Two Years in Kadugli

Charleine Sell

Winner 2019 Travel Contest

© Copyright 2019 by Charleine Sell

Sudan photo.
Photo by the author.
Sudan pic 2.
Photo by the author.

What 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.

In 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.

No 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.
So, 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.

UNICEF 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Food 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!

One 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.

Both 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.

On 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.

On 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 again.

Jack 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.

When 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.

When 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.

During 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.

They were also the best years.

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