Two Years in Kadugli
Winner 2019 Travel Contest
Copyright 2019 by Charleine Sell
had we done?! Our four-wheel drive Land Rover crawled along at five
miles an hour for two long days. Acacia and baobab trees dotted the
landscape during the 500 miles to our assignment, along with unusual
high clumps of smooth boulders looking as though they were dropped in
piles eons ago. Kadugli, our destination, was a small, remote town in
Sudanís Nuba mountains. We didnít see a single soul
during those two days of travel. I wondered how our driver could know
which way to go, as he crisscrossed deep lorry tracks. The heat was
unbearable, and the few times we stopped to rest, relentless black
flies came out of nowhere and assaulted us. Resting was impossible.
We finally reached the short asphalt road 80 miles north of Kadugli
which, thankfully, offered some relief from the constant tossing back
and forth of the vehicle.
hindsight, I realized that Khartoum, as dismal as it seemed, was
actually the high point of our journey. As the plane landed in the
capital, and I looked out the window, my heart sank. Traveling with
our two-year old daughter, Rebecca, was challenging enough, but all I
saw was sand-blown tarmac and small concrete buildings with the
blinding sun glistening, and the steel blue, cloudless sky stretching
like waxed paper in all directions. My husband had accepted a
position with UNICEF, and we were committed to two years somewhere
out there in that vast landscape beyond the airport.
one from the UNICEF office met us at the Khartoum airport as planned.
We later found out it was because the telegram from the New York
office informing them of our arrival date didnít arrive until
the day after we did! That should have been a Big Clue. Without
knowing Arabic, my husband mumbled a hotel name, Acropole, to the
taxi driver, and we got our first real look at a different world:
sandy streets, one- and two-story concrete block buildings, taxis,
donkeys, camels, packs of wild dogs. A Moslem world, few women
outside their homes.
it was not a surprise that the promise of a house with all the
utilities, including telephone service, was overstated. On arrival in
Kadugli, we discovered that our house was not completed. The phone
service had been out for weeks. In the two years we were there,
essentials, like water and electricity, were available at
unpredictable times and phone service was rarely available.
in New York promised to send two crates of our belongings by air, but
they mistakenly sent them by sea. Months later we received one crate,
but the other was Ďlostí somewhere at Port Sudan. I was
like an excited little kid in a candy shop when I discovered that my
sewing machine and the necessary transformer were actually together
in the one crate we received. Whenever the power came on over the
next two years, I hurried to my machine to sew: skirts for me and
toddler clothes for our daughter, using cheap made-in-China fabric
from the market. In the first few months we were in Kadugli, and
before the crate arrived, I sewed clothes by hand. UNICEF had
difficulty finding anyone who would agree to that post, and we began
to understand why.
Kadugli people were excited that we were willing to live there, and
they did everything they could to help us settle. Extra people were
brought into town to finish our house as quickly as possible.
Eventually we were able to move in. It consisted of three rooms; a
small breezeway (no breeze) in the center and two rooms on either
side. A screened verandah ran lengthwise across the front of the
building but was divided in half by a wall. Another high wall divided
the front Ďyardí (dirt) in half. Around the perimeter of
the property was a high camel wall, so called because you could not
see over it unless you were riding a camel. The strict Moslem culture
required that there be two front gates. On one side, the womenís
gate allowed access to the womenís side of the verandah, the
other gate (main) provided entrance to the menís side. A small
building out back became the kitchen, although cooking was done on a
2 Ĺ gallon kerosene can converted to a charcoal grill and used
outside in the small yard behind the main house.
building structure and the wall were made of handmade bricks and
stones all stuck together with some sort of grout. Wood shutters
covered the screened but glassless windows, and the verandah was
screened. It was 100-115 degrees in the house most of the year. The
most uncomfortable times were during dust storms, called Haboobs,
when fine sand blew into the house through the screens and shutters.
During the Haboobs, the power was always out, which meant no fan
rotated above us to alleviate the smothering heat.
in the tiny market was limited. There were onions, eggplant, and okra
year around, and tomatoes and potatoes in January. It was a constant
struggle to find enough to eat, and there was little variety in our
diet. The duty-free canned Danish cheese we found in Khartoum helped
us survive, but the local flat bread we ate with the cheese was full
of weevils and sometimes sand. Even our two-year-old daughter was
hungry enough to eat okra, eggplant and gritty, weevily bread!
day, when neither the electricity nor water supply was working, we
were once again wondering about staying when there was a knock at the
front gate, and on opening it, a neighbor handed us two tiny chicken
eggs. Then another knock, and a tray with part of a cooked goat leg
was offered. How could we leave? The people in Kadugli struggled as
much as we did, and not wanting us to leave, they brought food from
their own meager supplies. After a couple of months coping on our
own, we hired a cook who made stews from the meat he was able to find
in the market. We actually survived much better by relying on him.
