Electoral Hopes in Dongola
Having hitched a ride south from Wadi Halfa, my new-found roadtrip friends dropped me in the Nile-side town of Dongola, capital of Sudan’s Northern state. They are headed straight for Khartoum before carrying on to Ethiopia the following day: they would be crossing the whole of north-east Sudan in two days.
Two asphalt roads run through the centre of town, criss-crossed by dirt streets where shops and market stalls offer shade to the people out in the afternoon sun. My first task would be to trek across these dirt-streets under this burning sun, laden with my backpack, in search of the police station.
Having first gone to a small lokanda (basic, Sudanese “hotels” offering a bed in a courtyard), I was informed that as a khawaaja I couldn’t snatch a bed until I had a letter of authorisation from the police. I was pointed in the general direction of the police office, the other side of town, and told that no, I couldn’t leave my bag here. Laden with more than twenty kilos, dehydrated and sweating profusely, I stumbled through the maze of dirt streets, lined by short, squat houses in search of something official.
The police station was a rather nondescript building as far away from the centre of town as possible. I was seated—nearly passing out—in a dusty office, a fan blowing warm air over the lethargic men sitting around, semi-paralysed by the heat. Details of my passport were copied into a ledger and I was handed a letter authorising me to stay in town. Utterly pointless, but at least there was no baksheesh involved.
Staggering back to the centre, I held my resolve to not give-in to the temptation of one of the many rickshaws that buzzed past. I found a more welcoming lokanda, unfettered my load, and went in search of nourishment and rehydration. A bowl of fuul and several gallons of orange juice later, I was appreciating the laid-back vibe of this town. Bustling, by Sudanese standards, but rather more relaxed than the Middle East.
My health has taken a bit of a battering since arriving in Sudan, my stomach adjusting to the food, water & heat with rather violent results. As I squat over the hole in the floor, discharging a rather obnoxious yellow goo, cockroaches scuttle across the walls. This is not a place of luxury. Add to that the mind-altering anti-malarial—Larium—that is due today, and exploring a new town becomes quite a task.
I appear to be the only Westerner in town. Walking through the streets, heads turn, and the familiar Arabic phrase Ahlan wa sahlan forms a vocal Mexican wave as I walk past shop-fronts. Against my better judgement, I make frequent stops to drink from the many clay pots of water that line the streets. “It’s character building for my immune system”, I tell myself; chances are, this is drawn directly from the Nile, but seeing the way in which refuse is disposed of in these countries, I am not keen to contribute to the pollution by imbibing from plastic bottles all day long…
Come nightfall, life picks up a little, pausing only with the muezzin call for the Maghrib prayer. As “Allah akhbar” echos through the dusty air, life stops and my two new Sudanese friends excuse themselves to join the large groups of people collecting outside mosques, praying en-masse on street corners. For ten minutes, there are no people, no cars, no rickshaws, only prayer. Islam is big.
Mohammed is a university teacher of English literature but is currently working as an official UN translator for a team of election observers. Conversation thus turns to the elections, and they are keen to know more about elections in Europe, and whether there is the same level of campaign posters being pasted in such highly-visible public places. Here in Sudan, they seem to cover every available wall; the green tree of the NCP is ubiquitous throughout Dongola.
Whilst al-Bashir does have a strong base of support in Northern Sudan, Amin talks of his hope for a different government to change the system in the country, but he doesn’t seem confident that these elections, the first multi-party vote in Sudan since 1986, will bring in another party. Nor that if they did, the level of corruption and mismanagement would improve. They explain that government-employed workers here receive a monthly salary of only 150 USD, barely enough to live on. I find life here in Sudan surprisingly expensive - things here seem to cost around twice as much as in Egypt. Many of the rickshaw drivers are university graduates.
» More photos from Dongola.