Sunday, July 11, 2010


In their person, the Sudanese are a remarkably fastidious people. In the city, at least, the majority of people always dress like they are on their way to Sunday services. Their clothes are neat, crisply pressed, and quite stylish. In fact, one of the first prejudices a visitor must overcome is the idea that people who live in mud-brick tukels must by the same token appear unkempt. Nothing could be further from the truth. In mud-brick tukels people may live, largely because so many have only recently returned to Sudan since peace was declared a few years ago and housing options are limited, but that does not mean that locals cannot be neat and clean and have pride in their appearance. What was it Dinesen said about pride? “It is faith in the idea that God had when he made us.” And thus, the Sudanese take great pains to make sure their clothes are always clean and that they remain so throughout the day. I have seem men arrive at construction sites dressed more nicely than am I who is on his way to an office. The difference is that by the end of the day I somehow am splattered with mud while the Sudanese remains clean. A large part of that is the deliberate and careful way in which the Sudanese carry themselves. They are a most graceful people, their movements almost choreographed. They are never rushed, never haphazard, but thoughtful in their actions. I, on the other hand, have always been ackward and have always attracted dirt and dust and in a land where people largely succeed in remaining clean I stand-out the greater for my failure to do likewise. As if to emphasize their habit for cleanliness, the Sudanese, where water is available, will take two showers daily, in the morning and evening.
As a kawaga (literally “foreigner,” though it is a name applied almost exclusively to whites) I attract a lot of attention, though not for my nature, but for my wardrobe and appearance. It is from teenage girls, the arbiters of taste no matter the locale, from whom I receive the hardest and most intense looks as they examine every inch of my appearance. And it is from the same group from whom I receive the most scornful looks for what they perceive to be my less than attractive appearance. In my pressed long sleeve shirts (I have my laundry done at the Guest House and the ladies there press my clothes quite crisply using charcoal-heated irons) rumpled khakis and – worst of all - my Clark's desert boots which are hopelessly stained from the dust of Africa compared with the always well shined shoes worn by native males, I am afraid that I present a less than ideal image compared with the Sudanese.
Of course, these observations apply most directly to people living in Juba. People living in the countryside who, as do country dwellers everywhere, live closer to the land, try though they might to be clean and stylish, inevitably pick-up more dirt in their daily movements than do city dwellers. So, too, are country dwellers more relaxed in some of their other habits. In Juba, the act of relieving oneself in public is limited to males. It is not uncommon to see men all over town with some modesty relieving themselves. But in the country, or along the roadways, both men and women can be observed in this act – again, expercising some discretion in their movements.
Many habits are shared by men and women. Spitting knows no seperation of the sexes and the only difference where the uncommon practice of smoking is observed – uncommon because poverty mercifully keeps the practice rather at bay – is that women are more likely to use delicate pipes rather than smoke the cigarettes favored by men.
It is important to backtrack for a moment with regards to the comment about how men that are engaged in construction work finish their day less dirty than do I. This is not to imply that the Sudanese do not work hard. If they have a job to do the Sudanese, men and women, are a very hard working people, working six and seven days a week if need be. By the same token, if they do not have a job the Sudanese can hardly be induced to stir and are apt to remain sitting in the ubiquitous plastic chairs in the shade all day. Sudanese see no reason to waste effort needlessly.
In practice, Sudan is largely a male dominated society. When you see couples walking along the men always lead, the women following a few paces behind, and in terms of feeding and most other actions the men always come first. I have never been to a private dinner where the men were not fed first with the women having to be content with the remains. I understand, too, that in legal matters the courts tend to favor men and certainly where a couple divorces the children always go to the man. This is somewhat ironic given my observation that the women of Sudan do most of the work and are carrying this country on their backs – or, more accurately, their heads if you've ever seen the enormous loads women here are capable of carrying upon their heads. Besides the usual big pots of grain or bundles of firewood or jerry-cans of water that women regularly carry, the heaviest load I have yet seen a woman carry on her head was the woman – a middle aged woman, no less - on the road to Terekeka, who had a kilometer or more ahead of her before reaching town and who knows how long she had already walked, who had upon her head one of the body sized bags of charcoal, an object heavier than I can hardly even lift. The art of learning to carry upon their heads starts early for girls. Certainly by the age of five or so girls are beginning to practice walking deliberately, ramrod upright and transporting small pots or bags of grain. As their size increases so does their carrying capacity along with their skill. While out for a stroll in Rumbek I loped behind two teenage girls each of whom had upon her head a large bag of grain while between them they kicked along a large rock as they walked and talked. Impressive indeed, and a genuine source of pride. I have tried to imagine American women walking from grocery stores or malls with budles piled-up on their heads, their hands free to operate cell-phones or reach for a set of keys or to hold a child's hand. Obviously, it is a skill which cannot be picked-up late in life. The skill and strength of neck muscles required must be started early in life in order for the practice to be successful. But it is interesting to see women walking around, even in a large city like Juba, gracefully upright and walking ever so deliberately, a legacy perhaps of a childhood spent learning how to carry large bundles upon their heads.
Perhaps the one maddening habit of the Sudanese is their impatience when facing a que, or line. Instinctively, the Sudanese will all bunch towards the front and are never shy about cutting in front of a line to try and be first. This happens whether taking tea or at the bank or, most dangerous of all, while driving. At all times upon the roads except for the largest and slowest vehicles, all other vehicles are forever jockeying for position and never hesitating to pass each other. Two lane roads are often converted into four lane roads as vehicles rush to pass one another, either two in opposite directions or even two passing one going in the same direction. At intersections, which at the largest locations are roundabouts, vehicles all cram forward until almost no one can go owing to the jam-up. I often marvel at this degree of impatience and the consequential delays it creates, even in so simple an act as taking tea. Rather than form an orderly que in which each takes his turn, the Sudanese will cram forward until they are a mass of elbows and knees and no one can get their shai. One keeps hoping that they will see the error of their ways, but so long as each person thinks that they will be the one to get through more quickly by their actions, so it will continue. Fascinating people.