I’ve just come back from a British Council visit to Khartoum Sudan, which was arranged at very short notice and which I kept telling myself I was mad to accept.
Quite apart from fears about safety and getting malaria (both of which are laughable to anyone who knows Khartoum, a safe and malaria-free zone), I had only just reached the end of an exhilarating series of author visits to various parts of the world and quite fancied putting my feet up a bit in December.
However, Council people Ben Gray and Ian Frankish were very persuasive, by email and on the phone, and I decided to do it. In my heart of hearts, I just knew that I would look back in ten years’ time and be really annoyed if I didn’t accept the gig.
So I did. I arranged to travel there on Wednesday 30th November, with an early morning flight to Frankfurt, then on to Jeddah and Khartoum.
And then here in the UK, a general strike of government employees was announced. For Wednesday 30th November. Amongst others, immigration officers were planning to strike, and there was a good chance that travellers into and out of Heathrow Airport would be affected. Brilliant! So I changed my ticket, and flew to Frankfurt on Tuesday evening.
Here’s what happened next.
Wednesday 30th November
I flew from Frankfurt to Khartoum via Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A surprisingly short journey – flying time of less than five hours to Jeddah, and another 90 minutes on to Khartoum. By the time the big Airbus 340 reached Khartoum, there were only 26 passengers on it – no, I didn’t count them, my airport contact told me.
I had been told to look out for someone before passport control. He would have my name on a piece of paper, I would give him my passport and a hundred US dollars, and then wait for him to organise my visa.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not keen to give up my passport and some money to someone I don’t know in a country I’ve never visited before.
However, Mohammed (for it was he) was a friendly and totally reliable person, even though he actually had someone else’s name on his piece of paper and I walked right past him. When we eventually made contact, he took my passport and money and by-passed the regular queue and handed my documents to a man in a glass booth.
As I sat waiting for my passport, I was aware of a conversation amongst a group of people next to me. They were speaking Portuguese. I said something in my mix of Spanish and Portuguese and they all burst into broad smiles and started laughing. They were from Mozambique. When they discovered I was from London, one of them started speaking English.
“Where you from in London? – West, east, south?”
“I’ve been there! I was in Victoria for four days. I love London! Oxford Circus!”
I would have liked to talk to this lovely crowd for longer, but my passport came back, and it WAS late and I DID have a talk at the British Council the next day.
A twenty-minute taxi ride from the very centrally-located airport to my accommodation – the Tara Apartments, a serviced apartment block on a dirt road not far from the Council office.
Lovely place, shiny tiled floors, ceiling fans. I think it’s going to be OK here.
Thursday 1st December
For breakfast at the Tara Apartments, one takes the lift to the fifth floor and then walks up to the sixth (the lift doesn’t go that far). Bizarrely, there’s a sign halfway up the stairs which says CELTA, with an arrow pointing upwards. There’s a CELTA training course going on up here? Or does CELTA stand for something else in Sudan? Maybe breakfast?
On the sixth floor, one finds the breakfast room. On one side, there’s a pool table, and another long table with evidence that someone has recently dined, plates with bits of toast on, that kind of thing. There’s also a loaf of white bread, some butter, jam, a flask of hot water, instant coffee, tea bags, some sachets of La Vache Qui Rie cheese spread and a plate of distinctly old-looking olives.
On the right hand side of the room, there’s a gym treadmill and a couple of cycling machines, all bundled into a small space and clearly not in use. I find out later that they have been moved from another room on this floor to accommodate the CELTA training course that is indeed taking place here.
I sit down and contemplate the unappetizing fare on the breakfast table. My arrival has clearly stirred some upstairs staff, and eventually someone walks into the room and puts a plate in front of me. It has on it what appears to be a fried egg with no yolk. I taste it carefully. It’s certainly egg-ish. I remind myself I didn’t come to Sudan for the food.
Eventually, my British Council minder Ben Gray comes to pick me up and we walk through the dusty streets to the British Council building. In the garden behind the compound wall, there are about 200 chairs in front of a screen.
Is this where I’m doing my talk??? I thought there were only a dozen people coming to this one.
No, this is for a later screening of a film called I Am Slave, a controversial film about a Sudanese woman who finds herself enslaved in a North London home. At a previous screening, several Sudanese people had walked out. Tonight, the director of the film Gabriel Range will be at the Council and will answer questions after the film has been shown a second time.
Full marks to the Council for doing something quite this controversial. Range also directed Death of a President, about a fictional plot to assassinate George Bush. He clearly enjoys controversial subjects. I’m glad that I will have the chance to see I Am Slave later.
But first, a workshop for Council teachers, a mainly native speaker group. It goes OK, but it could have taken place anywhere in the world. I will have to wait another two days before I talk to 300 Sudanese state school teachers of English.
In the evening, I sit with about a hundred other people and watch I Am Slave. It’s a bit slow and ponderous. Despite the fact that it’s loosely based on a true story, I find the plot full of inconsistencies, and the performance of the main character Wunmi Mosaku a bit wooden and one-dimensional.
