Ed Damer 700 years ago.  I have been told many times that it is a major place of pilgrimage for Sufis, although I have been unable to find a reference on the internet.  I have met local people who claim descent from him.  My visit was a very moving occasion.  We went into the shrine itself, where my friend’s fellow worshippers asked me what I would like to pray for.  As a Christian I decided it would be a wonderful opportunity to pray for a breaking of barriers and peace between Christians and Muslims.  We prayed together for this.  I saw tears in the eyes of the Sheikh (Sufi leader).  It was clearly something he also wishes for.

Now that I have more free time, I am able to accept the various offers of trips which haven’t been possible up until now.  This Saturday Kate and I are invited to visit another local Sufi Sheikh at his village, in the company of the same English teacher.

Next week is reserved for practical things.  I return to Khartoum for a few days to organise my exit visa and leave some of my luggage at the SVP flat.  While I am there I will give feedback to the Ministry of Education on my teaching experiences.

When I come back to Ed Damer I have been invited by an English teacher from another school to stay for a few days at her family’s village.  According to her description it is unusual in being built on a hill.  There are very few hills in this part of Sudan.  The Nile flooded a few years ago completely devastating the village, hence the sensible idea to rebuild on high ground.  As the north of Sudan is largely desert, Sudanese homes are not designed to withstand water.  They just collapse back into the mud they were built from.

There are various places I intended to visit as a tourist, but I have been too busy to do so.  I am unlikely to be able to go now as I am counting the pennies.  These will have to wait for another opportunity.  Places such as Karima, Suakin Island and Kassala are very enticing and fellow volunteers who have visited thoroughly recommend them. 

Quite apart from the largely untrodden tourist route, Sudan is a wonderful country and well worth visiting for a different, much simpler perspective on life. 

One of the most impressive qualities is the way that families support each other.  This can lead to a very claustrophobic atmosphere, but also means that when in need, people can rely on practical help; this is literally vital in a country without Social Security where so many live in poverty.  In spite of so much poverty, there are very few beggars, so you know that if somebody is begging they are in very serious need, for whatever reason.

Another quality is that Sudan is a deeply religious country whether Muslim or Christian.  At times, this can be difficult, particularly when individuals take a hard line and build barriers (hence my prayer at the Sufi shrine).  At its best, I have found many common values. 

From the point of view of a foreigner, one of the things which has made visiting Sudan very easy is that Sudanese people take hospitality extremely seriously.  They smile and laugh extremely easily.  It is impossible to go out without people greeting you and wanting to have a conversation, even if their English is very limited.  I have sometimes had my fare paid on the bus or found that the tea lady refuses payment either because a passer-by has paid for me, or because she simply wants to be hospitable.  You are unlikely to be overcharged in the souk (at least outside Khartoum), as I have discovered when buying groceries and struggling to bargain.  In fact once the price is agreed the stall holders have a tendency to keep adding additional, unpaid-for items to my bag, probably in pity for my poor bargaining skills. 

Coming to Sudan has been a very good experience, to be highly recommended.  I will miss the country and its people.

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