[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.
]Ahmed's mother is an excellent nanna and mother. She gave each of the kids a chicken and a goat. She comes over every morning with donuts for breakfast. She also makes Ahmed a special dinner every night. She is very patient with the kids, and she encourages their different interests. One day several of her friends were over and Mohamed threw a plastic pop bottle and hit her on the head. She picked up the bottle and threw it to one of her friends and said, "What a great game you have invented, Mohamed!" It was incredible funny to see this this group of old ladies throwing a pop bottle around. I developed huge respect for her because of how she handled that. She is also good with child psychology. For example, she'll go to the corner store with just Mohamed, buy him a cold Fanta and tell him to drink it before any of the other grandkids see it. She'll say it's just special for him. Later in the day she'll do the same for another kid, but Mohamed will never know about it. Each of the kids will then come whisper me the story.
Ahmed's mother is also the matriarch of the village. She knows everyone's business almost before they do. Someone will come over and visit and tell me a story. Before the door shuts behind them she's telling me the "real" story. I don't know whose version is true, but her version is always much more interesting. [Editor's note: The author has again here drawn a smiley face.]
Ahmed's mother is also superstitious. Like everyone else here, she has a big belief in "the Evil Eye." She believes that if you are beautiful or smart or wealthy, etc., people will be jealous of you and give you the evil eye. This can make you sick or make you become poor or anything. For example, if you have beautiful hair someone can give you the evil eye to make all of your hair fall out. There are some people who practice witchcraft here and it's really creepy. Ahmed's mother wants Shayma to keep her hair up in a bun or covered because she fears that Shayma may be cursed by someone. I just explained to Shayma that we'll keep her hair up to make Grandma happy, but she doesn't need to be scared about anything. She seems okay with that.
The kids have a cousin named Mustafa who can make awesome slingshots. He's teaching the boys how to refine their aim. He makes them out of sticks and tire rubber, so they are very strong, They shoot rocks and it is actually quite dangerous. They shoot very fast and hard. Mustafa is the same age as Siddege. He has a younger brother named Maazen, who is Mohamed's age. They all like to hang out, play dominoes, chess, soccer, and ride bikes. They also introduced the boys to the "souk," which is basically a giant outdoor market, like Eastern Market in Detroit. It's about two miles away, but the kids like to go riding double on bikes, Ahmed said he's going to buy our kids their own bikes this week.
Ahmed has two sisters here, Awatif and Mona. They are very friendly and good natured people. When I hurt my back washing clothes, Mona came over and washed the rest herself. They come over every night to visit and to make sure I don't need anything. They also run interference for me with the locals. One day one of Ahmed's many cousins was kind of rude to me. Awatif told him to shut up or get out. Another woman made some anti-American comments and Awatif was instantly ready to knock her out. They don't tolerate any mistreatment of me or my kids. They are extremely loving and generous to me, while still respecting my need for a little breathing room sometimes. They are also always on my side with Ahmed. They're always telling him to buy me this or that. Yesterday, Awatif told him to walk three miles to another city to get me baklava. She doesn't know that baklava is not my favorite, but her heart was in the right place.
Ahmed's brother, Omar, is coming from Khartoum in two days. He'll stay at his mother's house for his vacation. He is the pride of the village because he is a big shot general in the military. He is always on the news on TV or in the newspaper. I imagine there will be a huge gathering to welcome him.
He is very friendly and funny. He reminds me of Uncle Gordon a lot. Everywhere we went with him, people showed almost a reverence for him. He knows everyone and everyone clearly loves him. He is very good with the kids. He tells funny stories and plays with them. He made me mad one day because he gave Mohamed a pack of matched and he let Mohamed help him burn a pile of garbage. I told Mohamed he couldn't have anymore, but Omar told Mohamed to go ahead anyways, I told Omar that I am Mohamed's mother and it's up to me, not him. He agreed and was apologetic. The kids love him because he's goofy and a little bit on the edge. He was the first person to take Mohamed to the store and teach him how to use money here. He also speaks english well.
His wife, Ghada, barely speaks very broken English. I was asking her in Arabic if they various things in Sudan. She said in Arabic that if you have money, you can get anything. Then she said, in english, "How you say? The money talk, the bull-sheet walk?" I laughed so hard at that. Someone who can't even speak english knows that phrase.
We have a TV that gets only one station, the Sudan network. The news is on several times a day, but it's mostly news from Sudan or the Arabic world. There is very little US news. Awatif has a satellite dish, so she has 100 channels, one of which is CNN. We talked about getting a dish, but so far we're undecided. The idea is Arabic immersion and I don't want the kids to sit around and watch TV all day here.