Fudal was a good cook, considering what he had to work with.
Occasionally one of Jackís beers would disappear, which was
amusing to us, because he was a Moslem.
Jack and I learned a bit of Arabic, but Rebecca never even noticed
that her little friend, Hiam, was speaking a different language.
Somehow, they understood each other, even though one spoke English
and the other Arabic. As much as I studied, my Arabic was never
strong enough to have complex conversations, which made it hard for
me to have any women friends. A few of the Sudanese Jack worked with
spoke English. Additionally, Jack had a driver who was also supposed
to be his interpreter. Early on, though, it became obvious that
Mohammed knew less English than Jack knew Arabic, which sometimes
made for interesting conversations. After we left Sudan, we heard
that Mohammed ran away with the secretary in Jackís office.
our first Christmas, a neighbor asked us to describe how we
celebrated the holiday. Explaining that gifts were exchanged, we also
mentioned that we decorated a Christmas tree. Just before Christmas,
someone knocked at our front gate with a five-foot-tall, fake indoor
pine tree. The word had gone out, and it was found in a hotel lobby
in another province 500 miles away! Our Kadugli friends were trying
their best to keep us happy, so we would not leave.
Christmas Eve, we were invited for dinner at a European compound half
a mile outside of Kadugli. These people had recently arrived to
establish a weaving factory using local labor. I never saw them in
Kadugli; they stayed to themselves at their compound. What a treat
for us to eat imported food. The table was beautifully set, the food
was delicious and everything looked festive. As the evening wore on,
though, their conversation gradually turned negative about Sudan and
even our friends. Eventually, we left with heavy hearts. Driving our
little Daihatsu jeep back to our simple home, a big surprise awaited
us. While we were gone, our Sudanese Moslem friends had stopped by
with Christmas presents. Not finding us, they had left several gifts
by our back door; a small wooden hand carved stool with a seat of
woven hemp and posts made from a local Acacia tree, a handmade straw
broom, and amazingly, a bed made of carved wood and darkened with
shoe polish. Our hearts were deeply touched, and we were so sorry to
have missed their visit. We never visited the European compound
was out in the bush one time when all the power went out in our area
of town, and the smell of burning wires filled the air. Our house was
on the boundary of one electric grid, but our friend, Ali, who lived
next door to us, was hooked up to the District Commissionerís
grid. Ali always had power whenever the District Commissioner did,
but since we were on different grids, our house would be in the dark.
One day, Jack and Ali fiddled with the wires so that we could choose
either grid to draw our power. It worked as long as we unplugged from
one of the sources first before plugging into the other.
Mohammed, a mechanical engineer who worked for Jack and lived on the
other side of our house, noticed that we had power when he didnít,
he secretly rigged his lines to also be able to draw from either
grid. Unfortunately, that night he did not unplug from one grid
before plugging into the District Commissionerís grid, and
suddenly the power went out all over a large portion of the town,
including, of course, at the District Commissionerís house. A
strong smell of burning wires filled the air because of the overload.
Everyone was out of power for several weeks after that. Mohammed
quickly left town, and no one ever saw him again.
Jack was in town, he worked at the office from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and
then came home for breakfast, after which he returned to work until
2:30 p.m. The heat made it unbearable to work any later in the
afternoons, especially when the power was out and the fans werenít
working. One morning he came home for breakfast feeling chilled. He
dug in our suitcase and found a pair of socks and a jacket. Our
Gafir, or house guard, was also cold and had pulled on a wool cap and
donned a full-length World War II wool army coat. It was November
and, indeed, the cold season had arrived in Kadugli. It was over 100
degrees the week before, but we had a good laugh when we realized our
thermometer registered a frigid 78 degrees that morning.
our second year there, I returned to Seattle to have our second
child, Jillian, and then went back to Kadugli when she was ten weeks
old. By that time, we had grown quite close to the people of Kadugli.
After we completed our second year, UNICEF offered us a two-year
assignment in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The whole town came out to say
goodbye, and my last view of Kadugli was of hands waving and tears
running down faces. With heavy hearts, we saw our friends for the
last time. It was a sad day, but we knew two years was the longest we
could rough it like that. To this day, we agree they were the hardest
two years of our lives.
were also the best years.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
story list and biography
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher