[Editor's Note: These letters were written by the author while on a year-long trip to the Sudan, from her native Detroit. They have been edited slightly for readability.
Note: Ahmed is the author's husband. Siddege, Mohamed and Shayma are the author's three wonderful kids. It bears mentioning that the author is white, of German/Irish stock.
These letters were written one year ago, in the fall of 2003, before the genocide in Darfur broke out. This is a continutation from the previous week]
Our house is beautiful, especially after our experience in Khartoum. It is basically a compound that is enclosed by a wall. I won't describe it in great detail here because I'm sending a video to you soon. There are no flies here! We also have a beautiful American toilet, as opposed to the hole in the ground we used in Khartoum. We have air conditioning, too, but we haven't used it because the days have been mild (70-80 degrees).
Right now it is the rainy season, so it rains every night. It is usually sunny during the day. We have a beautiful garden that my mother-in-law worked on. We have papaya, guava, and mango trees. They are blooming now and will bear fruit in a few weeks. There are also various plants that I will show you on the video.
During the rainy season the water system gets clogged with mud, so we don't have running water now. There are two boys who bring us four huge containers of water twice a day. They put it in these containers that are kept outside. We don't drink this, but the natives do. It is muddy water, from the Nile and it has flies and stuff in it. We use it for bathing and to give to people who come to visit. I definitely miss having a running shower. A lot. Also, the water is very cold, so it's freezing when you take a shower. The first day those boys brought us water, I thanked them and gave them a sucker. They kept looking at me like I was weird, but I've gotten used to that. Then they told me I'm supposed to pay them. They charge what amounts to one U.S. dollar to bring these huge water containers on their bikes all the way from the Nile, which is just over a mile away. I'm still confused about the money system, so I told them to come back when Ahmed was home.
The money unit on the bill and coins is the dinar, but when you go into any store everything is priced in Sudanese pounds. The country has changed over to pounds, but they haven't changed the bills and coins yet. I'll try to explain more later, when I actually know what I'm talking about.
The kids are going to a private Arabic tutor. We decided not to send them to school here, basically because we don't want them to feel like outcasts. I have also been studying Arabic, but not with the tutor. The kids go with their nana. When I go, they keep speaking english, so I decided to stay home when they go. [Editorial note: In the margin the author has scrawled "This has changed since I originally wrote this letter".]
We all have massive diarrhea. The kids have all gone in their pants and on the floor numerous times. I bet I've lost between ten and twenty pounds already because I haven't really been eating and I, too, have really bad diarrhea. I also have to clean the kids up, and the floor, and the bathroom when the kids make a mistake. We have a maid who washes our clothes, and I feel very bad about the disgusting laundry this week.
We've had a ton of visitors. Ahmed's extended family is huge. They are all very curious and interested in seeing the white American lady and her kids. Ahmed's mother has been helpful and she's done a lot for us, though she is sometimes overbearing. It reminds me of "Everybody Loves Raymond." She lives across the street from us and she is here all the time. She is very bossy sometimes. I just keep smiling while thinking irritated thoughts in my head.
We are buying a car next week. Also, Ahmed is having the phone line from his mother's house moved over to our house. The number for her house, then will be our phone number. The kids each have a chicken now. Shayma named hers Rooster-doodle-doo. The boys haven't named theirs yet.
Life here moves very slowly, but there is a lot of work to do. When I hit the bed at night I am totally exhausted. I sleep better then ever. Washing the dishes is hard since there is no running water. Also, everything needs to be boiled, which takes time.
[Editorial note: here the letter segues into asking about family back in Detroit before resuming the Sudanese narrative. This has been excised, as it is probably only interesting to members of the numerous Warren clan, to which I belong.]
Ahmed wen to the post office this week. The lady there told him that they haven't sold a single stamp in years. This surprised Ahmed, but not me. Most people here can't read or write, so what is there to mail?
Here is more info on the money situation: One U.S. dollar is equal to 260 dinars. A twenty ounce cold pop costs 100 dinars, or about 38 cents. A loaf of bread costs 30 cents. The bread is shaped like an order of Crazy Bread from Little Caesar's, but it tastes like regular bread. It's more dense than what we're used to, though. I'm trying to grow to like it.
