Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Becoming Sudanese: 3 Years in Darfur

August 23, 2010  
Filed under Global Spotlight

By Kelly K. Woolf —

(*Note: Due to the sensitivity of the region, all names have been changed to protect identities.)

living in sudan

So I’m standing in a village market in Darfur, Sudan. The sun splashes off the leaves of a giant acacia tree, canopy for the entire market. I glance from bundles of firewood and pyramids of leathery oranges to my companions. My co-worker Aisha wraps the end of her traditional thobe back over her shoulder and chatters with our three village friends as each swings a potbellied straw basket for weekly purchases.

I spot two rebel soldiers sitting by a tea stand. They are picture perfect: their yellow turbans coiled around their heads, their AK-47s slung over their shoulders in lazy threat, their camouflage jackets—none of this bothers me. It’s the stare, skimming the rims of their sunglasses, scalding the back of my neck as they stir their tea long after the sugar has dissolved. They hate me. I am as sure of this as I am of the shade, the tea, the oranges, and fear trickles hot down my throat.

Now you might be thinking, “Of course they hate you, your American voice clanging off the butcher’s knife, his hook, his rusty table. Your white legs flashing in the sun.” Yeah, well unfortunately, that isn’t the problem. “Aisha, those soldiers think I’m Arab,” I say in Arabic, adjusting my headscarf over my hair. In many places in Sudan it would be fine to be mistaken for an Arab, but out here in rebel territory, where the fight is against the Arabized northern Sudanese government, they are not welcome. The soldiers saunter over to us, hiss at Aisha, and after she swears up and down that I don’t have a drop of Arab blood in my veins, the freedom fighters go back to their tea, leaving me with my pulse in my ears as Aisha jokes that next time I should wear jeans and a baseball cap, and keep my Arabic to myself.

Identity is everything. You know that. Why do you buy Prada instead of thrift store booty or vice versa? Why do you refuse to eat anything un-organic or spurn all but micro-brewed beer? Why do you study to be a doctor when all you want to do is play music, or settle into a teaching job you hate, all the while dreaming of field research? And why did I stay in Darfur, Sudan for almost three years as a humanitarian aid worker, intending to serve only one and move on with my life?

I started thinking about aid work those first seasons of LOST, with Kate so gorgeous in her cargo pants and tank tops, trekking the jungle, brave and ingenious, letting a tear roll off her jaw at just the right moments. I thought a year of roughing it might get me Kate’s tanned, perfect arms and courage without trips to the gym, all the while looking like I was, you know, doing something important.

darfur horseFast forward a year. Partway through season three Kate is choosing Sawyer over Jack when I get an invitation to go to Darfur, Sudan, to work with a development NGO. The country director is looking for Arabic speakers to facilitate health and development projects, and hearing of my language skills (I grew up in the Middle East), he wants to talk with me. I am soon standing in the non-Sudanese passport line of the Khartoum Airport, clueless that more than teaching me the design for a pit latrine, the recipe for Oral Rehydration Solution and an upgraded Arabic vocabulary including: “fistula,” “pick-axe” and “goat-killing ceremony,” the Sudan outside these airport doors, from modern Khartoum to my home base in rural Darfur, will claim me as its own.

It’s a funny thing to be a foreigner. People actually laugh at you, just because you’re walking down the street. Or kids scream when they see you. One little boy, forced to shake my hand, looked in terror at his palm to see if the white stuff had come off on his skin. Parents don’t help. “If you don’t shut up the foreign lady will eat you.” But there are those who make you feel at home. One day I was standing outside the corner bakery, waiting for my piping pita bread to be dropped in a black and white striped plastic bag when a little boy almost ran into me, open-mouthed and silent. Another boy, as he walked by, said with a shrug, “What’s the matter with you, bro? From the day God created you haven’t you seen yourself a white girl?”

The market at the center of town bustles with morning’s parade of schoolchildren as they scavenge for sesame cookies or falafel snacks. At noon, wheelbarrows of spinach resist wilting as newspaper boys resist sleep, until at dusk everything sways again with the flutter of moms plucking the best potatoes from a pile and squabbling with butchers for the plumpest part of a goat rump. Night falls on mountains of watermelons, lit by quiet candles, their owners on guard like white-robed priests, until morning rustles everything again.

A foreigner’s appearance on market scene always causes a stir, and triggers a round of the nationality guessing game. I have heard with absolute certainty these guesses trail behind me: from the tomato lady, “Italian!” from the butcher, “Lebanese!” from the lady bagging fried grasshoppers, “Indian!” and the man tending his bushels of dates, “Indonesian!” (The fact that I am 6’3’’ doesn’t deter that guess, or “Filipino!”)

