Thursday, March 6, 2008

24 hours in Darfur

06:30 - Fajr

It is still and quiet. The myriad of stars in the sky look down upon our sleeping forms.

Across the city of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, a muezzin starts the adnan, the call to the Fajr prayers. Maybe you hear it, maybe you don´t and you continue sleeping. A second muezzin starts 5 seconds later calling somewhat closer. Still maybe not enough to wake you up.

Forget your images of golden domes and minarets with an old bearded berobed muezzin climbing hundreds of steps to call the faithful to prayer. From the outside, our local mosque looks like a somewhat shoddy delapidated concrete warehouse with a couple of loud-speakers tacked on the side.

30 seconds later the loud-speakers crackle into life and spend the next 3 minutes or so harangueing us to get out of bed with perhaps the most out-of-tune adnan ever heard. And as 5 times a day 365 days a year this muezzin´s adnan is out-of-tune to the same key in the same places, I suspect it is a cassette recording. Furthermore, all the mosques through the town have started slightly out of sync with each other, so the cacophony of adnans lasts about 10 minutes .

I crawl and groan out of bed. It is not yet dawn. The population of the city has been called awake and gets ready for work.

Except us. For today is Friday - our weekend. We work as teachers in government schools and this is the government´s day-of-rest. But religion does not respect government edicts, and buisness does not respect anyone. So nobody will respect my desire for a lie-in.

I light the charcoal stove to prepare tea and as it gets going, I head four-doors-down to a neighbour with a cow. As I arrive, she is still busy milking and I buy a mug of warm, frothy, creamy fresh milk. A totally different product from the supermarket milk of the West.


The sun comes up.

Tea. Ablutions and then, our landlady with whom we share the courtyard offers us coffee with ginger and cinnamon.

The neighbour´s cow passes the gate on its way to pasture.

Breakfast? Not today. There is a treat in store.


The sun is not too hot yet and so we walk the 45 minutes to the main market. A huge sprawling outdoor market on the banks of the wadi. Some have ramshackle wooden stalls with tin roofs, others pitch on a piece of ground,

Friday morning market is, above all, a social occasion. First of all, a bee-line to breakfast in the market´s fast-food section. Women call out to us to try their wares from all sides but we politely refuse as we are set on our destination - Fatima´s.

¨Salaam wa aleikum¨

¨Aleikum wa salaam¨

¨Kif halek?¨

¨El hamdulillah¨


¨Allaysallimak. Kif halek?¨

¨El hamdulillah ...¨ etc etc for five minutes until the crucial self-answering question (as there are several enormous pots in front of her and as there always is) ¨Is there asseeda for breakfast today ?¨.

Soon we are squatting on the ground over a huge bowl of asseeda - a polenta-like mound of steaming sorghum flour surrounded by a rich creamy spicy sauce of sesame oil, peanut-butter, dried tomato, dried fish and more - too hot to dip our fingers into.

Two young Mbororo men stroll past, just back from walking their cattle to and from the Central African Republic. Tall and resplendent in their colourful clothes, kohled eyes, earrings, plaited hair and tattooed faces - the local traders lower their voices to a whisper, to a hush.

We take our leave from Fatima and slowly wind our way up from the wadi through the maze of stalls. Called upon from every side to sit and take tea (then I can hit you with my sales ploy), we find our way to Abdul-Karim´s jewellry stall.

Abdul-Karim is a good-natured and somewhat flirtatious Chadian goldsmith (after all, it is the ladies to whom he sells his wares). He tries out his French on us ... right now our Arabic is better.

We sit and chew the rag - when suddenly something catches my eye on a neighbouring store.

The Sultan´s Palace in the neighbouring city of El-Fasher, once the capital of the entire Sultanate of Darfur, has been converted into a museum and I noted an exhibit that was a late 19th/early 20th century Russian samovar. Here, in front of my eyes, is its twin.

¨70 Sudanese Pounds¨

¨Not interested¨. (Of course I bloody am).


¨Oh come on, it´s all beaten up and there´s some soldering here¨.

... and so on and so on until the final deal is 40 Sudanese Pounds (about 7 sterling pounds) and I am the proud owner of a 1900 Russian samovar bought in the centre of Africa, which, with a bit of coaxing ... works!