We have a guy here redoing our kitchen. He's been working on it for four days straight now in this hot weather. He will be paid 61 dollars U.S. or 17,000 dinars. He is thrilled with that pay, as it is an exorbitant amount in a country where there is no work available.
The kids started school yesterday. Shayma hated it, but I bribed her to return today. She has her cousin, Israa, with her, but she said the other girls are all smelly and too many people stare at her. The staring is definitely wearing on us all. I told Shayma to say: "Take a picture. It'll last longer." She thought that was funny.
Ahmed's niece, Amal, gave me a little puppy yesterday. All the kids in the village are jealous now. We named her "Najm," which means "star." She is very cute, and I was touched that they would give me such a treasure. Amal is seventeen, and has a twin brother named Ahmed.
Ahmed is a complete charmer. When he comes over, which is every day, he will bring me a chair and tell me to sit and rest. One day we had about twenty people here. When they left, he immediately started putting stuff away and washed the dishes without a word from anyone. He is also very protective of the kids. When they go to the store, he follows to makes sure no one bothers them. He comes over every night and tells the kids a bedtime story. He also lets them ride his bike, and plays soccer with them. He is just an all around great kid. He just graduated from high school. They have to pass a country-wide standardized exam to graduate. Now he's applying to study engineering at the University of Khartoum, starting in January. His twin sister, Amal, will study biology and pre-med there. Their father is Rhea. They are highly educated people.
The food here is available, just not what we like to eat. For breakfast every day, Ahmed's mother brings over zalabia, which is fried donut balls. We eat those with milky tea. The people here usually eat some sort of stew for lunch and dinner. They serve it with kisra, the local flat, crepe-like bread, or with rice or the other bread I described previously. I have eaten a pumpkin-lamb stew that probably sounds disgusting to you [Editorial note: I have an acute allergy to lamb, which causes my to vomit and break out in hives. Additionally, I am a vegetarian.], but was really very good. They also eat an okra stew, and a potato-lamb stew that's very good. Yesterday, we had fish for lunch. Fish here is very cheap because it is readily available. We live within walking distance of the Nile river. Sometimes I can't believe I'm here, eating fish from the Nile. Anyway, fish, which is walleye, costs $1.50 per pound. Other meats like lamb and beef are much more expensive. Today I'm making eggplant stew with rice. Yum!
People here really don't eat sweets at all. Yesterday, Ahmed's sister, Mona, sent over some rice pudding that she made. I didn't eat any since it was made with fresh cow's milk. I still have very bad diarrhea and I'm nervous about eating anything like that. I haven't even seen people eat a lot of fruit here. People seem to get their sweet fix from drinks. They drink sugary tea several times a day. The kids drink Fanta or Kool-Aid. The local favorite drink is something called Stim, which is a very sugary apple flavored drink. Stim costs more than anything else here and it is considered to be a huge treat. Siddege says he will bring some home for you all to try. It tastes like carbonated apple cider to me. The only chocolate I've seen is a very small plain chocolate bar that doesn't taste like our chocolate. There is also a Riti bar, which Mohamed says tastes like a Little Debbie frosted fudge cake. It doesn't really, though. It's really a very dry yellow cake coated with a thin layer of what is alleged to be chocolate.
Our little niece, Sakeema, who is four years old, has malaria now. She used to come over every morning and bring me an orange hard candy or a piece of banana bubblegum. She is adorable and so friendly. Her mother died giving birth to another baby when Sakeema was two. Her father, who is Ahmed's brother, is now remarried, but Sakeema spends most of her day with her grandma, Ahmed's mother. Since we've been here, she now spends most of her day with me. She speaks little kid Arabic, which is basically what I speak, so we get along really well.
The kids here are absolutely amazing. By the time they are four, they know how to cook, clean, and run the house. They are extremely respectful and helpful without you even asking for help. I have never seen a child show even the slightest anger or disrespect to any adult. They are just very happy, friendly people. I asked Ahmed how that happens. He just said that they grow up in this environment and that's what is normal for them. By the same token, I've never seen any adult raise their voice to their children (Not counting me [Editorial Note: the author here has drawn a smiley face.]). There's just never a need to raise their voices.
To be continued . . .
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson