Saturday, December 24, 2005

sudan : oppressive environ bordering on opulence

I am always curious to visit countries that are slammed by Americans. Here was a chance to see another country without any American fast food joints and stores selling American brands. After being to Syria, Iran, Yemen now was the turn to visit Sudan.

I had no idea what to expect in Sudan. My first lesson of Sudan came from a UK man sitting next to my seat. He was working as a specialist in water management for NGO as a part of UN project in Darfur – violence infected western part of Sudan. This lesson was supplemented by another Indian standing in the immigration queue that marked ‘Non Sudanese’. He was a Gujarati, born in Sudan with Sudanese nationality but for obvious reasons carries Indian passport whenever travels abroad.

By the time I had my entry stamp on my passport; I was acquainted with few facets of Sudan – one of them was that Sudanese are friendly people despite being ruled by military regime. Immigration staff did not carry any air of arrogance. I could virtually stand next to him and help him rummage through my passport pages. This people friendly image remained everywhere in Khartoum.

After my few days of stay Khartoum hotel, memories of my initial business travel to smaller Indian towns in early 80’s came to the fore. The exception however was the room tariff. Sudan hotels are frightfully expensive. Hilton- lone star hotel - costs US$ 200 plus but in no way comes in the class of even ordinary budget hotel elsewhere. My US$50 hotel room was inferior even to my engineering hostel room. The hotel did offer luxury in the form of window air-conditioner and a small color TV without remote that played only Arab channels with the exception of CNN. Bathroom water heater was mounted so high that I had to stand on my toes to have it switched on. Water taps welcomed with dark brown water but was told this was due to rusted pipes and storage tank. How happy I was when I saw my bathing soap in the shaving kit, I kept looking at blue colored tiny soap cake without any wrapper that I would have used. Next time, I must carry my bath towel too. Elevators in the hotel came to thundering halt when it reached the floor, I guess this OTIS make must be in dire need of some shock absorbers that is hard to come by due to american embargo. The hotel entry register size almost occupied reception desk with innumerable columns for every bit of information about the visitor.

Sudan is a big country, in fact biggest in Africa. Going from Khartoum to south of Sudan takes as much time as it would be from Dubai to Khartoum. This country houses Arab and African cultures with north of Sudan–Khartoum being Arab and south being Christian/nomadic tribes. Discovery of oil led to the bickering between these regions but peace was somehow restored with a negotiated settlement over sharing of oil wealth and political power. But this very deal made west Sudan feel marginalized and this seems to be the cause of Darfur violence. There is no doubt about Sudan’s prosperity once Darfur issue gets resolved.

City of Khartoum is no war zone but it does give the effect with numerous UN planes carrying their personnel to Darfur. Chinese, Indians, Turkish, Russians are teeming this country for oil drilling business. The people in Khartoum are genuine, honest and extremely friendly. I became friendly with Awad– taxi driver from south Sudan who spoke good English. It was no surprise of his singing “ aap jaisa koi mere zindgi me aaye . without understanding anything ” but he did impress me by drawing a comparison of this song with that of Tina Charles and rattling every soccer player in Brazilian team from 80's onwards. Football is passion for this country. Almost every TV channel show football matches. Streets are similar to that small town in India without any pavements. Drainage trenches are dug deep, remain open forever and carry risk of injury in the absence of any electric street light. All over Khartoum, one could see imported used Japanese, Korean minivans that are used as public transport vehicles.

Brown is the Color of Khartoum. Everywhere in the city you will find the brown dust. Other colors that add to this base brown color are black, white and blue. Black for color of the skin, white for Jallabiya - a flowing robe for men and blue for a sky that is almost devoid of any cloud. It is islamic state but sharia law is not visible except absence of alcohol. Most women despite being draped from top to toe wear rich, vibrant, swirling colors. I hardly saw any women wearing the full black veil with only their eyes visible. There are theaters- one theater was screening Chalbazz – a Hindi movie, music shops sell Sudanese music.

In Arabic, the name Sudan means “The Land of the Blacks." But I was told that shades of this black colour are the cause of north-south divide and conflict. There are the North Africans who are a mix of the Arabs and Africans with much lighter skin (brown) often consider superior to Southern Sudanese who are true Africans with very dark skin.

Khartoum is consistent with its impression of being dusty, dry and devoid of infrastructure till you come across the confluence of the White Nile that comes from Uganda and Blue Nile from Ethiopia. Suddenly terrain turn into verdant green, soothing with lush green islands dotting Nile. The Nile is the very heart and soul of Khartoum. What if Sudan were to dig canals around the city and fill up with Nile water tributaries – how wonderful this city would look like!! It is unbelievable what a river can do the topography of a nation. The Nile River and its two branches flow for more than 2,000 miles through the country and transform change the hostile terrain into swamps and rain forests.

Every time I drove around this hostile, hot dusty land with parched throat, I asked this question myself why Sudanese people just don’t live along the Nile River. I realized the virtue of wonderful drink called ‘water’. I shudder to imagine being there in summer temp hovering around 50deg.

Today,900-mile chinese investment pipeline from the south Sudan to the Red Sea is ready to pump 500,000 barrels a day. Indians too are not behind. India recently acquired a 25 percent stake by investing $760 millions in Sudan’s biggest oil field. These investments are giving Sudan handsome returns. Sudan hopes to earn more than $1bn in oil revenues this year and its economy is one of the fastest growing in Africa. This is reflected in changing city life with numerous fast food joints and arrival of first mall fitted with escalators and underground parking. Americans may be still shy of investing in Sudan but Sudan like Iran,Syria and Yemen love everything that is American. Americans may have abandoned them but they haven’t. Bottles of Pepsi, Coke and Miranda are a must for Sudanese to greet every visitor and so is US $ - the most sought after currency in Sudan.

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