“Palestinian,” “French,” “Pakistani,” “Dutch,” “German,” “English” and the favorite… “Egyptian!” Not once, despite the many Obama T-shirts sported in the market, has someone guessed “American.” To be fair, I complicate the truth by wearing long skirts, and a scarf draped loosely over my hair in the style of every respectable, unmarried Sudanese woman in town. So every once in a while, a spunky passerby will shout at me, “Hey, Sudanese lady!”

The first time someone gave me that label in seriousness I was squatting on a wooden stool, hunched over a tub of water, scrubbing dough balls and meat sauce out of the aluminum bowls that my colleagues and I had dipped our hands into for lunch. Omar must have thought that my busy, slobbering hands didn’t look American, so he said, “Kelly, you have become Sudanese!” It sounded like a bear hug, or a cup of hot cocoa pushed into my hand as campers shuffled and squeezed together to make room for me around the fire.

But it wasn’t just Omar. They all started to say it. The head of the midwifery school gripped my hand and declared, “You look so beautiful. Your headscarves, your skirts, I am sure you are more beautiful in these than in American clothes. When you go back you must keep wearing these. You have become Sudanese.” My favorite neighbor Hanan said it when, with her rolling laugh and billowing bosom, she received the plate I returned to her: given to me with donuts, now laden with cupcakes. We repeated together the proverb she had taught me, “Leave barrenness for an enemy, (this full plate is for a friend).”

Soon I caught myself saying it to myself, usually with a little head-shaking, “Kelly, you’re becoming…” After years of passing highway signs in the U.S. warning of littering fees, it drove me crazy that my Sudanese friends threw empty bottles on the ground seemingly at random, but one day as we drove from village to village on a health campaign, my friend Adam finished his last gulp of water and cradled the plastic bottle in his hands until we neared a thorn bush where three little boys were playing in the dirt. He poised it by the window and launched it their way as we passed, sending the three of them racing after that bottle like it was a shooting star. From then on, I found myself looking for strategic times to litter, to share my trash.

One of the highest cultural values for Sudanese is generosity. If someone comes to your house and you don’t at the very least offer them water and a tray of candy or dates to choose from, you aren’t even a person. Sometimes your guest doesn’t eat their candy, they just hold it in their hand, but you shove another at them anyway. This is how even the poorest people get a supply of candy for their guests. Their candy dishes are a melted assortment of pre-owned candy.

KJ is a village where we run a health post, but their most urgent need, like most villages in Darfur, is water. Every day, representatives of the several hundred village families line up their plastic jerrycans, in rows and semicircles around the one working hand pump. It takes two women in their neon green and hot pink peasant dresses to lift the pump’s lever, then straighten their arms, falling with their full weight, to convince one gush of water up from the well. Clang, as the lever comes down. All through the day. The donkeys wait for a drink, the goats crowd in clumps for their turn. Clang, clang, little girls on donkeys lope from a village away and two villages away, places with no pump at all. Clang when the children sleep and the stars see themselves in the water.

In this village I met a woman named Hawa Mohammed Isa (Eve Mohammed Jesus, yes.) who after giving me a lecture on how wearing nail polish would prevent prayer ablutions from cleansing me, invited me to visit her home later that day. When I arrived she ushered me onto a straw mat, and sent one of her ten children to ladle water from their barrel. As I drank I remembered another villager who said, “Love means giving someone a glass of water when you know you don’t have any more.”

becoming sudaneseLast month, I finally said goodbye to Sudan, at least for now. On my Khartoum-Cairo leg I sat next to a man whose mom was Moroccan, and his dad Sudanese of Turkish descent. We chatted in Arabic, he asked me where I was from, and when I told him he shook his graying Afro in disbelief. Letting his bad eye roll away from me and turning to squint his good eye at me, he said, “I wouldn’t have known. I can’t see you, so I wouldn’t have known.”

A Czech proverb says that if you learn a new language you get a new soul. It’s true. And the minute you take a step away from home, you are becoming something, something braver and more generous, less yourself and more others, yet more yourself than your own culture could contain. I became Sudanese.


5 Responses to “Becoming Sudanese: 3 Years in Darfur”
  1. AyodeleAyodele says:

    Kelly! This is really lovely! I like the idea of a new culture giving you a new soul. I will think about that forever. <3

  2. BethC says:

    I Love this so much. Thank you for sharing your writing. Yes, there are so many lovely bits to ponder over. It is a gift to tell a story like this.

  3. Laura R says:

    Beautiful writing- thank you for sharing your heart…..read this through my daughter Sara’s facebook recommendation….loved it!

  4. LenB says:

    Thanks for sharing your heart and your story with us, and the Sudanese.


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  1. […] to my work. An article that I wrote when I first returned to the U.S. from Sudan can be found here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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