13:30 - Dhuhr


On weekdays, perversely, the last lesson of the day at school is 13:10 - 14:00. At 13:30 the entire class gets up to pray.

It is now too hot to stay outside so we pull our beds into the dark cool of out thukl (a round reed hut - we also had a tin-roofed brick room).

Occasional interruptions to our dozing from boys receiving their education from a faqir (rather than a state school) outside the gate chanting from a louh, wooden board on which the latest sura of the Quran they are learning by heart is written. We soon learned they wouldn´t stop chanting until they had received alms so the best strategy would be to get up immediately, put some food in their bowl, they would depart to the next courtyard on their itinerary and we could resume our siesta.

It was 1985. Famine throughout North Darfur. The population was on the move southwards and towards urban centres. Throughout 1984 the government ignored it. Many died. The government claimed they were Chadian, of which some were but most were not. The territory of the Zaghawa has no respect for the desert boundary between Sudan and Chad.

As the months wore on, the cry of ¨Karim karim¨ from wizened prematurely-aged women would increasingly be heard outside our gate. Finally, the government was overwhelmed, admitted a problem, set up refugee camps, allowed international aid agencies in and kept the refugees out of town.


The sun lowers itself in the skies, it starts to cool and social calls begin to be made.

Egi (Mohammed), my best friend, an Mbororo gone slightly Sudanese as he works at a local international aid project, comes round ... the inevitable tea as he tries to teach me the Fulani language. The Mbororo have both Fulani (private) and Arabic (public) names.

Or I would visit his parents. Respect for one´s elders and seniors in Mbororo culture entails going down on one knee and diverting ones eyes to the floor. When Egi first introduced me to his parents, I followed his example and after their initial embarrasment, the family seemed touched.

In Nyala the Mbororo who stayed behind - the old, the pregnant and those still weaning - when the young men in all their finery took the cattle to CAR, would be employed as live-in guards on half-built houses or in workshops. Egi´s parents lived in one room in the corner of a mechanic´s yard.

17:00 - Asr

A minor interruption to the visiting cycle but a sign to start preparing for evening. The visits would wind up. A bucket shower and meet up with our colleagues Sue and Pete, sometimes Egi, and stroll down to the major crossroads with two outdoor restaurants on each corner.

Ful bin jibna with a tomato salad and unleavened bread every day for two years and I never tired of it! A mixed group of hawajjas (foreigners) sitting outside was tolerated but only occasionally would one see a Sudanese woman with her husband, obviously travelling and without anywhere else to eat, disappear into an inside room.

19:30 - Maghrib

Again the Maghrib adnan was little respected but served as a sign the day was coming to an end and we would slowly wind our way home, sometimes stopping at the baklava shop on the way.

If we wanted to finish the evening on a party note, Pete and Sue would come round for a joint (Darfur being Sudan´s largest producer of marijuana), a shot of date, or even better, orange arragee or home-made hibiscus wine (hibiscus and sugar, ferment in a bucket for two days, no need for yeast).

20:40 - Isha

Somehow the adnan seems quieter.

Time for bed. The town falls silent, I gaze up at the stars and fall into Allah´s slumber.

The nightsoil men begin their rounds.


In 1987, soon after I left Nyala, a train of refugees from the war in the south was set on fire by Rizeigat at Ed Daein, the first station down the railway line from Nyala to Khartoum. One thousand were killed.

It has been reported that 95,000 died in the Darfur famine of 1984-86.

It is reported that 200,000 - 450,000 have died in the current conflict.

This map ( shows the villages suffering now. Masalit in the west, Fur in the centre and Zaghawa in the north. The government uses the south-eastern Rizeigat tribe as their proxy ¨civilian¨ militias, the Janjaweed.

Mass graves, lost bodies.

As I write this, many many more fond memories come flooding back . People get up, pray, go to work, laugh and cry. A child dies - its parents cry. And I cry wondering what has become of my friends. The people of Darfur taught me a profound humility in the face of their adversity. The unrecorded history of the War Children of Darfur started many centuries ago and continues today.

Every Darfuri child has always been and remains a War Child.

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