But the treatment she receives, first as a slave in a home in Khartoum and then in London, is shocking. Even more shocking is a statistic that scrolls up at the end of the film, which claims there are 5,000 women being kept in conditions of slavery in London. Could this be true?
The Sudanese in the audience are more concerned about the inaccuracies about their country in the film than about the slavery issue. There are no garbage trucks in Khartoum like the one in the film, one person complains. The actors clearly aren’t Sudanese, says another. Where did you film it?
Range admits that he filmed the African part of the film in Kenya, because he wasn’t allowed to film in Sudan. He seems to lose the audience when he owns up to this, as several small conversations break out around the garden. It must be disappointing for him that all the comments are about the authenticity of the scenes in Khartoum rather than the larger issue of modern day slavery.
You can find out more about the film here – http://imdb.to/qGRUx9
Afterwards, we go to the British Embassy for some food and drink.
Friday 2nd December
Friday is the Muslim holy day, so it’s my day off. Bahar, the British Council driver, takes me and Claire Young, one of the CELTA trainers, to the souk (suq?), where he seems to know every other shopkeeper. We are given a free gift every time we buy something, and even when we don’t.
In the evening, we visit a Nubian wrestling event. The Sudanese are the only ones who do this kind of wrestling. It takes place in the north of the city, in a dusty arena cordoned off by a series of carpets which are hung over wires. There’s a crowd of about two thousand people crammed into this small space, and Claire and I are just about the only non-Sudanese there, which makes it all very exciting.
There are some obscure rules about the sport – the referee stops the fight at one point to remonstrate with one wrestler for the way he touched the other fighter on the shoulder. This decision leads to howls of protest from the part of the crowd who are supporting that fighter.
Like many sporting events, there is as much enjoyment to be had watching and listening to the crowd as there is watching the event itself.
Saturday 3rd December
Today is the biggest of my three presentations, labelled a Forum by the British Council and given the hostage to fortune title Learning with Laughter.
I wrote a Facebook up-date looking for a bit of support, and got lots…
A minor problem – the original venue in Khartoum became unavailable two weeks before the event and it was moved to Omdurman Islamic University – a perfectly nice venue, but way out of town. The hoped-for audience of 300 turns out to be nearer 200.
But WHAT a lovely group of people! A more or less equal number of men and women, all up for having a good time, and happy to do all the noisy and slightly out of control activities that I suggest. When I ask them if they would like to try the activities in class, there is only ONE dissenting voice – and a very noisy one as well, but you come to expect that in a group this big.
We celebrate the success of the venture with an Indian meal. I wish I could say I sampled lots of Sudanese food, but I didn’t.
Sunday 4th December
Today I have my final presentation, after which I will be heading home. This talk ticked all the boxes marked ‘Disaster’. The room was tiny, noisy and not very well equipped. There were supposed to be seventy people turning up and there were only thirty chairs. The technology didn’t work. The air conditioning sounded like a jet engine.
About twenty people turned up, but half of them had been to my talk on the previous day. They walked in like old friends, the men shaking my hand and patting me on the left shoulder, a wonderful act of friendship. Two of them had already tried out some of my activities from the previous day, and their students had asked for more. Result!
As the projector didn’t work, I put my Mac on a chair on a table in front of the small group, and let them read my powerpoint directly from the screen. It was a bit ad hoc, but it worked. A lovely talk to a small but very enthusiastic group.
Back to the Tara, pack, airport. My flight to Jeddah left at midnight. I felt as if I’d hardly been in Sudan at all and really hoped that I would get another chance to visit.
Sudan is going through some testing times at the moment, not least because of the recent division of the country. The new nation of Southern Sudan may have a better chance of economic survival than the north, if only because that’s where all the oil reserves are.
And Khartoum doesn’t yet have any kind of acceptable infrastructure to make it a desirable tourist destination. But it’s wonderfully warm and sunny in December, and maybe one day it will be a suitable place for Saga Holidays. I know that sounds like a downward spiral, but really the country needs some hard currency.
Until then, I just hope the lives of these lovely people improve a little, because they deserve to enter a new phase, without the shadow of civil war and international sanctions.
If you get a chance to go, take it. Khartoum is safe – and you don’t need to waste your money on malaria tablets!
In the description of my second talk above, I referred to ‘one dissenting voice’. I just received the following comment from him. I offer it unedited. I’m so pleased that my talks can still generate such passionate responses.
Gorgeousely I would like to inform you that in academic community discussion is the back bone particularly in ELT, non the less, you presented a superb presentation in Sudan but my contrary idea is about to refute by using pedagogical evidence not by mocking and describing me as noisy voice. All in all, you propose ice breakers techniques as a method of teaching regarding lack of civic education coping the notion from the suuggestopedia method claiming that is a technique of teaching with laughter , What a hell!!!!!!!!!! I am not a noisy voice but I want to learn!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!