The other day Ahmed's mother sat me down and told me how grateful she is that I travelled this far to see her. She said that she has prayed and prayed for the day she would see her son and her grandchildren and me. She said she feels like she's still in a dream and she can't believe we are really here with her. I think she knows that if I'm not happy Ahmed will take up back home. She wants to be sure I agree to stay for awhile.
The other day Mohamed went to the store to buy candy. He was so happy because he found a big strawberry bar. When he got home and opened it, he realized it was actually strawberry scented soap. He was so disappointed and was convinced that the guy at the store cheated him. I told him the guy probably misunderstood, since they don't really speak English.
Mohamed's chicken got into the house yesterday without us noticing. This morning I found chicken poop all over the place under the bed. Then we were sitting outside and the chicken just walked right out of our front door. It was very funny.
As usual, I wrote a novel. Sorry that it's unorganized and rambling from subject to subject.
One interesting thing I forgot to mention—all of the kids here are potty trained by age one. Isn't that amazing? I have seen Ahmed's nieces, both twelve months old, go by themselves to the potty. There are no diapers here, so the mothers are much more motivated than we are in the US. I just thought that was interesting and wanted to pass it on.
[Editor's note: the author intended to stop at this point, but then included two more pages in her letter.]
So, a fifty dinar bill can buy:
It's roughly equal to thirty cents American.
Ahmed got his hair cut for 200 dinars, less than a dollar American.
Yesterday I went to a doctor and it cost 1,000 dinars, or about four dollars American.
I have been pretty sick, with diarrhea for about two weeks. I started to have a fever the past two days. Ahmed has also been sick and has developed a fever, too. I've been sleeping most of the day and feel exhausted. I would've gone to the doctor earlier, but it is difficult to travel here and the doctor is about 15-20 miles away. Ahmed's brother, Omar, was here from Khartoum and he took us in his pickup truck.
I wish you could have seen the doctor's office. It was so filthy that if you didn't come there sick, you would definitely leave there sick. While I was sitting in the office, a frog actually jumped over my foot! I was glad to see the frog, because he helped keep the number of bugs in the office down to the extended family of cockroaches, moths, flies, dragonflies, beetles and others that I saw there.
I told Ahmed that there was no way this guy was touching me. He never washed his hands that I saw. Anyway, like all Arab experiences, we spent the first five minutes in greetings and asking about each other's families. I was expecting him to serve tea [Editor's note: another smiley face.] He took my blood pressure and asked about my symptoms. He spoke English, which was good. He ordered a malaria test and urine and stool exams. We went over to the "lab" to get the malaria test. I asked if the needle he was going to use was terrible, and he made a big deal about opening a fresh one. I had to pee and poop in these two little bottles, which was challenging. I refused to go in the bathroom there, so Ahmed's brother drove us over to a cousin's house for me to go.
Every bathroom here is just a hole in the ground, but there are varying standards of cleanliness. Some are so bad that I could puke from the smell. Anyway, Ahmed and I both tested negative for malaria. I had an infection in both my pee and my poop, so I'm taking an antibiotic. The doctor also ordered that I take a stronger malaria medicine because he said it would be very hard on me to get malaria, more so than Ahmed or the kids. Ahmed has a sinus infection, so the doctor gave him cold medicine.
Ahmed's mother has been hysterical with worry about me. She keeps saying how she could never raise her head to face my family if I came here to Sudan and died. Imagine what my family would think of her lack of taking care of me! She was the one who insisted that her sons take me to see the doctor.
I've been eating custard and chicken bouillon to try and curb the diarrhea and I've been much better for a couple of days. Ahmed's mother keeps telling me that I need to eat some funky food to cure me. For example, I should drink pure unpasteurized goat's milk or Ahmed should catch a wild bird and boil it for me.
We were invited to Ahmed's cousin's house for dinner. They must have cooked 8-10 dishes. I'll try to describe them here: there was kafta, which is similar to shish kafta, but more tomato-ish and served in a tomato sauce; there was mashi, which is eggplant stuffed with rice and ground meat and various spices; there were hard-boiled eggs coated in falafel dough and deep fried, I didn't try that; there was fried tuna; there was beeza, which reminded me of zucchini appetizers, but was more dry; there were french fries; there was a liver and potato dish called bombay'
Everything here is served with a healthy dose of oil. The piece de resistance was the pudding for dessert. It was a layer of strawberry jelly, a layer of custard, a layer of chocolate pudding, another layer of custard, a layer of cut up coconut cake, coconut, and sprinkled with those small gold ball sprinkles candies. This was our first serious dessert in two weeks, so we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Ahmed is finally mailing this letter tomorrow,
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